On April 24, public access to art in Saudi Arabia changed forever. The Basma Alsulaiman Museum of Contemporary Art (BASMOCA) opened its doors at a launch in Jeddah. The museum, containing Alsulaiman’s private collection, existed first as an idea, then as a virtual museum with its “doors” being the web-portal to a virtual museum open to anyone, anywhere. The title of the first exhibition, “Breaking Barriers,” reflects the elimination of the physical need or the constraints of time and geography for visitors to the collection.
“For the average collector, when their collection gets to a certain point, they would like to have it featured somewhere in a museum, as it has always been the case with notable collectors,” Alsulaiman explained.
Arriving at that point, she wanted to share her collection primarily with her people and country first. However, logistical considerations building a physical museum made that too difficult, so rather than exhibiting in Bahrain, Dubai or Qatar, she decided to start something that is accessible to everyone in the Kingdom and around the world.
If it would not be a physical museum, it would have to be a virtual one. This route overcame the physical difficulties and both the boundaries of culture and distance. In the beginning, being globally accessible to people with just one click of the mouse seemed to be an impossible dream.
However, once introduced to virtual technology, Alsulaiman saw its potential for the museum at once. “In the beginning it was gibberish to me but by working with it and experimenting over 20 months, I got the hang of it,” she said. Her primary concern in building a museum of any sort to house her collection was accessibility and access through, and the Internet provided a useful answer.
BASMOCA is not simply a website as Alsulaiman explained.
“The big difference between a 2D website and a 3D ‘museum’ is that you have to reconstruct the pieces rather than simply put in an image. In a physical museum, everything has dimensions, and in our virtual museum, the paintings on canvas and the texture of the artworks have a physical presence.”
The virtual museum, based on a desert island reminiscent of Jeddah, and with its modern Arabesque design, incorporating Arabic themes and wood and natural textures, housed Alsulaiman’s collection hung or placed on walls and floors.
Adding to the visit experience, visitors adopt an avatar with an identity. This allows virtual groups to form, see exhibits together and exchange views and critiques in a real life setting, regardless of age, gender, ethnic, cultural or socio-economic identities. Each room in the museum has both a name and theme together with comprehensive information on the exhibits.
“BASMOCA is virtual but with a true-life experience derived from the fact that the collection is real,” Alsulaiman wrote in her introduction to the museum. “It is an entirely interactive experience, quite different from looking at photographs of the work. And, you can explore the world of BASMOCA in the knowledge that everything you see exists in concrete form, as part of an ever-expanding collection.”
Alsulaiman has been a collector since childhood and is intensely proud of her origins in Qassim province and supportive of the role she feels Saudi women should play in society and the country’s cultural life. She wanted to prove to the world that “we are no different from anybody else in that we have a cultural vision and a progressive society, and there is no difference in education between a man and a woman. We have a respect for our tradition and it has never stopped us from doing anything.”
She developed her theme: “same in that we are people and as a society have a cultural vision but different in the content of the very real and vibrant culture. Simply look at the poetry, stories and calligraphy to behold that,” she said.
Saudi Arabia has a strong cultural tradition in verbal art forms but plastic art is relatively new to the region. There is no formal art college and art is not taught in schools, so most artists in the Kingdom are self-taught.
“Art in practice in Saudi Arabia comes from personal initiatives and instinct,” noted Alsulaiman. Through sponsorship, increasing numbers of artists are traveling abroad to study and develop the rich cultural sources and the ready supply of talent in the Kingdom.
While the opening show is Alsulaiman’s private collection, she is set on developing the project on several tracks including the development and exposure to a world audience of Saudi artists, ‘virtual’ collections borrowed from major museums and invitational collections from private collectors — all for the sake of expanding the art world and promoting cultural vision on a global scale. By making a museum easily accessible from your own home, Alsulaiman supports the promotion of Saudi artists worldwide and international artists in Saudi Arabia.
Many of the exhibitions will be curated and all will have full catalog descriptions and information. In the foreseeable future, there will be an average of three or four exhibitions a year.
Key questions have to be: why bother with this and what is the function of art?
“It’s an accessory for some and a luxury for others, but for me, it has a deeper meaning. It is a facet of what it means to be a human being and a reflection of the artist. When you look at an artwork you can see different people other than the artist and forms of the art other than the one in front of you.”
It might not be necessary to understand a piece of art, however, “you have to react to it somehow – feel comfortable, like it or be dissatisfied with it. It generates passion and this drives the collector.” Art is something that moves the beholders in a way they do not necessarily understand.
“And, it does this in different ways with different people. This explains why there is so much variety in artwork, installations, video, photography, performance and more and a much bigger platform than previously.”
The increased variety makes it much more accessible and affordable to the average person.
“The virtual museum makes art even more accessible by bringing the museum to the people rather than the people to the museum, and the fact that it is a non-profit, non-commercial educational project makes it easier for everyone to learn and expand their horizons.”