When I dropped by at the Stal Galley to review the summer art collection, I walked into a beehive of activity. In the gallery space, workers were busy installing sets and bringing in racks of gowns for a fashion show on the theme of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Downstairs, seven young teenagers were participating in a photography workshop; and, upstairs, Catherine Abbot, the Manager of the Gallery, was at work.
Catherine and I went on tour of the paintings amid mannequins, fashions, potted palms and a tree festooned with flowers. This was not distracting - quite the opposite. In a Dadaist kind of way, it made the art more exciting. Juxtaposed with a rack of gowns, a huge Andy Warhol-style portrait of Marilyn Munro by Bahraini Artist Jamal Abdul Rahim served to emphasize the movie star's status as a fashion icon.
Also not disturbed by the intrusion of fashion were Alia Al Farsi's new, almost life-size paintings of women at leisure and in conversation. Coincidentally, Alia's painted clothes include pieces of real fabric. These canvases are characterized by strong lines, sharp colour definition and enigmatic meanings. As if torn from letters, patches of writing are pasted on the faces and hands of the figures. And so the ladies' conversation is caught and kept as if such moments can become eternal in art.
In two new paintings, Enaam Ahmed takes her adventure into abstraction a step further with stronger brushwork and barely discernable symbols of lost civilizations. With a pair of nicely rendered semi-abstracts, Naima Al Maimani experiments with her fabled cities-in-the-sky as she depicts their edges in abstract perspectives.
With images brilliantly illuminated in light boxes, a trilogy of photographs by Hassan Meer has an arresting cinematic quality. The theme is enlightenment and the setting is the desert. The viewer can feel the silence and sense the transformation of the seeker.
Omar Al Rashed's architectural existentialism is expressed in two new interpretations that have the quality of space stations floating on canvas. These smaller, well-articulated works contrast with two massive paintings by Amwar Sonya - one of Nizwa Souq and the other of an Eid celebration - in a palette of light and dark blue on yellow with red. The Summer Collection is completed with classic works by Tunisian artist, Abdallah Akar, known for his finely etched calligraphy.
A virtuosic gallery
By the time Catherine and I finished our tour, the Gallery space was looking pretty much like an exotic setting for fashion. Catherine explained that the Midsummer Night's Dream fashion show was an offshoot of an earlier event at Stal – a publicity launch for the Alila Hotel on Jebel Akhdar. On that occasion, furniture was brought in and the Gallery was transformed into a hotel lobby. Catherine remarks, "Of course, the Alila Hotel could not use another hotel for the Muscat launch, and so they chose Stal Gallery as an interesting and different alternative. It worked really well."
Stal Gallery is now six months old. It's an opportune time, I thought, for a review of the Gallery's activities and its impact on the Muscat art scene – and so I stayed to talk with Stal's highly competent and quietly effective manager, Catherine Abbot. With a Masters in Art Management and experience running galleries in Ireland, combined with a genuine interest in Oman and contemporary art of the Arab World, Catherine is well-placed at Stal. The Stal Gallery is the brainchild of the UAE Alserkal Group and Hassan Meer. Their aim is to "form an art hub for creation, exhibition and engagement, with a national and international profile…through policies & programs that are excellent, innovative and inclusive". Catherine reflects:
"It's always a wonderful opportunity to be part of a project start-up - and this one is close to my heart. I really believe in what Stal is trying to achieve. What I like best, is working with the artists.
I love their energy and enthusiasm. I am always excited to see new artwork come into the Gallery and to watch people respond. We invite local school children to see our exhibitions and it is really interesting to see how they respond." An intern, workshops, artists in residence Catherine introduced me to Stal's amazing twelve year-old intern, Amjad Al Zadjali, a budding filmmaker. This exceptional young person has already made a few very good short films and proved to be an insightful advisor in planning the Workshop for young photographers. Amjad described working at Stal as "awesome and cool".
Stal's young intern is confident, talented; and, not surprisingly – he is Hassan Meer's son. I asked Amjad what he liked about the Gallery: "The paintings and how the artists did the designs, and the very cool feeling of the Gallery space. Also, people here are great to work with."
We went downstairs to see the Photography Workshop in progress. The participants aged twelve to fourteen, plus one eighteen-year-old, were heads-down writing a test. The kids were so intent on their work that it was hard to get them to pause and smile for the camera. All workshops at Stal are offered free of charge as a service to the community and to encourage artistic expression. Catherine remarks,
"The kids were very shy at first, but it didn't take them long to come out of their shells. They were so keen to learn photography that they forgot about being shy. These young teenagers are amazing. They already have a language for discussing art.
"We feel we have achieved a good balance of programs as well as an international element with a Finnish Artist in Residence followed by a German. Our Workshops included an interactive session on Art Appreciation that brought in a new clientele and was hugely successful".
Coming soon to Stal
"After Eid, we will have a portrait exhibition titled Me and the Other, themed on an iconic figure in the world of art or someone who has influenced the artist. We put out a call on social media for participants, with selection criteria focused on diversity in styles, techniques, location and experience. I was really surprised at the tremendous response from abroad, as well as locally. Then, in November we have an exhibition of works on paper. Through social media, it will be open to everyone."
The next Artist in Residence will be someone who is well-known in Muscat - Sini Coreth, wife of a former Austrian Ambassador to the Sultanate. Sini has contributed substantially to the development of art in Oman, including as one of the founders of The Circle group of artists.
Catherine is keen on exploring different avenues to develop the Gallery as an innovative institution that captivates and involves people, while stimulating and supporting artistic endeavour. The Stal engages cooperatively with other local Galleries such as Bait Muzna, Bait Baranda and Muscart.
As Manager of Stal, Catherine believes that "art is in bloom these days and the Galleries of Muscat are a galvanizing force for the advancement of art & culture in Oman. Whatever one Gallery does is a contribution for all - just as in the old saying 'A high tide lifts all boats'".