Alya Al Mulla The Curator of Sharjah Art Museum On Putting A Spotlight On Arab Art

Lindsay Judge   |   28-05-2024

Over the past decades, Sharjah has firmly established itself as the cultural centre of the UAE. With numerous activities and exhibitions of art and culture, the historical emirate has become a hub for creative talent and a platform for these talents to promote their work. Helping to support regional artists, the Sharjah Art Museum aims to educate visitors on Arab art by showcasing regional works from established and upcoming artists. 

The museum was inaugurated in 1997 and was propelled by the visionary aim of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed AlQasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, to make art accessible to all. Central to the museum’s mission is to showcase the rich tapestry of cultural heritage alongside contemporary artistic expressions, underscoring the dynamic interplay between tradition and innovation in the region’s arts scene.

Over the years, the museum has hosted an impressive array of exhibitions, spanning a diverse range of themes and epochs, from classical Islamic art to modern and contemporary works. It has been instrumental in bringing international art to the local audience, as well as promoting the works of regional artists on a global stage. Here we find out more with the Museums Curator Alya Al Mulla.

Who does the museum aim to attract and what do you aim to showcase to visitors?

Inspired by the vision of HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed AlQasimi, The Ruler of Sharjah, our mission and priority is education which and for our museums to be places for education and creating awareness. Often, the term museumeither intimidates or bores people; our goal is to change these perceptions by catering to and engaging diverse demographics through our various temporary exhibitions, events and activities, and educational programs.

What are some of the main highlights that visitors can expect to see?

Visitors can expect to see the museums permanent collection on display and a number of works under the broader narrative of Modern and Contemporary Arab art. The works are put together within smaller groups, under different themes and concepts that introduce the visitors to Arab art, a topic that, in recent years, was overlooked and was not part of any academic teachings. 

Part of our space is dedicated to the Orientalist Collectionfeaturing works, some of which are from the 18th and 19th centuries by European artists who travelled to this region. Some of the must-see works here would be, Ruins of the Temple of the Sun, Baalbec (1861) by David Roberts. Also, El Azhar University in Cairo (1890) by Ludwig Deutsch. And of course, the main highlight at the museum currently, is the long-term loan that we have from the Barjeel Art Foundation. 

What are some of the upcoming projects that you can tell us about?

Our upcoming project, which will open later this year, is a collaboration with the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts in Amman. This collaboration will bring key works from their collection to Sharjah for an exhibition. We have been working on this show for quite some time now, and I am happy that it is finally happening and very excited about it. 

Then we also have Lasting Impressions, an annual exhibition that sheds light on pioneer Arab artists who have made a lasting impact on the art scene and art history. We have decided to postpone this years edition and make it a bi-annual exhibition, to allow for more thorough research and preparation. We are already working on our next edition and looking forward. We are also continuing our collaborations with local entities in Sharjah to host their exhibitions in our museum spaces.

How are you sharing the work of the museum on an international scale?

We loan pieces from our collection to other exhibitions both within the UAE and internationally, allowing global audiences to experience our offerings.

How do you showcase the rich history and culture of Sharjah through the museum?

While the Sharjah Art Museum focuses primarily on art, the history and culture of Sharjah are showcased through the Al-Hisn Fort and the Sharjah Heritage Museum, both part of the broader Sharjah Museums Authority and both showcase the legacy and rich history of our city. 

Sharjah has firmly established itself as the cultural capital of the UAE – what are your views on this and what would you like to see happen next? 

Sharjah’s reputation as the cultural capital of the UAE is well-deserved, thanks to the wise leadership of  HH Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed AlQasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah. 

The emirate has made significant investments in cultural infrastructure, including museums, art spaces, and heritage sites, and has actively supported cultural initiatives and creative industries. With the establishment of many such art and cultural institutions, including places such as University City and many other educational centres, Sharjah has always been a pioneer in this field, with a longstanding commitment to preserving, promoting, and celebrating art, heritage, and culture. 

Looking ahead, I would like to see Sharjah continue to build upon its cultural legacy and further enhance its position as a global hub for culture and creativity. This could be done through various means and collaborations with like-minded organisations. At the same time, it should address current cultural issues and relevant themes that bring positive changes to society.

The biggest challenge at the moment is keeping up with the latest developments in the art field and museum displays, while still adhering to our mission and vision. We tend to focus more on the latter, striving to balance what we display with innovation. The question is how far to go in terms of using advanced methods and approaches, and how sustainable these will be without compromising the artists’ techniques or the integrity of historical narratives.

What else would you like to achieve with the museum moving forward?

Moving forward, it is crucial to evolve with the times and implement new practices. I aim to make the museum more accessible to a broader audience, both locally and internationally. Additionally, fostering new collaborations will elevate the art museum as a vibrant and inclusive cultural hub, enriching the lives of individuals, strengthening communities, and advancing art and culture on both local and international scales

What is the dream exhibition you would like to have at the museum?

Early this year, we completed our latest iteration of Lasting Impressions: Samia Halaby. Honestly, for me, that was a dream exhibition! For those who may not know, Samia Halaby is an icon and a living legend. Her contributions to the art of abstraction, as well as to Arab art in general, are immense. We organized a comprehensive retrospective of her work, spanning the past six decades. It was an honour and privilege to get to know her and work with her so closely.

What is your professional motto? 

Work hard and do your best, in the end, everything falls into place. 

What do you look for yourself when you are visiting museums around the world and how do you try to mirror this with the Sharjah Art Museum? 

You may find this amusing, but when I visit museums (and I am sure many museum professionals will understand), I look very closely at the technical aspects, such as their lighting, display techniques, artwork labels, exhibition texts, and the layout of the works. I even touch the walls and texts to understand what materials are used.

Another key aspect I explore is how well I understood the exhibition—not as a curator but as a general visitor. I assess whether the museum clearly conveyed the concept and narrative.

What is a message you would send to our readers to let them know why they should visit? 

Sharjah Art Museum — where admission is free — is unique not only for its location, nestled within the Heart of Sharjah and the old neighbourhood but also for the amazing exhibitions that we have on display. The museum is for everyone, not just art professionals. Art has no language or barriers; you will find that one piece of art that speaks to you.