Simon Grant eyes the glossy texture of TheWeek lying on the table. “That’s expensive paper. Newsprint is so expensive these days. In the UK, we use cheap newsprint,” he said frowning as he was reminded of one of the many effects of the recession. “We use nicer paper for Tate though.” As the editor of Tate Etc, one of the most popular art magazines in the world, his worries also extend to the magazine being drastically short-staffed.
Presenting a talk on ‘The Creative Process in the UK’ held at Sultan Qaboos Mosque last week, the art historian discussed the many problems of art education at the university level. “My question is, what is the right model? Students are very keen to learn but the model is based on how teachers devise the structure and what the aim is,” he said. His pet peeve with art education now coming at a price prompts him to ask, “Funding structures are problematic in the UK. With fees being introduced, there is a decline in the number of students. How do we value our society culturally?”
It is values as a nation that Rajeev Lochan, director of National Gallery for Modern Art in Delhi too wants to stress on. “Look at Japan. They have their values in place like no other country,” he said. Rajeev was part of a 120-member team selected to study in Japan in the 80s. He calls the National Gallery in Delhi a museum with a role to educate. His endeavour to do so has resulted in 120 national and 40 international exhibitions of artistes from Picasso to Anish Kapoor over the 12 years he has been the director. “We were never second to anyone. Western concepts have truly saturated themselves. Asia is being looked at with a sense of freshness.”
The global acceptance that Asia now enjoys also speaks through the efforts of Aria Eghbal. She now runs two galleries and two institutes in Iran. “I am here because of the Mahe-Mehr Art Education Institute - my new school - to discuss how we create art in Iran and the role of my institute there.” It is the largest non-government institute of art in Iran, she claimed. Herself a painter, Aria said more than 70 per cent of the students are women. She tries to bring the best artistes from around the world to teach at the institute. The school does not believe in boundaries, the syllabi including visual arts, sculpture and mixed media. “We hope we can mix traditional and contemporary art,” Aria said.
Heritage dominated the Omani representative’s presentation at the seminar. Jamal al Moosawi, director of the National Museum, spoke on the crafts industry and its historic evolution as witnessed in ornamental silver work specifically. He expressed his concern about public perception placing the crafts industries in a position inferior to fine arts. “There is a common belief that fine arts offer greater possibility for individualistic expression,” he said. Jamal used examples to prove that crafts are at least equal if not better than other means of expression. The crafts industry has a strong capacity for evolution while allowing space for individual expression, he said.
According to Jamal, fine arts and crafts complement each other. “Ideas migrate between practitioners. Certain forms and motifs found their way into the fine arts in the Middle East and vice-verse. But what we lack is a theoretical parallel in the Middle East in general. There is an absence of literary thinkers and art critics. Their inputs would mature artists at an intellectual level. Otherwise, there can be a tendency to imitate. Imitations are temporal in nature and will die without a trace.”
The presence of artistes from around the world at this edition of Muscat Art Festival was an enlightening experience for many students of art in the sultanate. “The real demand has been from young people. Muscat has served as a platform for artistes. Six artistes held workshops for university students here. They were thrilled they got to interact with so many different personalities,” said art consultant Bertrand Epaud.
Festival organiser Malik al Hinai opined that events like Muscat Festival not only place Oman on the map, but create an industry from within, from artisans to chefs, sportsmen to couture designers. With the range of experts at the Muscat Festival this year, next year simply has to be better.