Forts and castles are an integral part of the Omani landscape and culture and it would not come as a surprise that they become sources of inspiration for artists living there. In the case of acclaimed artists, Sarah White and Juma al Harthy, the Jabreen Castle is the one that happened to become their muse, so to speak.
In their recently opened exhibition In Homage to Jabreen at The Art Gallery, Shangri La Barr al Jissa Resort and Spa, Muscat, the two artists presented their artistic interpretations, impressions, and responses to the castle through their mixed media semi-abstract works. In fact, both artists have been producing artworks about this iconic monument for the last two decades.
Situated in Oman’s interior region, Jabreen Castle was built in the 17th century by Imam Bil’ Arab bin Sultan bin Saif of the Al Ya’rubi dynasty; it was an important seat of learning, where Islamic studies, Arabic, history, medicine, arts, and astronomy were taught. Jabreen Castle is also valued for its aesthetic components, in particular its high vaulted rooms inset with niches, arches, courtyards, and painting ceilings that feature calligraphic and floral decoration.
Sarah White’s characteristic layering, strongly impressionistic images, and brilliant, solid bursts of color imbued the majority of her works. Here, it appears that the artist re-presents the Jabreen Castle to the viewers through her richly kaleidoscopic perspective, turning it into a radiant, iridescent, magical space. Each layer, each streak of color, and the sheen of gold and silver-leaf are representative of the artist’s unique engagement with the Jabreen castle, turning the paintings into personal narratives.
She encompasses the entire area of Jabreen in her work, from the surrounding oasis settlement to the fort’s architectural anatomy: ceilings, windows, arches, and grids. The works effectively contribute towards conveying the essential atmosphere of the place and space, allowing the viewers to physically situate themselves in Jabreen while simultaneously becoming privy to White’s interpretation of it.
Juma al Harthy’s paintings contain a distinctive Omani visual language. Many of his mixed media works incorporate bits of carved wood as found in traditional Omani heritage structures and nails and engravings adorning Omani doors, rendering the works as being immediately and vividly evocative of Oman. His laboriously detailed and authentically hued paintings of the floral-adorned ceilings in Jabreen Castle are both an ode to and documentation of the heritage ornamentation found in Omani forts and which reflect the essence of Omani architectural energies.
Both artists have exhibited internationally and together in group shows, yet this is the first time they have presented alongside each other. While the juxtaposition of their works naturally reveals their distinctive artistic articulations, it also provides insight into how a singular source of inspiration can produce singularly different artistic responses and meditations about it.
While providing the viewers the opportunity of immersing themselves in the artist’s distinct visions, the exhibition also interestingly lends context to the viewers' potential relationship with the Jabreen Castle space itself. Whether one has visited it or planning to do so, it re-defines their relationship with the Castle to a certain extent, the works subliminally shaping the viewers’ interpretations and perceptions of it.
In Homage to Jabreen will run until the 24th November at The Art Gallery, Al Bandar Hotel, Shangri La’s Bar al Jissa Resort and Spa, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman.
– Priyanka Sacheti