ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Wealthy art collectors often spend millions of dollars on trophy pieces by European masters and then keep them hidden from view. Well, Sheikh Sultan Al Qassemi spends his fortune on living Arab artists, and he shows them to everyone. As part of our series Muslim Artists Now, NPR's Elizabeth Blair introduces us to this art collector on a mission.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Sheikh Sultan Al Qassemi is a bit of a paradox. Even though he's a member of an Arab royal family, he shows up at NPR's New York bureau by himself, casually dressed.
SHEIKH SULTAN SOOUD AL QASSEMI: Here.
BLAIR: He gets on his art foundation's website.
AL QASSEMI: So you can just browse. These are from all over the Arab world - Syrian, Iraqi, Kuwaiti.
BLAIR: Al Qassemi is also a media personality. He's been interviewed about the Middle East on Bloomberg TV and CNN and written columns for The New York Times. During the Arab Spring, he tweeted constantly, translating Arabic speeches and reports into English. Time Magazine wrote, to the extent that the revolution was tweeted, much of it came through the feed of Sultan Al Qassemi.
When it comes to his art collection, he's got an almost activist sensibility.
AL QASSEMI: I don't buy artworks that I think are pretty and aesthetically appealing, but I buy art that is politically meaningful.
BLAIR: One of the works in his collection is a porcelain sculpture by the Palestinian-British artist Mona Hatoum called Witness. Al Qassemi says it's a miniature replica of a famous statue in downtown Beirut that is riddled with bullet holes from the long Lebanese civil war.
AL QASSEMI: And Mona Hatoum created this work wanting to capture forever the destruction that this civil war had on the arts and culture, but also on the psyche of the Lebanese.
BLAIR: Hatoum's piece is now on display at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto as part of an entire show of works from Al Qassemi's collection. Another work he owns is a haunting black-and-white video installation by Iraqi artist Adel Abidin. It's a kind of magic realism in which Abidin uses cows as a metaphor for human suffering during the American invasion of Iraq in 1991.
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BLAIR: A bridge in Baghdad has been bombed, separating a cow from the rest of its herd. At one point, the cow takes a running leap at the bridge and tries to jump to the other side but doesn't make it.
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BLAIR: Abidin, who was a teenager in Baghdad in 1991, says he came up with the idea of a cow risking its life to cross the bridge to communicate human social need.
ADEL ABIDIN: That we always need to be with others, you know? It's - we are not, like - we don't function alone.
BLAIR: Arab artists like Abidin need a patron like Sultan Al Qassemi, says Nada Shabout, director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Institute at the University of North Texas. She says so much of the Arab world is in flames, and these artists need to get their messages out.
NADA SHABOUT: He's been a very generous collector in terms of opening up his collection to graduate students, to scholars. So we can, in fact, engage and write these different narratives.
BLAIR: Artist Adel Abidin says Al Qassemi does his homework.
ABIDIN: I don't think he aims for the easy stuff, you know? He's a good researcher, actually. He really does - he digs out for information. It's not like what he hears, he says, you know? He has to check it out.
BLAIR: And he wants other people to check it out, too. In addition to Toronto, there's another show from Al Qassemi's collection in London. Nada Shabout says it helps that Al Qassemi's both rich and a member of one of the ruling families of the United Arab Emirates. But she says you'd never learn that from him.
SHABOUT: He never really puts himself in the family. And it's rarely that you would find an article where he is referred to as sheikh, which, you know, is the equivalent of emir, prince. So he likes to sort of think of himself as an ordinary man, even though we know he's not, so (laughter)...
BLAIR: Class aside, Al Qassemi says the works in his collection are emotional responses to difficult issues. He believes they help counter the brutal images of destroyed neighborhoods and beheadings so prevalent in the news.
AL QASSEMI: We are taking the narrative away from these extremists. We are building bridges of communications with the Western world and the Eastern world. And I think that art is a global language, much like music, and that people would identify with artwork even if they don't understand the history of the Middle East. So it's very, very important.
BLAIR: Making it possible for these Arab artists to keep working and for the rest of the world to learn their stories is, for Sultan Al Qassemi, what being an art collector is all about. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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