On the 26th of February 1991, Kuwait, a small nation on the northern shores of the Persian Gulf, sandwiched between Iraq and its southern neighbor Saudi Arabia, was liberated from the Iraqi forces that had invaded and occupied the country seven months earlier. The victory was achieved through a coalition of 35 nations led by the United States, and the short but devastating conflict became known as the Gulf War.
This small slice of history may seem a distant memory and its 30th anniversary of little importance, but for the people of Kuwait and the Allied forces that served during Operation Desert Storm, the occasion remains an emotional and poignant one.
The Corning Museum of Glass is honored to help acknowledge and remember Kuwait’s liberation by participating in a collaborative project launched by two Kuwaiti artists in conjunction with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait.
The project, which paired artists Lubna Saif Abbas and Mohammed Al Duwaisan with American glass artists Claire Kelly and Jeffrey Stenbom, was spearheaded by Amy Schwartz, director at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass.
Working remotely over the course of several months, the artists designed and crafted an installation that speaks to the environmental devastation Kuwait suffered during the occupation, honors the relationship forged between the Americans and Kuwaitis, and celebrates the development of glass as a burgeoning artistic medium in Kuwait.
“These artists are all passionate about glass, and the idea of cross-cultural collaboration is a big part of the project,” said Schwartz. “One of the best things about The Studio is connecting with our community, and this project connected artists and glass and celebration across the globe. It’s exciting that this powerful work will have pride of place in Kuwait, providing these artists with an invaluable platform to share their message.”
Lubna Saif Abbas, the co-founder of Yadawi, an up-and-coming glass studio in Kuwait, has an intimate relationship to the conflict. A student in the U.S. at the time of the invasion, Abbas decided to stop her matriculation and dedicated her time completely to seeing her country free again. By January 1991, she was involved with a group of student volunteers attached to the U.S. Army and was part of the War Crimes Documentation team arriving in Kuwait the first week of liberation. She, along with her team of Kuwaitis, a U.S. judge, and American lawyers, interviewed and developed over 600 cases presented to both the U.S. and Kuwaiti governments.
“How the different disciplines, techniques, and approaches intertwined, allowed for a very surprising and expressive outcome,” Abbas says. “The process of ideation and problem solving with Claire, Jeffrey, and Mohammed was an incredible experience that allowed me to grow as an artist.”
Abbas was joined by Mohammed Al Duwaisan, Yadawi’s creative director, who had volunteered at a bakery in Kuwait City during the conflict, helping to supply bread in the early mornings and other essential services to the community. In addition, he worked as head driver on garbage collection in the afternoons and at a restaurant in the evenings.
“It is an incredible honor to be selected to join a project that highlights and exemplifies the importance for both countries and peoples the sacrifices that were made that cost lives to save others,” Al Duwaisan says. “Working with Claire Kelly and Jeffrey Stenbom, who are such talented glass artists, and with the CMoG team, allowed us to create a project that will impact visitors for years to come.”
Amy Schwartz, along with The Studio’s Richard Whiteley, senior programs manager, helped to identify the right American artists to join the project. After an extensive search, Claire Kelly and Jeffrey Stenbom were selected. Whiteley helped facilitate meetings between the two nations, finding commonality in the styles and histories of each of the artists that helped cement close working relationships.
Claire Kelly is a versatile hot glass artist with strong ties to The Corning Museum of Glass through her numerous residencies and instructor classes. Her work examines the human connection with animals and their larger relationship to our world and environment.
“My sculptures tell a story about the fragility and conservation of these small worlds as well as describing their role in a grander scheme,” Kelly says. “I’m curious about what we see in my toy-like animals and what they see when they look back.”
Jeffrey Stenbom, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, brings his own personal connection to the story. “I feel art is not meant to fix problems but to make others aware that they exist,” said Stenbom, whose interest in sculpture stems from his experience as a soldier. “This awareness may lead to change, or at the very least, comfort and understanding through conversation. Art has changed my life by giving me focus and helping me begin to heal from those life-changing experiences.”
The finished object is a likeness of the Arfaj plant, a native to the Arabian Peninsula and the national plant of Kuwait. The Arfaj bush has both thorny leaves and bright yellow flowers that bloom in the spring and symbolizes the beauty of Kuwait’s natural landscapes. Around the base of the sculpture are cast-glass oil slicks to represent the destruction left in the wake of retreating soldiers setting oil fields on fire.
The outcome of this joint initiative was unveiled at the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Center (JACC) ahead of the 30th anniversary on February 26th, 2021. The installation will then remain on permanent display for future generations to enjoy and reflect on.