The Brunei Gallery at 25

SOAS Campus

On the Brunei Gallery‘s twenty-fifth anniversary, John Hollingworth, Head of Galleries & Exhibitions at the Brunei, reflects on its history.

November 1995 was very different to November 2020 at SOAS with the campus a hive of activity buzzing with expectation and far more people than you could imagine being there this November, making all the last minute preparations for a new building to be inaugurated on the 22nd November by HRH The Princess Royal, as Chancellor of the University of London.

With continued growth in student and staff numbers, SOAS needed to secure additional space in the early 1990s. Opposite the School was an area on which had been a collection of ‘portacabins’ used as classrooms and a road running across the front of the main SOAS building. In acquiring this land, the School was able to pedestrianize the road and add a substantial new building, the Brunei Gallery building. This was the largest expansion of the SOAS campus and estate since the Phillips building and the then new SOAS Library 27 years earlier.  

Brunei Gallery building site
The portacabins site where the Brunei Gallery would be built.

Originally intended to be an Islamic art centre the decision was taken that the Galleries within the building should instead reflect the many diverse subjects and regions studied by the School, promoting a better understanding of the art, culture, history and contemporary contexts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The inaugural exhibition Empire of the Sultans – Ottoman art from the collection of Nasser D. Khalili opened in 1996 and since then the Galleries have gone on to present 190 [188 physically and two virtual] exhibitions to which we’ve welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors through the doors from around the globe to SOAS.

It’s very difficult to single out shows from the rich and varied catalogue of previous exhibitions shown as each of them have been important in their own right and included a collection of incredible artists, curators and individuals that have been worked with and some of the fantastic objects and artworks we’ve had the privilege of displaying in those exhibitions over the last 25 years. As well as celebrations of art, language, music, archaeology, culture and heritage there are also complex and important issue some of these exhibitions have addressed from politics and conflict to health and education and all their legacies.

Empire of the Sultans Exhibition, Brunei Gallery
Empire of the Sultans exhibition

To illustrate the breadth of exhibitions, regions and topics covered you could look at any year from the Galleries very beginning. 1998 is a good example in which four exhibitions ‘Rupa Malaysia: Contemporary Malaysian art from The National Gallery’, Kuala Lumpur; ‘Contemporary Israeli Art: Three Generations, Contemporary work from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’; ‘Arms & The Woman’ Photographs of the impact of war on women, by Jenny Mathews, on behalf of Oxfam and ‘Islamic Art & Patronage: An exhibition of Islamic art and artefacts from the Al-Sabah Collection’, Kuwait were all shown and reflect this variety. 

As the Galleries profile and standing grew over the years, so did the programme of exhibitions with accompanying events – and there has been some landmark exhibitions presented such as in 1999 ‘Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch 1785 – 1925’ which drew together for the first time the visual splendour of the arts of Iran’s Qajar dynasty from international public and private collections and was the only European venue for this grand exhibition. Two years later the exhibition ‘India Pioneering Photographers 1850-1900’ presented in partnership with the British Library surprisingly saw the first major exhibition in London of early photographs of India. Working in partnership with Asia House and the Wellcome Trust in 2004 the Gallery presented the first major exhibition about traditions of well-being in Asia. ASIA: BODY MIND SPIRIT that explored Asia’s holistic approach to medicine which advocates a balanced relationship of body, mind and spirit. 

Asia: Body, Mind, Spirit, at Brunei Gallery
Asia: Body, Mind and Spirit

In the same year two important exhibitions by Magnum Photographers were shown. ‘The African Photographs’ by George Rodger a founding member of the world famous Magnum Agency and on the 10th anniversary of free elections in South Africa ‘Living Apart’ an exhibition of photographs of South Africa by Ian Berry portraying life in a country where until relatively recently segregation had been institutionalized and regulated by the government.

“A searing indictment and an important record to counteract amnesia – for those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu on “Living Apart”, 12 February 1996, Cape Town

The following year the gallery presented an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, prints and installations from five southern African countries. Which was the first event of the Africa 2005 programme in London, ‘Transitions: Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Mozambique 1960-2004’

David Attenborough visits Brunei
David Attenborough visiting the Brunei Gallery

In 2008 there was the pioneering exhibition ‘Edge of Arabia’ which was the first ever comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Saudi art staged in the UK. In 2011 ‘The Golden Temple of Amritsar: Reflections of the Past’ was the first major exhibition on one of the world’s most beautiful and iconic buildings, one which is both the epicentre of the Sikh faith and a place of pilgrimage for followers of other traditions. It was also the first major Sikh exhibition since the V&A Museum’s 1999 ‘The Arts of the Sikh Kingdoms’. Following this in 2013 was the first exhibition of its kind to provide a visual narrative of the history of Zoroastrianism, its rich cultural heritage and the influence it has had on the major world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’.

In addition to these rather grand exhibitions there have been some more modest exhibitions that were the first of their kind to address subjects and issues that you would only find being presented at somewhere like SOAS where there is already a dialogue around difficult and internationally important topics. Such as in 2006 there was an interdisciplinary art installation ‘Face_WSLOT’ that explored the lives of three female ex-child combatants in post-war Sierra Leone and in 2008 the deeply personal and explosively colourful self-portraits of HIV-positive people from Kenya, India and Thailand in ‘Positive Bodies’. In 2017 there was ‘Perilous Journey: Stories of Migration’ an exhibition drawing upon a selection of PositiveNegatives rich ethnographic portfolio around refugee migration stories,  concentrating on contemporary real-life stories from Syria and Iraq, the exhibition followed two men and two women on their long difficult journeys fleeing conflict and persecution.

There have been changes in the role and purpose fulfilled by the Brunei Gallery at SOAS originally built with an Islamic style water garden on the roof this was changed to a Japanese style roof garden complementary to the Gallery and its activities. This was built during and as part of the Anglo-Japan 2001 celebrations and was officially opened by the sponsor, Mr. Haruhisa Handa (Toshu Fukami). The garden is dedicated to Forgiveness, which is the meaning of the Kanji character engraved on the garden’s granite water basin. This space has been enjoyed by visitors since and used to host events and present additional exhibitions such as the inspiring One Thousand Pots, One Thousand Thoughts installation by artist and ceramicist Yozo Hirayama that commemorated the victims of the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami of 11th March 2011. 

Japanese Roof garden at Brunei

In 2007 the Brunei Gallery changed from primarily hosting and presenting a programme of temporary exhibitions from external sources or projects that were the research outcomes of SOAS academics to displaying selections of the School’s own Collections. The start of this was the launch exhibition of, ‘Objects of Instruction’, held in October 2007 with the opening of the Foyle Special Collection Gallery within the Brunei Gallery. This continues with thematic displays drawing on the Schools own Collections of objects and artworks and items from the Special Collections & Archives in the SOAS Library.

The Galleries and roof garden at SOAS are rather quiet this November but behind the scenes we continue to develop our active, relevant and varied programme of exhibitions and events with anticipation for what can be achieved in the next 25 years and looking forward to welcoming visitors back with staff working creatively, all be it remotely for now. 

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