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DAR AL-ATHAR AL-ISLAMIYYAH
The embrace of time
As the world gets shallower and bite-sized, retaining our ability to take a close look at the past becomes more and more important, and therein lies the importance of individuals like Salam Kaoukji with their humanistic and enlightened approach to history and art. Salam Kaoukji is an intellectual in the true sense. Quiet, unassuming, she spends her days in her office in Yarmouk building up knowledge around the al-Sabah collection – one of the most extraordinary, comprehensive and celebrated private collection of Islamic and pre-Islamic art in the world as its Chief Curator and the Museum’s Conservation Manager. Co-founded by Sheikh Nasser Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah and his wife Sheikha Hussa Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, the al-Sabah collection showcases the range, vitality, and creativity of Islamic and pre-Islamic art in varied media such as ceramic, glass, objects of adornment, metalwork, manuscript, stone, ivory, carpets and textiles. The collection includes more than 30,000 objects of art sourced from a large geographical swathe ranging from China to Spain, dating from the 7th to the 19th Century. “The objects in the al-Sabah collection arouse our sensitivities and sensibilities,” Salam Kaoukji once told me. “The variety of the collection and the way it presents the continuous history of the region is very important. The objects in the collection serve to illustrate both the history of the area and the people who made and used them. And that is why this collection does not belong to Kuwait or the Arab world alone, but to the world at large and we are obliged to look after it.”
Steadily and silently, Salam Kaoukji has worked to build a repository of knowledge around the objects in her safekeeping, and in doing so has left her imprint on the cultural map of Kuwait, and the art world. For Sue, as Salam Kaoukji is popularly known, her interest in art and its ability to bridge differences is an ingrained lifelong passion. It was her mother who taught her to look, observe and internalize beauty and artistic details early in life. “My mother taught me the importance of ‘looking’ at things. When you look carefully, and not just in passing, you internalize the object that you are studying, and it is then that you understand why it prevails, why it was made, and it builds awareness about the people who manufactured it. That is when you stop thinking of people who lived in the past as Martians,” she smiles.
Born and brought up in artistic surroundings, Sue grew up in a world inhabited by different cultures. Her mother, a miniature artist, introduced her daughter to the magical world of museums and art at a young age. Sue spent her younger years in Cairo and Lebanon, absorbing and assimilating various artistic and cultural influences. A graphic designer by profession, she moved to Kuwait with her family during the civil war in Lebanon in 1977. Her love for art, culture, and creativity brought her close to Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah, a cultural organization built around the al-Sabah collection which believes in the role that art and education plays in bridging cultural divides, and spreading peace. “I was once visiting the Dar Gallery at the Kuwait National Museum sometime in the eighties when I happened to notice a school teacher who was visiting with a group of students. I heard her giving the children a lot of wrong information, which upset me. So I offered Sheikha Hussa, to make a booklet which would be distributed free to children, parents, and people in general who visited the gallery. The booklet included short descriptions of the periods and regions along with educational activities centering on the objects.” That was the beginning of Sue’s active engagement with the Dar which took a professional turn soon after the Gulf War.
Today, Sue Salam Kaoukji curates the al-Sabah collection and manages the museum’s conservation programme. She is responsible for professional practices including acquisition research, interpretation, preservation, and facilitating museum loans. In addition to curating a number of distinguished exhibitions, she has contributed to several exhibition publications, and authored several catalogues. Sue is warm, cheerful, and a non-conformist in many ways with none of the snobbism generally associated with academic art historians and professional curators who live in their own intellectual space. Today in Expat Diaries, we speak to Sue Salam Kaoukji about her life in Kuwait and her association with the al-Sabah collection.
Arab Times: What got you interested in the arts?
Salam Kaoukji: My mother, who studied miniature painting in Paris in the 1920s and whose activities centred quite a lot on art. She regularly took me to museums and exhibitions, as well as weaver’s and potter’s studios and even arranged for me to train once a week with Tahiyah Halim, a well-known Egyptian painter.
AT: If I remember correctly, you spent your childhood in different countries – did that have any impact on you, on how you look at life and the world?
Salam Kaoukji: It did. Growing up in Egypt and Lebanon, both of which have a rich historical past as well as a great deal of important historical monuments and art, that are bound to affect one’s taste and frame of mind.
AT: You were the editor of Sesame Street for some time – how do you recall that time?
Salam Kaoukji: Working on the Sesame Street (Iftah ya Semsem) magazine was very stimulating and fulfilling because I felt I was achieving something worthwhile for the education of children
AT: How long have you lived in Kuwait? What brought you here?
Salam Kaoukji: I arrived from Lebanon in 1977, because it didn’t seem as though the civil war was about to end soon and my husband and I needed to support our families
AT: How do you recall your early years in this country and how have you seen the country change?
Salam Kaoukji: I was lucky that members of my immediate family were already living in Kuwait, as were a number of friends who had also left Beirut because of the civil war.
I was also very fortunate to be taken in charge by Farida Sultan, one of my oldest and dearest friends, who made sure my introduction to Kuwait was very pleasurable.
At that time Kuwait was very interesting culturally, sadly, with a few exceptions standards have changed although one always hopes things will improve!
AT: Your children grew up in Kuwait, if I am not wrong – did their life here leave any impact on them?
Salam Kaoukji: My children had a wonderful childhood in Kuwait, which contributed a great deal to their character and development.
AT: How did you come to be associated with Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah?
Salam Kaoukji: Sheikha Hussa Al-Sabah invited me to produce an educational booklet and parent’s guide-book for children visiting the museum based on the Sesame Street magazine prototype.
To be involved in such a project, I needed to familiarize myself with the subject, which is why I attended Islamic art lectures for volunteers given by Manuel Keene, the curator of the museum, and discovered that this was what I wanted to do.
AT: You have worked very closely with Sheikha Hussa Al-Sabah and her husband HE Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, co-owners and founders of the al-Sabah collection — as collectors, art lovers and patrons — what makes them special?
Salam Kaoukji: Sheikh Nasser and Sheikha Hussa are both very cultured lovers of art, who resolved to introduce the public to the beauty of Islamic and Eastern culture by sharing their magnificent collection with the local and international public.
AT: What is special about the al-Sabah collection — How is it regarded in the art world?
Salam Kaoukji: The al-Sabah collection is highly esteemed in the international art world, especially because of the eclectic range of its holdings and what it offers to researchers in the field.
AT: You were here during the invasion. If I remember correctly, you were one of the first people to witness the devastating effects of the invasion on the Kuwait Museum and Dar al-Athar – How do you look back at those days?
Salam Kaoukji: Witnessing the museum burned and gutted is something I’ll never forget. The devastation was shocking, especially that after removing the collection the soldiers decided to set fire to the building which burned together with a 4.5 meter-high, 14th-Century door from Morocco, which was on display and had been left behind when the collection was removed to Baghdad because it was too difficult to transport.
AT: The al-Sabah collection was retrieved from Baghdad after the Gulf War. Were you involved in the exercise?
Salam Kaoukji: I was asked to review and translate the lists of objects that were taken to Baghdad and helped coordinate the reception of object shipments returning to Kuwait.
AT: Did the Dar manage to retrieve all the objects that were lost?
Salam Kaoukji: Some objects are still missing, especially a number of 17th Century magnificent Indian carved emeralds. We managed to retrieve a 16th Century Indian jewelled dagger from a London auction thanks to our archives which helped to confirm that the object belonged to the al-Sabah collection.
AT: As far as I know, you didn’t have any background in art history or conservation, but you became very closely associated with the collection and with time became the curator of the collection.
Salam Kaoukji: I learned a great deal from working with Sheikh Nasser and with the curator Manuel Keene, and as I was very interested in the subject, I read and did a lot of research and fortunately the collection has a very well stocked reference library which simplified matters a great deal.
AT: How has the collection evolved over the years?
Salam Kaoukji: The collection grew from 7,000 to 25,000 art objects and 9,000 coins and expanded to include art from the pre-Islamic period which serves to illustrate the development of art from the early periods to the Islamic period.
AT: What is the difference in activities around the collection before and after the invasion?
Salam Kaoukji: Before the invasion, the collection hosted exhibitions, partook in loans to exhibitions organised by other institutions, and set up lectures and workshops. Most importantly the collection organised an exhibition which was touring during the invasion and helped to promote the country culturally.
Nowadays, we engage in the same type of activities but they are more numerous, and as we still don’t have the right set-up we host exhibitions of a different nature.
AT: Both Sheikh Nasser Al Sabah and Sheikha Hussa believe in sharing their collection with Kuwait and the rest of the world. And one way they have done it is by forming Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyah, an organization doing path-breaking work, much-needed work in building bridges in a fractured world – How has the DAI evolved and grown?
Salam Kaoukji: We now organise more exhibitions that tour the world, and are involved in an extensive program of publications centering around the collection. We maintained our lecture series delivered by renowned international scholars who study the collection during their visit and run educational activities for children and concerts of world and local music as well as arthouse films.
AT: What is happening with the collection at present?
Salam Kaoukji: We expect to install it soon in the National Museum complex. Meanwhile we continue with our exhibition and publication programs.