By: Moniza Khokhar
Aisha Stoby, 23, is young, but her knowledge about the art scene in the Middle East is vast. As an Omani art historian, raised in New York City, Aisha’s perspective is fresh and innovative. She’s currently working on developing her love for art into online ventures covering the amazing art scene across the region. We got a chance to speak to her.
Elan: Can you tell us a little bit about your professional background?
Aisha Stoby: I am an Omani art historian and an independent curator. I graduated from the University of London, SOAS, specializing in Middle Eastern Art from antiquity to contemporary. I work with artists and organize exhibitions for them. I interned and cataloged for Sotheby’s Middle East in London, I later interned at the Guggenheim in New York and at MoMA in New York; and worked for Bait Muzna Gallery in Oman and at the Park Gallery in London.
I’ve worked on a wide range of projects in Oman. I contributed as an Omani Art Historian for the Tate Exhibition, ‘The Nature of Seeing’ held in Oman in 2010. I was also creative director of Omani Women 2010, the first youth based women’s campaign in the region under Oman’s Ministry of Social development.
In my role as creative director for Omani Women 2010, I had the great privilege of working with our board to create Al Fen Yettahedeth (Art Speaks) a scholarship program for women from all over Oman to come to the capital, Muscat. 20 girls were put up at a hotel, and taught a range of different art techniques at the Oman Fine Arts Society by leading Omani artists such as Hassan Meer and Anwar Sonja, as well as leading figures from abroad like Nja Mahdoui. They were also lectured by professors from Sultan Qaboos University and by gallery directors from all the major spaces in Oman. At the end of the program the students were given an exhibition at the Fine Arts Society.
Elan: How did you become interested in the arts?
AS: My parents say that they discovered that I was interested in art at the age of six. We had visited Amsterdam and, while there, they took me one day to the Van Gogh Museum. They relate that I became transfixed by a large landscape of a wheat field, which was then near the entrance. Although I don’t remember this incident it is a good story that I never deny.
Growing up in New York my friends and I used to haunt the galleries particularly the ones downtown in Soho. Later I took Art at the upper level for my International Baccalaureate, which led naturally and inevitably to my studying Art History at university. I should add that I quickly came to realize that an interest in painting did not automatically transcribe into actually knowing how to paint but I have been content to try and become a person who knows what art is about.
Elan: As you look at the art scene in the Middle East, what do you see? And who are some artists we should keep an eye on?
AS: I see great promise. It’s such an exciting time and there are so many projects being developed, extraordinary institutions have been built, historians are working to trace a history of art for the region, and of course it’s a joy to watch artists emerge from this movement. There is an overwhelming amount of talent coming from the Middle East, artists from Oman who you should definitely keep an eye on include the revolutionary Hassan Meer and Radhika Khimji.
Elan: You’re working on a project right now, nahdatoman.com. Can you tell us about it?
AS: I founded www.nahdhatoman.com in 2008. Nahdat Oman means ‘Renaissance Oman’, and the goal of the website was to chronicle the arts in Oman since our ‘Renaissance’ when HM Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970. The website started as a blog titled ‘the Arts in Oman’, reporting on all art and culture related events in Oman. It now has expanded to include write-ups on all the exhibition spaces, artist profiles, and most importantly for me, virtual exhibitions from Oman. The virtual exhibitions are able to transport viewers who may otherwise not be able to visit these exhibitions, these viewers may be international audiences, or Omani art enthusiasts from outside the capital, Muscat.
Following the success of Nahdat Oman I am now launching www.middleeastartnow.com in spring of this year, an online arts publication for the region. Middle East Art Now will produce issues every two months with a series of virtual exhibitions, and will publish blogs similar to ‘The Arts in Oman’ for countries throughout the greater Middle East (‘The Arts in Egypt’, ‘The Arts in Syria’, ‘The Arts in the UAE’, etc).
Elan: What are some challenges you’ve had to overcome?
AS: I’ve tried as much as possible to fill in gaps wherever possible. It was fabulous to be involved in the Tate project, as they wanted someone from Oman to give a regional perspective on a British paintings exhibition. Similarly, AlFenYettahedeth was an attempt to create a project to counter the lack of professional art training.
Elan: If there is one thing you’d like to suggest to someone who is interested in curating, what would you tell them?
AS: Don’t talk down to or underestimate your audience. I’ve observed such keen responses to video or installation art from audiences who have never been exposed to any experimental art forms before. If you don’t attempt to present works for fear they won’t be understood, there will never be anything for audiences to understand. I believe in elevating the level of public knowledge, rather than dumbing things down.