!nspire: Farah Al Sabah… Art is Force of Change

It was February 2011 when I decided I want to take drawing course, asked a friend who is an artist for recommendations and she immediately said “Are you kidding me? Of course Bayt Lothan!”. Not that I didn’t think of it but was surprised that Bayt Lothan is considered the standing-still best option for art courses. For two months, every time I walk in to go to my class I loved the energy the place held, there were young people rehearsing a dance for performance, others were at drama class preparing for a play, musicians and photographers all gathered under one space to practice their creativity.

Bayt Lothan, is an Arabic word literal meaning is (house of shelter). Let’s not stop at literal translations because it never gives the genuine meaning, Bayt Lothan is House of Embracement; a place that embraces creativity and revives Kuwaiti culture. Many people think it was established sometimes in the 1970s when Kuwait was at it peck and a pioneer in regional art scene. But Bayt Lothan was founded after the Liberation by Sheikha Amal Sabah Al Salem Al Sabah, who understood the importance role of culture and saw it as a solution for a torn society after the Iraqi Invasion 1990.

“She believed what Kuwait needed the most at that point is to be saved and served through art” Director of Bayt Lothan and daughter of Sheikha Amal Al Sabah, Sheikha Farah Fawaz Al Sabah told me as we were talking about the house, its role to engage community with crafts and art through musicals, concerts, visual art exhibitions, in addition to the workshops & classes. Speaking to me in the backyard of Bayt Lothan, Al Sabah shares the story of this land, how it always played a role in education and for Kuwaiti and the Gulf Countries, why it is still a landmark in culture since it was established and why it is sustainable.

Farah Al Sabah, a mother of three, who studied Business Administration; yet took all her electives history and physics “I read History for fun” She remarked. Before working in Bayt Lothan which she never saw herself in, she had a successful career in Retail Banking at Al Ahli Bank of Kuwait…

 

If you never saw or planned to work in Bayt Lothan how did you end up here?!

Farah Al Sabah: It was a coincidence! It was not even in my future-imagination to be part of Bayt Lothan. I used to help the gift shop (Dukan) as a buyer and I kept on imposing or proposing new things to acquire and sell in Dukan, I guess it is in my blood to constantly want to change everything, therefore my mother challenged me to take over and see what I can do… I took the bet and here I am now.

The inside – out beautiful young woman never forgot to give credits to people who stand by Bayt Lothan because “they believe in what it represents and the beauty of it” as she confirmed.

“I learnt at a young age to love and appreciate art… As a child, my mother used to force my siblings and I to see museums and historical sights, to us as kids is was a torture & punishment because we can’t play or make a sound in museums!” she continues “But it taught me a lot about art, history architecture & art history which I didn’t study… You see when are exposed to art and culture you learn not only to understand it but also appreciate this aspect of beauty, and realize how powerful it is in terms of changing the society.”

 

For All Innovative Projects

 

Al Mahha Art: Many people mistaken what Bayt Lothan is and stands for… Can you tell us what is Bayt Lothan?

 Farah Al Sabah: Bayt Lothan is a nonprofit art initiative founded in 1993… My mother had the idea to create an environment for people to learn arts and crafts, specially crafts as that’s what she loves the most in Kuwait which was unfortunately forgotten, a place to revive heritage and culture and preserve it, a place where creative people not only learn but actually make a living out of it by excelling in it.

This house is proper incubator; you come in, practice a hobby or start learning to be an artist or craftsman later on, instead of going to government and work in 8 hours of routine wasting your talent instead of nourishing it.

When it comes to our workshops and courses, many instructors and trainers from all over the world take part in educating our participants and guarantee they get the best of it, make it a great experience as we later on curate and exhibit their final production, whether it is a painting, musical or theater.

There are many established artists who started from Bayt Lothan and their works were exhibited and sold in Dukan or became benchmark in cultural scene in Kuwait. For example Dr. Sulaiman Al Dekan who created the music program with my mother for Bayt Lothan back in the 1990s and today he is one of the most prominent music composers in the region.

Bayt Lothan doesn’t only house, promote and support visual art and crafts but also all innovative project, such as Cinemagic, LoYac, Localtee and many other businesses that started here and grew to became successful entrepreneurs.

Recently we endorsed Q8 Bookshop, a fantastic initiative that sells wide collection of books and provide a space for book lovers to meet and network, and we collaborate with them in events, it is great added value to Bay Lothan and we are looking into possibilities to expand it.

 

Al Mahha Art: What about the kids, how is Bayt Lothan contributing and engaging with children’s education?

 Farah Al Sabah: Children are the muse of Bayt Lothan and cultural education for younger generation is the core. We have art, music, drama & crafts classes starting from five years old. But to its never enough to me, our biggest challenge is to have courses for ages younger than five and we have it on mind and we need to put it together and think innovatively out of the box. This house has always played a role in education, as you know it was the house of late Sheikh Sabah Al Salem – Ruler of Kuwait (1963 – 1976) – and after the family moved from the house it became a school in 1960s. Today Bayt Lothan is granting a vivid type of education and will always remain a major player in Kuwait’s cultural scene.

Al Mahha Art: Is it always a major player only in Kuwait, as you mentioned many international and regional instructors give courses and workshops here…

 Farah Al Sabah: Honestly no! Bayt Lothan is the first nonprofit entity in the Gulf Countries. There are many Women Society from Kingdom of Saudi, Bahrain who visited Bayt Lothan, engaged with it and went back to apply the concept of turning a heritage sight into a cultural incubator and hub. Bayt Lothan is definatly an inspirational initiative locally and regionally.

 

A Solution for Society

 

 

Al Mahha Art: I always thought Bayt Lothan was established before 1990s, why was is founded in 1993?

 Farah Al Sabah: After Iraqi Invasion on Kuwait in August 1990 and Liberation in February 1991 the nation was trying to stand on its feet again, at that point my mother believed what Kuwait needed the most is to be saved and served through art… But you have to understand that my family are into art for a long time, I have to give credit to my aunt Hessa Sabah Al Salem who is Director of Dar Al Athar Al Islamiya because she helped my mother turning the idea into reality. I also have to give credit to my uncles & aunts who approved to give this 4000 square meter land to turn it into something that supports culture and serves community right after the invasion, instead of demolishing this historical spot like other buildings and hubs that were part of this country… It’s highly appreciated for them to do so.

I consider it a noble gesture as many people benefited from it including myself! To be in an environment like this, I feel lucky to be surrounded by talents all day long, which challenges me to require excellency when we work on a project or event. It also helps me in facing berogracy of society.

 

 

A Dynamic Machine

 

Al Mahha Art: You told me that live music and concerts started in Bayt Lothan, how so?!

 Farah Al Sabah: Well there were Hala February concerts and now suspended for second year, but have you heard of young live bands playing regularly in Kuwait different kind of music from jazz to orchestra? It all started here in Bayt Lothan. I’ll tell you a story when I first became Director of Bayt Lothan in 2009, a man came up to me who hold PHD in music and asked if he can hold a concert in this house where he played in 10 years ago, I excitedly said “Of course! What do you need?” It was the first concert I curate, despite of the tight budget we were all excited and happy to make it happen and we did it! I remember when he was playing in the concert his eyes were teary, and when it was over he thanked me and shocked me when he said he was trying to hold a concert for two years “although I work in Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts”. My jaw dropped and promised myself to revive the musical scene and activities and have a concert at least every three months and we did!

At first, our concerts were dedicated to our trainees; it expanded to jazz, rock, house and even traditional Kuwaiti music.  We have open house every Saturday for musicians to practice, network and form bands… It’s a very satisfying experience to see what it turns out to be today; every concert we host is a dynamic machine involves musicians, singers, sound engineers, art directors and more!

Al Mahha Art: What about visual art?!

 Farah Al Sabah: We try to provide a different feel and essence of audience’s experience and engagement with arts, you see when you go to galleries or museums you feel intimidated, so we try to make the opposite of that because we believe that art is not untouchable.

As I told you we have art courses and workshops, and recently we are becoming more active in hosting exhibitions for artists who are not trainees and curating exhibitions. We launched Kreate in 2012 that is an interactive collective exhibition for local artists and in its second edition last December we challenged the artists to create something through collaboration with each other.

We want to expand what we provide the art scene and community and have a program that includes art residency and exchange programs with regional and international initiatives.

 Al Mahha Art: Why can’t you do it now?!

 Farah Al Sabah: Because we have a tight budget, what Bayt Lothan makes from workshops and courses are to cover administration costs. Mind that all our prices are set to be reasonable and affordable to make it accessible for everyone in the society, we raised the prices once since Bayt Lothan was founded. On the other hand we host events and exhibitions to raise funds but not everyone want to sponsor concerts or musicals that’s why we sometimes fund it ourselves.

Al Mahha Art: Why you think so?!

Farah Al Sabah: Before I was told it was for political reasons, until a year ago. Well I have to give credit to the ones who always sponsor and support any concert we host: Mr. Dhirar el Ghanem, Mr. Faisal Al Mutawa, National Bank of Kuwait (NBK) just to name a few… They support concerts from jazz to traditional… I mean music has always been a vivid part of Kuwait’s history & culture, not only locally but also regionally, it is a different and beautiful side and who ever appreciate it is actually appreciating our culture.

Al Mahha Art: How are you willing to tackle sponsorship issue?

 Farah Al Sabah: “When we curate events and shows we give it our best; we have manpower, culture, and impressing talents that deserve biggest support, a support in the size of creativity we have in Kuwait. Both private & public have to play bigger role in promoting the art scene and its activities not only locally but take it to regional and international level! Let’s put Kuwait back to the pioneer position in culture.

 

 

Collaboration is Key

Al Mahha Art: What do you think about current Art Scene in Kuwait?

 Farah Al Sabah: If you want to make change you make it through art! I believe it is the most powerful medium, the only outlet; it can be critical and safe at the same time, and provokes people to think, scandalize, and the most successful is debate. I am very happy with the amount of interest in art during the past 6 years and how the local art scene is changing and evolving, also how cultural hubs are playing better role in it.

I am optimistic when it comes to our art scene, even when I’m very infuriated, someone shows up and surprise me with his / her talent and commitment, willingness to work, accept criticism & learn! Artists like that is the reason behind my optimism.

Al Mahha Art: You mentioned criticism, the hardest thing to digest by artists and some take it personal, as a Director of a nonprofit cultural incubator which is constantly approached by artist, you must have played the role of critic…

Farah Al Sabah: If someone accepts criticism it’s a sign he or she is a successful person. You get a lot of artists who feel they are on top of their game unfortunately, who for example if you ask them to reconsider their pricing, they dismiss it & take it personal, because they sell out at unbelievable prices in other exhibitions at thousands of Kuwaiti Dinars; and who owned their piece?! Family & Friends! How sustainable is that?

The way we view things here are a bit skewed, there are people who don’t care much about prices but about creation, you appreciating their work and the fact that you love it enough to acquire and hang it… This is priceless to them! As I told you those are the people that make me happy especially in an environment like this where it is not commercial and people work here for the love of what they are doing and innovation.

 

Al Mahha Art: There is a sense of solo initiatives & movements to revive Kuwait’s art scene; artists different lobbies, galleries, conferences… etc. Yes it is reviving the art scene but how sustainable is it?

 Farah Al Sabah: You have touched a very important topic here! I strongly believe that people can make a different! Many ask me why I’m stressed and want to change the world I tell them because we can! As humans we are capable of changing things… Let me say it in different way, if you have an idea or principle you have two choices; either keep it a secret, or be empowered by it so you die to make it happen and give it all to see it transform into real.

It is not sustainable if what is happening in Kuwait art scene is based on solo initiatives, because collaboration is a key. Ideas grow and develop from a dual or multi interaction, brainstorming and inspiration. So we, as cultural communities & players – galleries, museums, nonprofits, patrons, curators – must highlight that! Why are we on different islands? Collaborations serve the community and later on the nation. And our biggest challenge as main players in art scene is how to challenge the artist to make them create a beautiful yet relevant piece and at the same time allow the society communicate and interact with it.

 

Al Mahha Art: Some “players” as you described them are worried if they collaborate they’ll lose their independency…

 Farah Al Sabah: Because there is a problem in understanding the capability of culture and how it can it uplift & escalate the society. We have to admit that we have a problem! Personally, a lot of people don’t give credit to Bayt Lothan, and I enforce that in return of all services but still some don’t. It’s vital to give credit and too bad they don’t understand how important it is.

 

Al Mahha Art: Why you think they don’t understand?

 Farah Al Sabah: Because everything was given for free, in other words; we give unconditional support for talent, and some take it for granted and underestimate the role of Bayt Lothan and what it did to them.

 

Sustainable Army of Artist

 

Al Mahha Art: What is the ultimate goal of Bayt Lothan?

 Farah Al Sabah: To raise enough funds to support creative people! We want to create an army of artists; we want to show an artistic face of Kuwait because as I told you we have endless amount of creativity and talent here but most are underground or don’t have the right guide to direct and lead into right path. We want to expose our artists and let them get exposed to different cultures.

Our magic is the community, thus we are sustainable because we come from& for community. It is a cycle where we all engage, learn, communicate, inspire, motivate and improve.

 

 Cheers

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