In her words: Océane Sailly

Océane Sailly, the founder of Hunna / هُنَّ art gallery and a PhD candidate at the Sorbonne University in Paris, examining French cultural diplomacy in the GCC countries, talks to Mathqaf about creating a digital, nomadic art gallery and how her professional and academic journeys underline this project.

On her background:
“My academic and professional backgrounds are intertwined. I come from a small city in southwest France. Opportunities to being exposed to art or experimenting with art there are scarce, other than summers which are filled with music festivals. Yet, I always had a devouring passion for literature but it was during my early teenage years that I really became interested in painting. One day, I must have been fourteen years old or so, I was reading a book within which was printed a reproduction of a Francis Bacon’s painting. I have long forgotten the title of this book but will never forget the shock of stumbling upon this painting. It was raw, intense, the mixed emotions, contradictory aspirations, violent and mesmerisingly beautiful. It embodied all blooming sensibilities and body distortions you can go through around that age. One painting summed it all. From that turning point, I became obsessed by painting and art in general. I read everything I could find about Francis Bacon first then expanded to literally anything, from prehistorical to classical to contemporary. In parallel, I started painting, a practice that stayed with me for many years. Unfortunately, my brushes have long dried…Maybe it is for the best though, it was definitely not one of my best talents!

After studying cinema and art history for one year, I moved to Paris when I turned 18 to study at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University. Alongside my studies, I became involved in a multidisciplinary project called Dimanche Rouge. It is a non-profit organisation promoting live and experimental art, including performance, multimedia, dance, sound and installation. This was a shaping experience for me as Dimanche Rouge defends a vision of art that is experimental, provoking and free for all. At the same time, my studies were introducing me to a variety of new disciplines and research, providing me a strong knowledge of the artistic and cultural fields as well as tools necessary for the design and implementation of cultural projects.

One of the specificity of Dimanche Rouge was its very international team and reach: artists would come from pretty much everywhere in the world to perform in Paris. Working with such an international environment enhanced my need to challenge my views and perspectives on the world. Through a succession of events, I relocated to Berlin and later to Bosnia-Herzegovina – which was the beginning of a long travelling journey that never really stopped. These travels introduced me to new ways of thinking, I was meeting and living with radical artists and individuals who had strong visions about the role of art in society, at the opposite end of an elitist vision, and society in general. It was a fantastic experience. Coming back to France, and in parallel to my studies, I started working as a cultural mediator, which I did for several years, for multiple institutions – the Salon de Montrouge, the JCE Biennale, the Palais de Tokyo, Fondation EDF and such. As a cultural mediator, you are the interface between the artist, their artwork, a curatorial project and audiences. Audiences are diverse, some days I dealt with children, other days art professionals, or teenagers, and so on, so I was constantly having to adapt my discourse and imagine different ways of communicating ideas and concepts. During this time I also started to work as an assistant for Majida Khattari, a Moroccan artist living in France, whose work tackles the ideas around women in Arab societies and their representation in the West. It deals with both, the question of Orientalism, but also contemporary political news, questions of secularism and religion.

Fast forward to 2013, I started a double master, one in International Relations, the other in Cultural Project Management. In the framework of the latter, I wrote my first master’s thesis which focused on the 1989 Centre Pompidou exhibition Magiciens de la terre, commonly referred to as one of the first exhibitions that exhibited non-Western living artists in a Western institution. I insist on the term « living » as, until then, artistic artworks or artefacts from non-western artists were usually presented as a support to Western artistic production; a support of inspiration but the artists themselves were most of the time not even labelled. The exhibition was both praised and heavily critiqued at the time, but it was a transformative event that led to new discussions regarding « Global art », marking a turning point in what was later on called the globalisation of the art world. And this is when my interest in visual arts in the Arabian Peninsula began.”

On her interest in the arts of the Arabian Peninsula:
“To give a bit of perspective, I will draw back again on this first master thesis. As I previously mentioned, in 1989, it was not yet a question of a globalised art world but the following years were marked by the multiplication of art biennales, art fairs and art museums all over the world. As Hans Belting put it, the art world can now be defined as a « polycentric world articulated in supranational “art regions” » (Belting, 2013). As I was researching this topic, I started to be more and more interested in the development of the art market in the UAE in the early 2000s. It was rapidly growing in Dubai, with the opening of many new art galleries in Alserkal and DIFC, the opening of international auction houses’ offices and the creation of Art Dubai, while Abu Dhabi was drawing attention by announcing the creation of museums in collaboration with several leading institutions such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim. In France, these developments were mostly covered by the press and usually pictured in negative ways – the controversies that followed in France the announcement of the Louvre Abu Dhabi are symbolic in this regard – overshadowing the history of artistic and cultural developments in the country and earlier cultural policies such as the ones implemented in Sharjah.

I wanted go beyond these controversies and understand the mechanisms of the emergence of an art market. This encouraged me to dedicate my second master thesis to the development of contemporary art in the UAE. While the initial project was to focus on the art market, some recurrent trips to Dubai and interviews with artists and art professionals brought me to expand the scope of my researches and my thesis ended up focusing on three aspects: the history of contemporary art in the UAE starting from the creation of the Emirates Fine Art Society, the role of art patrons and institutions, and the consequences of the emergence of Dubai as an art region for the recognition of artists from the Arab world. As I was working on it, I got hired by the French Ministry of Culture as a cultural officer for the « Emirati-French cultural programme », a bilateral cultural diplomacy programme which led to the implementation of five cultural projects that brought together artists and institutions from both countries. One of them was « Co-Lab: contemporary art and savoir-faire » », a contemporary art project for which I collaborated with the Emirati artist and curator Alia Zaal who is now part of Hunna / هُنَّ.

« Co-Lab » exhibition at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Artworks from Zeinab Alhashemi, Talin Hazbar, Vikram Divecha and Khalid Shafar © Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Working on this project, I became increasingly aware of the scope of French cultural diplomacy in the Gulf. It wasn’t so much the projects of the Sorbonne Abu Dhabi or Louvre Abu Dhabi that interested me but rather the historical perspectives and the practices of cultural diplomats. I then started a PhD under the direction of professor Alain Quemin on this topic and got awarded a doctoral scholarship from the Sorbonne and in 2018 a second scholarship from CEFREPA, the French Research Centre of the Arabian Peninsula, to pursue field work. I relocated to Kuwait where I have been living since then and travelled extensively to the six GCC countries. In parallel to my doctoral research, I was also the co-director of an art gallery, Hors-Cadre Gallery, I founded with my sister, Manon, in early 2018.

Hors-Cadre is a digital and nomadic gallery focusing on emerging French artists. The foundational idea behind the model, which very much influenced the Hunna / هُنَّ model, was the use of digital tools to break down the barriers of collecting art for people of our generation. As a nomadic gallery, we did exhibitions in Paris, Lithuania, Moscow and at CAP Kuwait. This double activity, researcher and gallery director, gave me the opportunity to meet and engage with many artists and art professionals in the GCC which led to the creation of Hunna / هُنَّ.

« New Nature » by Mathieu Merlet Briand. Exhibition organised by Hors-Cadre and Cap Kuwait with the support of the French Institute in Kuwait © Hors-Cadre

Manon and Océane Sailly in Hors-Cadre’s Booth for Galeristes Art Fair, Paris, 2018 © Hors-Cadre

On founding Hunna:
“At some point, it became increasingly difficult to combine work on my research and for Hors Cadre, as most of the gallery’s activities are based in France. Living in Kuwait, I couldn’t attend studio visits, meet with the artists with whom we worked, or meet with art collectors, all of which are the basis of an art gallerist’s role. At the same time, the idea of Hunna / هُنَّ was emerging from the many discussions I’d have with friends and artists who are from and/ or work in the Arabian Peninsula. Our conversations would focus on the possibility of creating a new space, whether virtual or physical, that would allow us to promote a new generation of artists, talk to the people of our generation and work on a regional-international scale.

As the project was taking shape, Manon and I jointly decided that I would withdraw from Hors-Cadre and leave her the full direction in order to focus on Hunna / هُنَّ. Two artists, Aidha Badr and Alia Zaal, were immediately on board as soon as I proposed them to be part of the project and ensued months of research, contacts, discussions and meetings about the scope of the gallery and its goals. Hunna /هُنَّ now represents six artists – Qamar Abdulmalik, Moza Almatrooshi, Aysha Almoayyed, Aidha Badr, Alymamah Rashed and Alia Zaal. Their artistic practices are very different from one another but they have in common to translate their personal experiences and researches into artworks that question and challenge historical, social and political narratives as well as dominant representations. Their engagement as artists goes beyond their sole artistic practice as they are also actively contributing to local art scenes by being involved in many grassroots or institutional initiatives for art education, support of emerging artists as well as heritage and cultural preservation.

Their work have come to define Hunna / هُنَّ curatorial line: we are promoting and supporting artists who are creating new narratives and who are, through their artistic practices, pushing the definitions of contemporary art and its recognition. It is a gift to learn from and collaborate with these six incredible, engaged, generous and talented artists and I am very proud of what we are building together.

This curatorial line is aligned with Hunna / هُنَّ scope of work. From the beginning, the idea was not only to create a commercial gallery but also a space for discussions and collaborations between the artists and art professionals, such as critics and curators, and researchers in order to encourage critical contributions and knowledge production. To that end, we already commissioned texts about each artist represented by Hunna /هُنَّ to emerging art critics and host a page called « Resources » that relays digital initiatives for knowledge about women artists and art from the WANA region. In the coming weeks, we will also make an open call for essays and articles that will be published on the website.

That sense of collaboration is central. Since there is already a strong regional ecosystem of galleries and cultural institutions, it is part of our approach to try to establish links with them but also, and maybe more crucially, with the other numerous new initiatives that have recently been created, just like what we do now with Mathqaf. Also, while we are a digital gallery, physical exhibitions will be important for us although the possibilities are rather limited in the current context. I still believe it is absolutely crucial that artworks are also physically seen. In the future, our digital presence and physical exhibitions will compliment each other.”

On focusing only on women artists:
“It’s important to state that although Hunna / هُنَّ represent only women artists, I don’t promote, or believe in, the idea of feminine or female art, rather the contrary, and this would be missing the point. The art world is still far from being equal and the further up you go, the less women there are. Women are still underrepresented in permanent collections, in temporary exhibitions, and in leadership positions.

This is not new, this is the result of a long biased and masculine art history that has invisibilized women artists – Linda Nochlin was already pointing this problem out in her major essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, published in 1971. I am also part of a French-British research group that studies inequalities in visual arts and our first findings show that not so much has changed within the last decades, albeit we are witnessing the beginning of a shift. There are plenty of women students in art schools, plenty of women artists, plenty of women art professionals but only a few appreciate the same visibility and positions as their male counterparts. This is not because they are less talented or anything, what we are dealing with is a structural problem. And this structural problem cannot be addressed by proposing one exhibition about a woman artist from time-to-time. This also has the perverse effect of categorising them as « women artists » rather than just « artists » and gives the illusion that we are doing enough. To address this issue, institutions need to hire women in directorship and curatorial positions and need to buy art from women artists because they still hold the power of writing the canons of art history. But the time of the institutions is a long one; on our side, we need to of a new way of distributing the system, now. In that sense, Hunna is a political project that aims to contribute to this structural change.”

On her role:
“Although I was convinced from the early premises of the Hunna project that it was an important one, I also had many introspections revolving around my position as a French woman representing solely artists from the Gulf and my legitimacy in leading this project. As a researcher, I obviously can not turn a blind eye on the debates about representation, Orientalism or cultural imperialism for example. These topics have been discussed with the artists and they have openly shared their ideas and thoughts on the subject of their representation, which facilitated my position and helped build a stronger bond between us.

The roundtable that we had on the 28th of February (roundtable organised by the Alliance Française of Bahrain in partnership with Centre Pompidou, Uqam, Mathqaf and Hunna / هُنَّ is an example of what we are trying to do: collaborate, create platforms and events to let the artists speak for themselves. In that case, I invited two artists from Hunna, Alia Zaal and Alymamah Rashed, as well as Wadha Al-Aqeedi, the co-founder of Mathqaf, to discuss and exchange with Professor Thérèse St-Gelais, to introduce their work, share their experiences and knowledge with a new audience. In that spirit, we will continue to organise roundtables and lectures with the artists and art professionals.

Poster for « Elles font l’art – Femmes et identités culturelles »

So Hunna / هُنَّ is not my project, but a collective one. I hope that together we have the ability to increase visibility of the artists we represent and combat against the misrepresentations that exist outside of the region. That’s where the development of critical content comes to play: it is needed to change the narrative. Hopefully, we can contribute to that, too.”

Featured image: Océane Sailly in front of Alia’s Zaal painting, 1604 view. Photo by Alia Zaal.