The Short Century at Sharjah Art Museum highlights events that shaped the Arab world in the 20th century

With more than 100 works, The Short Century is the largest exhibition of works from the Barjeel Art Foundation, a collection of art owned by Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. It is also the first time a Barjeel exhibition has focused solely on modern art from the 20th century created before 1990. 

From the fall of the Ottoman Empire to the outbreak of the first Gulf War in 1991, the Arab world saw several social and political events that shaped the life of people here. This is the focus of the show, which opened at the Sharjah Art Museum this weekend. “It is a broad survey show that spans the timeline of the 20th century that allows us to show the social and political history of the region in visual form," says Karim Sultan, Barjeel Art Foundation’s newest curator and co-curator of the show. 

The exhibition borrows its name from a term popularised by British historian Eric Hobsbawm in 1994 in his book The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century. Hobsbawm began his account in 1914 with the start of First World War and ended it in 1991 with the break up of the Soviet Union. The exhibition begins with a bronze sculpture by Ahmed Abdel Wahab called The Key of Life. It depicts a statuesque woman who evokes memories of ancient Egypt, but is created with the clean geometrics and lines of a modernist style. 


“This work summaries the show, because a big part of the 20th century was about merging modernism with national ideas of heritage and history," says Suheyla Takesh, the other co-curator. The main body of works are arranged thematically. The first section features the oldest works, with art by Egyptian and Iraqi masters such as Mahmoud Said, Youssef Kamel and Abdul Kadir Al Rassam that act as an introduction to European styles to the region. 

Hung in a cluster or salon style, they are juxtaposed with a single work by Algerian artist Abdallah Benanteur, which was painted in the 1980s but is a tribute to impressionism that first emerged in the region in the 1910s and 1920s. The show moves through sections dedicated to themes such as landscapes and portraiture from across the decades, including two works by Damascus-­born Marwan Kassab-Bachi, and a rare work of a Palestinian girl by Emirati Abdul Qader Al Rais, who stopped painting figures in the 1970s, preferring architectural or calligraphic work. 

The massive shifts in the regional way of life are also reflected in several sections. The influence of heavy urbanisation is striking in the straight and jagged lines that suddenly appear in the paintings. In Seif Wanly’s Nocturne, which features a farmer driving his horse through the fields, the land is clearly divided with harsh lines and the farmer’s head is bowed – bemoaning the loss of the agricultural age in Egypt. 

Then there are the works by Syrian master Fateh Moudarres, who became known for his compacted, squared-off figures that reflect the way people began to live in proximity to each other, squashed into cities. War, too, plays a large role, with its onset casting a shadow over several pieces of art about half way through the halls. Iraqi Faisal Laibi Sahi’s 1978 painting depicts a funeral procession and is a memorable work due to its content and its size (it is 4.5 metres long). 

“It is a certainly a heavy and melancholy work," says Al Qasemi. “But the interesting thing is that it can be tied to any incident in history. It is a lament about the losses of war and it could be 2,000 years ago or it could be today." Thuraya Al-Baqsami, from Kuwait, and Iraq’s Afifa Aleiby are two female artists whose works from 1991 show women mourning the loss of life from the onset of the First Gulf War. 

Hamed Ewais’s Le Gardien de la Vie is one of the most symbolic pieces in the exhibition. Painted after the loss of the Arab-­Israeli war, Ewais shows a strong, wide-shouldered man protecting the daily way of life with his large arms and a menacing machine gun. Of several sculptures, perhaps the most interesting is Raed Al Fada (Astronaut). Kuwaiti artist Ibrahim Ismaeel made the work in 1975 and it is presented next to a poem called An Arab Traveller in Space by Syrian playwright and poet Muhammad Al-Maghut. 

The idea in both pieces is that life in the latter half of the century had become such that people wanted to escape. The remainder of the show highlights the different directions and styles that were developing in the 20th century, such as abstraction, religious iconography and symbolism. Ideas of constructing and deconstructing letters and surfaces can be seen in wonderful works from artists such as Nabil Nahas, Samia Halaby, Shakir Hassan Al Said and Saloua Raouda Choucair, some of which have never been shown in an exhibition before. 

The last two sections are on the “development and trajectories of multiple modernities," says Sultan. There are several pieces that focus on the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, as well as pieces that set the stage for the contemporary age by exploring the relationship between the old and the new. 

by Anna Seaman 

• The Short Century is at Sharjah Art Museum until December 24. 
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