Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Arts in Kuwait: Recapturing the Liberal Spirit

Sami Mohammed sculptor Kuwait culture
Kuwaiti sculptor Sami Mohammed poses with one of his works at the Museum of Modern Art in Kuwait City on October 4, 2018. Photo AFP

Kuwait is a young country. There were no settlements to speak of until about 200 years ago, and these were little more than small market towns where fishers and Bedouin from the surrounding desert traded their wares.

It is thus fair to say that when speaking of the arts, one can only do so since the oil boom that started in the mid-1940s, when the modern Gulf state came into existence.

When put into regional perspective, Kuwait has a distinctive cultural history. A reverse history, one might say, that saw the country go from a liberal haven for artists from all over the region to a restrictive place where the arts face official censorship and a reluctant society.

In its early oil days, Kuwait was like a sponge. Kuwaitis travelling and studying abroad wholeheartedly absorbed and embraced Western art and culture and brought it home. Kuwait became the frontrunner of modernism.

The 1960s and ‘70s were the golden years for local artists such as the sculptor Sami Mohammad and the painter Khalifa Qattan, who overcame traditional and religious dogmas to become popular and successful.

Galleries such as the extant Sultan Gallery opened and theatre thrived. Those were also the years that saw the construction of landmark modernist buildings designed by foreign architects such as the National Assembly Building (1972, Jørn Utzon), the Kuwait Towers (1977, Malene Bjørn) and al-Sawaber (1981, Arthur Erikson), one of Kuwait’s first high-density housing complexes.

The National Assembly Building and Kuwait Towers still grace the country’s skyline but al-Sawaber was demolished in early 2019, despite protests and court cases by those who wished to save Kuwait’s sparse cultural history.

The fate of al-Sawaber mirrors the fate of many of the arts. From the 1980s, the country became increasingly religious – and now rivals Saudi Arabia for conservatism – with dramatic consequences for the arts.

The art scene dwindled and non-descript architecture took over. New institutions such as the opera house, opened in 2016, and cultural centre, opened in 2018, host non-provocative shows and exhibitions. The buildings housing them are characterized by their size, expense and bland design, and all of them are invariably clad with geometric forms inspired by Islamic architecture.

Writers who cross the censorship line sell their books from the trunk of their cars and art house movies are shown underground.

The factors behind this change from liberalism to conservatism are hard to explain. However, several developments can be considered pivotal. First of all, the demographics changed when large groups of Bedouins from Saudi Arabia were nationalized in the 1980s, bringing with them a more traditional and conservative outlook. Today, public schools do not teach art or literature.

In addition, according to many Kuwaitis, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, Kuwait’s emir in 1985, became increasingly religious after a failed assassination attempt by a group believed to be linked to Iran. He allegedly started facilitating the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, which until then had not had much of a foothold in Kuwait. The Iraqi invasion in 1990 also played a role because many Kuwaitis were told – and began to believe – that the invasion was a punishment for the country’s liberalism.

In this environment, do the arts in Kuwait have a future? There has always been a resilient group of artists who have continued to express themselves, even if it is from the trunk of their cars. A new generation of architects, painters, graffiti artists and so on is also emerging that is less bound by tradition or religion than their predecessors. And galleries such as CAP continue to host high-quality exhibitions.

Moreover, consumer demand is helping to push the boundaries of ‘acceptable’ art. Put another way, consumers are once again giving space to Kuwait’s former liberalism. However, there is still a small, but highly influential, segment of society that is resisting this development. “It is like one family member telling the rest of the family that this is not allowed and that is unacceptable,” one Kuwaiti described the situation.

The problem is that the country’s leadership does not want any issues with this family member, who is backed by a rather powerful neighbour. Kuwait’s current cultural status is thus a reflection of its (geo)political position rather than what people actually want to see or hear. Greater freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia would almost certainly mean the same for Kuwait, although the latter would have to spend some time recapturing the artistic sprit that still lurks beneath the surface. It seems this is only a matter of time.