Oman, the oasis of peace of Persian Gulf. A country with an untamed and wild nature that can be explored in total safety. Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Oman is distinguished by an enlightened politics that has maintained a neutral role in geopolitical disputes, but decisive in the mediation of conflict situations.
The creator of this anomalous situation of stability was the Sultan Qaboos who, after having ascended the throne in 1970 with a peaceful coup d'etat against his father Said bin Taimur, was able to govern with foresight, maintaining a balance between the cultural traditions and the needs for modernization of the country. In almost half a century of reign, he has given space to women, revolutionized the education and health system, opened the borders to Westerners and he was able to manage the discovery of Oil in an intelligent way. In addition to these political, economic and social choices, Sultan Qaboos financed several cultural foundations and brought the opera and classical music to Oman - for example, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the sultanate, he rented the Manchester Philharmonic Orchestra for two concerts and he brought over one hundred musicians to Oman by making his personal plane available to play Beethoven, Rossini and Čajkovskij. In recent years, many intangible cultural heritages have also been recognized by UNESCO, also thanks to the intervention of the UAE. However, when visiting Oman, there seems to be a great absent: art. But is it really non-existent? What role does it play in a country that has undergone a radical and sudden change after the discovery of Oil? Has this rush to modernity undermined the traditional way of life of the Omanis? I asked Hassan Meer, a contemporary artist, art curator and gallerist.
Celebrated by several contemporary art manuals, by various broadcasters including CNN, as well as by numerous publications including the Times of Oman, Observer and the New York Times, Hassan Meer is considered the ambassador of Omani art. His works have been exhibited in England (Christie's), Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, Austria, Scotland, Denmark, USA, Brazil, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon, Bangladesh and South Korea. Needless to say, it was a real honor for me to be able to interact with a man of this caliber.
Who is Hassan? How did your artistic career start?
It is difficult to describe oneself. I feel I am a combination of personalities, a very sensitive mix to everything around me. I often understand neither myself nor the deep power that guides and directs my mood. I grew up in Muscat, the capital of Oman. Already from the first stage of adolescence, I was fascinated by creativity and the way people think, conceive and create art works. I loved surrealism, cubism and all forms of abstract art in general. At the time, the country was in a development phase in which it sought to interact and grasp the best of other world realities. It was the time when modern Oman was being built. There was a coming and going of professionals, experts and workers who came from different countries, such as India or other Arab and Asian states. Muscat began to expand and many Omanis who had previously left the country out of necessity, returned to their homeland. Everything and everyone was in turmoil. It was the 1980s and it was in that fortunate period that I began my artistic practice. My first step was to enroll in an art school for young people. It was the only art institute in Oman where young talents could study, meet and discuss. I tried to exhibit my works to the public, but it wasn't very easy. I did not have clear ideas about my future because at the time art was not considered a serious vocation or a profession, but only a fun/pastime. There were no schools where one was prepared to become a professional. So, I started looking for universities abroad where I could seriously devote myself to my passion. I chose Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Studying in the United States was an extraordinary experience. After the Bachelor master's degree, I began to experiment with various forms of art and to take part in many important exhibitions both locally and internationally. I took other courses in Europe. The firsts were in Spain and Austria. Thanks to those experiences and the study of modern movements, I was able to understand and translate my thinking through art. This awareness led me to be free to create my art between abstraction, photography and installations.
What do you want to express with your art?
My art is a combination of different practices. It comes from my past memories and deep thinking about the condition of the Self. I paint lines and shapes to reflect and translate my temporary feelings into signs. Sometimes they are a mixture of fear and darkness present in human actions, other times they are full of the warmth of childhood and of our daily environment. I am very fascinated by the colors and the theory behind them. Colors have the power to make the light of human warmth or the darkness of pain and stress come alive. I am also fascinated by everything related to magic and spirituality because they evoke the time when Oman was a great empire and people traveled to and from Africa, bringing with them ancient rituals that they mixed with local traditions. These influences are very visible in my early works.
What is your artistic personality type?
Looking at myself from the outside, I see myself as a conceptual artist. I play with colors, shapes and abstraction. I really like creating stories. Each time it is always nice to change and experiment both with thoughts and with materials and means. At first I started with abstract painting, but my message was not clearly understood because, especially in the Middle East, people use technology a lot. They weren't prepared to understand the hidden meanings in an abstract picture. Then I also introduced installations, videos and photography, a technique that was part of my studies in the United States. Thanks to these means, people have begun to familiarize and understand my art. Creating, narrating and conveying stories gives me different emotions that I always find extremely fascinating.
What relationship do you have with the concept of time?
Time is an unfocused, intangible element. It is very difficult to grasp it or ''freeze it''. Time is linked to the spiritual sphere. It opens up our dimensions, without borders or restrictions. When I think about time, I feel like a robot that has lost the sense of what surrounds us. The concept of time is also linked to memory. As humans, we explore life and continually add layers of memory to our experience. A memory that can be lost if we don't narrate it.
Have Omani tradition and history influenced your art?
My art reflects the history of my country. I focused a lot on the profound identity of Oman, starting from traditions and rituals, up to popular stories and superstitions. I am also very fascinated by the cultural changes that have gone through the country after the 1970s, the period in which Oil was discovered. From that moment there was a rapid change not only in Oman, but throughout the area affected by this discovery, which changed the fate not only of the economy, but also of people's lives. The transformations affected all economic sectors, urban planning, architecture, the school system, healthcare, etc. and also changed the way people think and act. The cities slowly began to populate to the detriment of the inland areas of the country. The old houses and villages were abandoned as everyone moved to the city, where modern comforts and services grew more and more. Many got their driving licenses and started working in offices. The new sultan - Mr. Hassan refers to Sultan Qābūs bin Saʿīd Āl Saʿīd, who passed away on 10 January 2020 after 50 years of far-sighted and peaceful sultanate - promoted dialogue with modernity, always maintaining respect for traditions. For the construction of this new Oman, he called back all the Omanis who were around the world, asking them to return to build together a better country. Before, in fact, there were only two schools, very few factories and very limited resources. In that period of great change and openness, I created many photographic works that still serve to testify to the beauty and importance of that moment of cultural, economic and social dynamism. An example is the series dedicated to weddings. They were traditional moments of daily life that showed the ruins of old Oman in the background, but foreshadowed the rebirth and the beginning of a better life. Those abandoned houses, however, also contained the memories of the people who had abandoned them. The ''Lost Memories'' series is dedicated to this specific theme, inspired by my personal story. My family is part of those families that have left the old city for the capital. One day I decided to return to the house where I had spent my childhood. It had been closed and abandoned for 13 years. When I returned, I found some personal effects of my grandfather, including some bags, photographs and letters ... these forgotten objects impressed me a lot. So, I decided to immortalize my childhood home, traditional clothes and the old road in the mountains to create a link between the change my family went through and the whole country. A change that had literally caused people to run away towards modernity, abandoning everything they had behind them.
Do you believe that the frenetic rhythms that are imposed on us risk undermining the natural need of the individual to have a time for what has no utilitarian purposes? What is changing?
Human beings are very weak. They always need reassurance or comfort. Spirituality allows people to establish a connection with higher entities and with the essence of being. I always dedicate some of my time to meditation because it helps me relieve stress and feel safer. When people are in crisis, they always look deep within their selves and try to find a balance. Spirituality serves to recreate a state of inner balance. The materialistic world is expanding. Every day it turns out that people behave like a machine without a soul. They no longer look into themselves. They focus only on their surroundings.
What role do art and culture play in Oman?
Art and culture in general are very important in Oman because they allow us to get to know our reality better. A reality that has evolved, but in which ancient traditions are still deeply rooted. Culture serves to raise awareness and improve people's lives. Fortunately, access to schools and art galleries has been expanded and, especially in Muscat, taking part in cultural activities has become a lifestyle.
What is the Circle Show?
Circle Show is a contemporary art gallery that I founded in 2000, thanks to the support of the Alserkal family and the government, with the aim of making Omani art known to the national and international public. Within this gallery, contemporary art was expressed through paintings, installations and photographs. The Circle Show was a great success and until 2007 was attended by artists and audiences from all over the world. It is currently dedicated to the emerging talents of Oman, which I personally deal with. Most are young people who have graduated abroad and who, upon their return to Oman, need a space to study, compare and, at the same time, show their talent. To date, the Circle Show gallery is the hub of Omani contemporary art. Almost all art exhibitions are held in this place and from there our talents depart for new and important international adventures.
Could you tell us about another emerging reality in the artistic world of Oman, the Stal Gallery?
There is a small village in the Sultanate of Oman located near Wadi bani Kharus, where intellectuals used to gather. Today Stal, the name of the village, is still associated with knowledge and debate. Inspired by this heritage, Stal Gallery & Studio opened in Muscat in December 2013, taking up on the task of providing a space to enhance the understanding of visual arts, of hosting artists through residency opportunities, and of engaging with the community through exhibitions, educational visits, talks and workshops. This initiative, although locally rooted, is Alserkal Foundation’s first cultural project in Oman. I am the artistic director.
In recent years, Oman has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, thanks to its natural beauty, high security and a well-managed policy. However, the cultural and artistic factor is less evident than the impressive natural heritage. What can Oman offer from a cultural point of view?
Art is not visible in Oman as much as nature and the great mountains. However, Oman has been a subject that has fascinated many international photographers. His charm lies not only in nature, but also in all aspects related to the humanity of its inhabitants and the great traditional heritage. These photographic works, as well as all contemporary artworks, are still barely visible, because there is no public museum dedicated to them. Most of our art installations end up being images on computers or are exhibited by private individuals. In addition to the many traditional festivals and very interesting museums that narrate Omani history and folklore, public spaces should also be added to make contemporary art usable.
Are there any initiatives promoted by the Government or the Ministry of Tourism to show this new face of Oman?
The government has put together many interesting exhibitions to promote the new face of Oman locally and internationally, but our goal is to do more. Art must be seen everywhere. It is a perfect tool for promoting development in various sectors. We still need to improve from various points of view. I hope that in the future the government will make promotions on a regular basis to support new concepts and new ideas.
Do you believe that travel, understood as an exploration not only of a place, but as a discovery or rediscovery of a set of human heritages, can be a good way to cultivate our collective identity?
Traveling is a value, but it doesn't affect everyone. Many do not understand its true meaning. When I travel I like to observe people and their life context. This gives me the opportunity to discover human actions and behaviors. Thanks to new technologies and social networks, people have come closer. If used well and following the right people, you can discover a lot of information that helps you understand the identity and performance of other cultures.
© All rights reserved
I thank Mr. Hassan for accepting my invitation with extreme kindness. It was very interesting to be able to interact with him and receive confirmation that Oman is a country where one is always welcomed with great generosity. If you want to see all the artworks of Hassan Meer and stay updated on his work, I suggest you visit his personal website and the Stal Gallery & Studio page.
In the next interview we will cross the Atlantic Ocean to land on the East Coast. Destination: North Carolina, where we will meet the American land artist Patrick Dougherty.