Identity, mobility and visibility of collections in the Gulf by Khalid Abdulla

There are many ways to consider collections, one might look at them historically, or even from a psychoanalytical perspective. This paper considers the visibility and mobility of collections from a contemporary societal context, focusing on collections circulating through the Gulf and in particular the UAE. There are many interconnected and converging aspects that make this study interesting at this particular moment in time; the rapid development of large scale international museum projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the very understudied history of collecting in the region, and the rapid development of an international art market. However, most importantly is the very unique and novel way all these aspects have come together in a region that is witnessing a moment of globalized cultural thirst. The lens appropriated in viewing these considerations can be best summarized by quoting the title of Arjun Appadurai’s anthology “The Social Life of Things…” (Appadurai, 1988) as objects hold value and meaning only through the very human psychological, social, economic, and political mechanisms.

Before looking at broader social aspects we should begin by looking at the underlying, foundational motive to collect, that calls for a psychoanalytical analysis. One such hypothesis, views the infantile bonds to objects as a transitional replacement to negate the trauma of childhood separation from the mother (Winnicott, 2001). Objects are perceived in a special realm where they are not recognized as a part of the external world yet also not considered a part of the infants body. They provide a perceived support which is purely illusionary and relies on their experience and relationship with the object.  We may extrapolate this infantile experience to the adult behavioral acquisition of objects, through this process the object becomes a part of the collectors personal narrative and identity. We can use this analysis to understand various collecting strategies, for example when the Emirati collector Zaki Nussaibah, whose collection can be summarized as a collection of modern and contemporary Arab art, explains his collecting strategy, it is quite personal or even emotional, he describes it as a desire for ‘something that relates to me, that I respond to, and something that I want to see.’.

The collector forms a personal narrative attachment to their objects and sharing this collection becomes a part of sharing their personal narratives which might be expressed in various different ways, but in essence the collector and the collection are almost one and the same. The mobility and visibility of private collections can be viewed from within this light, objects gain a layer of the personal and social narrative. I believe this personal relationship to objects is an integral part of the objects identity through which we can understand how collections are endued and enriched with narrative qualities, and how this is both dependent on the way the object is used and perceived. This is definitely understood in a social manner even by the art market where the provenance of the object is very important in valuating the object economically and deeply attached to the narrative of an object. In essence collecting can be understood as a continuous effort to try to define and understand oneself from the external world. A collection is both a part of oneself and external - it is a yearning and fixation.

Evolutionary theorists would like to laud our innate human desire to communicate, and highly sophisticated ability to do so. It is what draws us apart as a species, and a cornerstone of what allows us to create civilization. Semioticians have been quick to comment on the social significance of objects, Hilde Hein explains that ‘to exist as an object is to be represented before an actual or potential consciousness’  – for otherwise they are devout of any purpose. The example of the cabinet of Ferrante Imperato would be explained by semiotics, which treats ‘objects… as units of meaning… whose existence is… experiencable only as a social event’.

The permanence of objects on display in many galleries in the UAE doesn’t proclaim the same sway as it does in the more traditional museum institution of the West. This can be seen in the case of the Louvre Abu Dhabi project, where the permanent galleries will be continuously evolving, fed by rotating annual loans from French national museums. The Sharjah Museums Department seems to have benefited largely from this model of temporary exhibitions. They have highly adapted to the use especially of co-organised exhibitions. An example of this is the Lure of the East exhibition, which came to the museum in 2009 - it is the last major exhibition to survey Orientalism since in 1984.

This transitory mobile or non-permanent identity can be seen in one of the oldest collections in the Gulf, that of Adel Al Mandil. The collection is now managed under the Kinda Foundation. The collection is currently based in Saudi Arabia, and the Kinda Foundation, which ‘has no physical structure’ helps to ‘share [the] collection with established institutions’ worldwide - a very interesting case of a Foundation being set up primarily to facilitate the mobility of a private collection

In 2002 the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris organized an exhibition dedicated to the Kinda collection titled A Look on Arab Contemporary Art: The Collection of the Kinda Foundation. The exhibition displayed about 70 masterpieces from the collection (which has more than 1,000 pieces). According to Sultan Al Qassimi this might be one of the first large scale loans from a private collector in the Gulf.

Private collectors in the UAE for example have played an instrumental role from the founding days. For example the Dubai based businessman and Mahdi Al-Tajir, helped organize the 1976 World of Islam Festival which accumulated 6,000 objects from 250 public and private collections.

The region’s colonial past, and turmoil political situation has caused it to inherit an ongoing situation of diaspora. An example of this being the Iranian revolution of 1979, which saw many Iranians leave the country. As such a great many of them came to Dubai, and by current estimations the size of the Iranian community in Dubai is close to a third of its 1.3 million population, coming in at just under half a million. This diaspora has proven to be a catalyst for collection mobility given patrons and public with origins in the region hungry to consume narratives about it. There is a good case for ‘supply and demand’ across the globe for narratives and collections of the region due to the diaspora.

Emily Doherty’s essay on collecting practices in the United Arab Emirates relates the act of collection in the region to a loss of identity brought forward by the massive social economic changes and rapid development (Doherty, 2016). This has also been openly discussed in the country, for example during the 2010 conference hosted by NYUAD Dr Kavita Singh discusses the museum context of the UAE in terms of nation building with emphasis on a post-colonial context. She identifies the museum projects as a way of asserting identity. Although the more conventional and publicly identified message associated with the nurturing of cultural assists in the UAE is to link it to its role in economic and civil activity.

The countries of the Gulf region over the past decade have become more familiar with the subtle importance of soft power. In their efforts to spread their muscle and voice in todays globalized and competitive world the Gulf countries and especially UAE and Qatar have become very comfortable with using ‘soft power’ quite effectively and sometimes even very conspicuously.

There is an exponentially expanding base of private collectors in the UAE, since the mid 20th century to the first decades of the 21st century there were only a handful of important collectors who have propped up the market. However and only in the past decade there has emerged a significant number of new young collectors.

Belonging and non-belonging, nationhood and identity, is created by setting up notions of them and us. In this light objects function as cultural ambassadors, endowed with the poetics of a particular discourse. Looking at this practically, when we talk about the region we find a multitude of labels, each endowed with discourses of different groups of people; for example, one could talk of the Gulf, being Arab, Emirati identity, the MENESA, the Middle East, any one of these descriptions are attached to objects interchangeably depending on the required narrative. Like persons, objects have a social life, defining who they are in relation to others and can be transformed by their experiences.


Khalid Abdulla is a curator and researcher based in Dubai. He worked as a researcher in the collections department of DCT (Department of Culture and Tourism) in Abu Dhabi during the development of the Saadiyat Cultural District Museum Collections. He later joined the Louvre Abu Dhabi as an assistant curator. And currently working as an independent curator and continuing his research on collecting within the region.

This essay is based on the author’s unpublished research on collection mobility in the Gulf. If you would like to know more you can reach him via email:


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