Vastavam web: Kuwaiti sculptor Sami Mohammed finished his towering statue of the country’s first emir over four decades ago, but now it just gathers dust unseen in a long-shuttered office block. Stymied by a conservative view of Islam that bans representations of the body, the 75-year-old faces any artist’s nightmare: he can’t get his work displayed to the public in his homeland.
Like other sculptors in the Gulf state he bristles at claims that his creations constitute idol worship and urges the authorities to push back against demands he sees as outmoded. Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam bans idol worship, but some Muslims go further and forbid any representation of the human form. While there is no law in Kuwait that explicitly prohibits the display of sculptures or statues in public places, the Gulf emirate is home to an influential circle of conservatives that has pushed to lock them up.
Kuwait’s Museum of Modern Art is a prime target. It opened in 2003 and boasts multiple statues of people by Kuwaiti artists in its collection. Artist Badr Fadel Alemdar, 42, is convinced he knows the reason sculptures are being hidden. He says “fear” among officials of clashing with conservatives prevents his work from seeing the light of day. “The working environment for us is uncomfortable because some see the art of sculpting as blasphemy, especially if it is statues of famous people,” he said, adding that he has been attacked in the past over his creations.
The passions over the issue were highlighted recently by disagreements among Kuwaiti lawmakers. In September legislator Mohammed Hayef al-Mutairi called on the government to stop local artists from making statues, arguing that they had “paved the way for the establishment of temples” in the Gulf, referring to non-Muslim places of worship.
“I want to know how long this backward mindset can continue,” Fadel said in a video posted online. “This is a country of freedoms ruled by law 1,400 years later (after the emergence of Islam), you’re still talking about idols? What you should do is find a cave and stay there.” Arguments over the representation of the human form in the Muslim world are by no means limited to Kuwait. At the most extreme end the jihadists of the Islamic State group have smashed up and pillaged artworks they deemed sacrilegious across Iraq and Syria. In 2013, French football legend Zinedine Zidane found himself unwittingly at the heart of a dispute in the Gulf state of Qatar. Many people insisted it was a violation of Islam, and the statue was removed.
Elsewhere though there have been signs of greater acceptance. In the capital of fellow Gulf nation the United Arab Emirates, visitors can marvel at priceless sculptures in the Louvre Abu Dhabi which opened last year. And even ultra-conservative regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia in September launched an exhibition of Chinese art that included the famed terracotta warriors. For Bader al-Daweesh, an official at Kuwait’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Literature, these steps means there are reasons to be positive about the potential for change in his country.