The special October edition of Men’s Passion looks at design in Kuwait and the region as we attempt to deliver a view on it’s current status within society and the role it will play in the future of the society. Whilst our Guest Editor has selected a number of leading figures from the region’s design world to illustrate this, with Sulayman Al Bassam we’re stepping outside the circle of those regarded as ‘obvious’ choices.
Sulayman, whose life is rooted in theatre, is here because he’s one of Kuwait’s most distinguished aesthetes. A writer and director, he’s the possessor of one of the most highly tuned and observant minds in the spheres of the arts, society and design. With us he discussed design, contemporary trends, and looks forward to the rooting of a next generation of writers and architects.
What do you see as the primary role of design in Kuwait in the 21st century? Do you feel society is prepared and willing to let this role be allowed to fulfill itself? I think Kuwaiti and other Gulf societies are in a kind of shock at what has been unleashed by the unmonitored and chaotic sprawl of their cities over the last thirty years. The cities of the Gulf are, by and large, disharmonious, blindly imitative of Western models and obsessed with eradication of the past and made ugly by cheap materials and finishing. Any design movement that can begin to correct this mutilation of civic and public space is, to my mind, most welcome!
Design, be it architecture, graphic or theatre and performance, has its trends. What are the current trends you see developing? For the most part, large infrastructure projects continue to lead by cheap reproductions of postmodern Western steel and glass design aesthetics. On the fringes, however, it’s encouraging to see younger generations developing more awareness of vernacular and local design traditions and the real environment of our countries.
How do you approach new productions? Although the written (and ultimately spoken) word lies at the heart of theatre, it is also a highly visual art. As you write, do you also visualize the final production? Writing for theatre and making the performance are quite distinct worlds for me. When I write I hear voices, music and poetry. The translation of these things into space comes much later, with the input of a creative team and actors. I’m working now on a film script and, in film, the relationship is much more weighted towards the visuals over dialogue or text.
We feel that your work measures a fine balance between words and presentation. An over-designed production and the value of your words may be swamped, yet a visual element is usually required to accentuate a performance. How do you work through this challenge? I work closely with the scenography, lighting, costume and music collaborators throughout pre-production, all the way up to the opening night. In theatre, light and space influence costume and music choices and vice versa. It’s about bringing the whole team into a combined composition process. Ultimately, the performance can only be as good as all its elements combined. I’ve been lucky enough to work with great teams of other artists!
How important to you, and to the success of your work, that you also direct plays that you have written? I enjoy directing my own work! I also enjoy directing the work of other writers, for example, Sa’adallah Wannous for the Comedie Francaise or Heiner Mueller and Torben Betts in Melting the Ice. The agendas and contexts of much of my work in the two thousands that addressed politics, religion and identity in the Arab region made it necessary for me to develop these pieces in a holistic kind of way, working as producer, writer, director. I’m now in a new phase of work where I find my choices as writer, on the one hand, and director, on the other, are becoming more segregated.
Do you see a new generation of writers and directors coming through with evolutionary thoughts? Whose work currently excites you? I regularly have the pleasure of working with regional grant giving organizations in the field of arts and performance, like AFAC and Mawred. I can see a lot of explorative energy and creativity coming out of artists in Palestine, Lebanon and Tunisia as well as from the Arab diasporas in Europe. The situation in the Gulf countries and other parts of the Arab world remains in need of lots of development.
For hundreds of years, the region had a clear design style. It reflected the world in which we lived. Do you see a Middle Eastern design identity emerging? Or is the region too consumed with its attempt to be part of a global concept of design? Architects like Ghazi Sultan in Kuwait, Hassan Fathi in Egypt and Rifat Chadirji in Iraq made important steps in the use of modernism and tradition. The region needs a new crop of these types of visionaries able to create magic out of the local and make valuable contribution to the global narratives of architecture and design.