By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - After two lackluster decades, Kuwait is experiencing a quiet revival of an arts scene once known as the most avant garde in the Gulf, thanks to a new generation eager to tackle sensitive issues using cutting-edge art forms.
The artists have been exhibiting works in the graphic arts, photography, animation and fashion in private galleries but also bypassing traditional venues and arts groups - and possible censorship - by showing their work online to reach an audience beyond the 3.7 million people in Kuwait.
"They are creating an excellent buzz," said Lucy Topalian, who runs the Dar Al Funoon gallery in Kuwait which showcases contemporary art from around the world.
Young people in tailored trousers and elegant jackets packed her small gallery earlier this month to view Abdullah al-Saab's dark dresses, shirts and capes hanging from the ceiling in front of large black-and-white photographs.
The people in the photographs were blindfolded, some with labels such as "wife", "lover" or "friend". One depicted a man - the designer himself - bound with a thick rope, another a woman in a smart dress spilling coffee from a paper cup as a foreign maid kneeled on the floor to clear up the mess.
"I thought that some people would take it a little bit sensitively. The amazing thing is that they actually have an open mind and they can relate to it," said Saab, 27, on the opening night of the show, "Boundaries".
Art aficionados and experts say those like Saab in their 20s and 30s are helping to revive a cultural life damaged by indifference, religious conservatism and, possibly most importantly, the Iraqi invasion in 1990.
Kuwait has since rebuilt its badly damaged oil infrastructure and in recent years private companies have poured money into building skyscrapers, shopping malls and restaurants.
But many believe the arts have been neglected in a country where state spending on basic public infrastructure has slowed in recent years due to bureaucracy and political infighting, despite huge oil revenues.
They point out that elsewhere in the Gulf, governments have not only spent heavily on transport and transforming public spaces, but also invested in museums and art projects.
DESTRUCTION OF WAR
When Sheikha Paula al-Sabah came home after U.S.-led troops expelled Saddam Hussein's forces in 1991, she found her house had been wrecked and the walls stripped of Middle Eastern and Western art collected over decades. It took her several years before she could bear to collect again.
"We have to catch up on a lot of things, but obviously there were so many other things that were a priority when your whole infrastructure was destroyed," Sheika Paula, an American who married a member of Kuwait's royal family, told Reuters.
Other Gulf cities like Dubai and Doha pulled ahead in the international arts world in the period, but some connoisseurs say Kuwait still holds the edge thanks to its rich cultural history and relative openness.
"The rest of the Gulf hasn't caught up with where Kuwait was 50 years ago, not only politically but also culturally," said Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi, an influential UAE collector and commentator and founder of the Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation.
He cited Kuwaiti theatre, art exhibitions, commissions and patronage, television and radio drama as examples of creative innovation.
"However, today the art scene is in need of a long-overdue revival," he said, calling for national museums to be renovated and reopened.
Sheikha Paula agreed it was time for the country to improve its exhibition spaces, renovate museums and celebrate its comprehensive Islamic art collection.
She cited the opening of the Contemporary Art Platform gallery and annual auctions organized by her daughter Lulu as evidence of a new phase in Kuwait's cultural life.
"It is a moment whose time has come," the former New Yorker said. "These young collectors now are in their late 20s and 30s. So this is a whole new energy. This is a whole new way of looking at art."
That energy comes from challenging traditional ideas, said Wafaa al-Husaini, a 23-year-old design student at the American University of Kuwait who uses 3D animation and graphics to explore issues such as sectarianism and feminism.
She set up a feminist group called Neda, which is organized online and distributes posters of women doing things normally seen as culturally unacceptable for them such as riding a motorbike, fixing a car or smoking.
"I think it is the younger generation that is rebelling against the norms and boundaries," she said, dressed in a T-shirt she designed with the slogan "I am a man" in decorated Arabic script.
Kuwait enjoys greater political freedom and debate than the other countries in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and this feeds into an environment where artists can afford to take bigger risks, artists and art lovers said. Limits remain, however.
Graphic designer Mohammad Sharaf described his bemusement on reading news reports from neighboring Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed to drive, that women would no longer be stopped from bicycling in parks as long as they were accompanied by a male guardian.
"It was so silly, I did not expect it was true actually, when I saw (the news) the first time," Sharaf, 31, said in his office scattered with posters and art books in a shopping mall. "I illustrated the real scene according to what they described."
"Allowed" shows a Saudi woman on a bicycle with her guardian in a small basket behind her, staring out over the top of her head. The simple black, white and red image was used widely in Arab and Western media and reposted on hundreds of blogs and other Websites.
Sharaf has also produced work about his native Kuwait, such as a poster showing the parliament building made of bones or pieces about free speech, inspired in part by the explosion of democratic debate in North Africa and the Middle East sparked by the Arab Spring uprisings.
He says he has not faced any restrictions in Kuwait, but adds he keeps his works subtle and any criticism indirect.
"I don't assign names, or something very certain; it's always vague. Actually it protects me, and from another aspect, each viewer can absorb it differently," he said.
Some more established artists have run into difficulties after pushing the boundaries. Shurooq Amin's "It's a Man's World" exhibition was shut down in 2012 in Kuwait after authorities said her paintings were "obscene".
A painting of a woman in a mini-dress sitting on a man's lap entitled "My Mistress and Family" and another showing three men playing cards and drinking what appeared to be contraband alcohol were deemed by authorities a step too far.
Yet in April this year she received an "Artist of the Year" prize at the Arab Woman Awards held in Kuwait, in what she sees as a sign of an improved appreciation of bold artwork.
Amin said it was important to quietly encourage young artists in a country where such a career can be especially difficult.
"It is not a big gigantic scream from the top of a mountain, it's a little whisper in someone's ear," she said.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)