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92. Painting in Oman during 2007 to 2009

MAY. 30, 2024


Ryan and Pete head to the Middle East to draw up an episode on Painting in Oman during 2007 to 2009. We meet a pair of painters who talk about their artistic journeys to the area, and uncover the ancient graffiti that goes back thousands of years but also features some modern topics that might surprise you.

This week HHE Podcast visits the Sultanate of Oman on the Southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula.
Oman is approximately 309,500 square kilometers, 119,500 square miles, making it 56% the size of a France, so you’d need nearly 2 Omans for a France.
The flag of Oman is a red vertical bar on the left hand side with the national emblem of Oman picked out in white, and the rest of the flag is three horizontal bands of white, red and green, the colours we so often see in flags in this region.
I mentioned the national emblem, which is a Khanjar on a belt superimposed over two crossed swords. A Khanjar is a curved dagger, traditionally of the area.
Salute to The Sultan is the National Anthem of Oman. First composed in 1932, the lyrics were rewritten in 1970 when His late Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said came to power.
But it also changed again quite recently. In 2020 when Sultan Haitham bin Tarik succeeded Sultan Qaboos. He issued a decree changing the last 3 lines which were specific references to the late sultan, which is pretty sensible when you think about it.
“Be happy! Qaboos has come, May heaven bless him, Be cheerful and commend him to the protection of our prayers” was changed to “So ascend to the apex of the heavens
illuminate the cosmos, rejoice and relish in prosperity”

If you wanted to go to Oman for the weekend, when would you go?
In Oman the weekend is not Saturday and Sunday but Friday and Saturday. Friday is the traditional muslim day of rest.
In fact, prior to 2013 the Omani weekend was Thursday and Friday so you could weekend in Oman, then jump on a flight and have another weekend back home in Britain.
A traditional spectacle in Oman is bullfighting.a It takes place around every other Friday – so the weekend as we’ve established and instead of the familiar man vs bull, it’s bull vs bull. And the bulls aren’t killed either, or even injured.
The bulls lock horns and push each other with their powerful heads until one of them backs down and the other is declared the winner.
Frankincense trees grow naturally in Oman. Boswellia sacra tree can be found in Dhofar. Cuts are made in the tree and sap exudes out which might be why it was known to some as the sweat of the gods.
This dries into a hard resin which can be burned for a fragrant aroma – hence Frankincense.
But also believed to have medicinal properties so might have been consumed, or made into a paste and applied. And in ancient times this was a highly valuable substance. It was alongside gold as a gift for the baby Jesus.
And Oman was a significant part of this trade.
The Land of Frankincense World Heritage site in Oman celebrates this and includes ports dating from the 4th Century BC and parts of the caravan route and even today, Oman has a reputation as producing the very best frankincense in the world.

Around 100,000 years ago, in the southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, early man was roaming around the area that would one day become Oman.

He lived by the sea, fishing and gathering, and leaving the odd tool and random artifact lying around so that modern archaeologists could find them underneath the desert sand.

Around 10,000 years ago, Oman is the location of one of the world’s earliest cities, a place called Al Wattih, but around 3000 BCE, the region becomes known as Magan, rising to prominence amongst ancient people over thousands of miles, thanks to its rich copper deposits which it trades to civilizations in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley.

Centuries pass, and Magan finds itself under the influence of the various Persian empires, with the Achaemenids, the Parthians and Sassanians, each recognising the region as an important stopping point on multiple trade routes across the Indian Ocean.

In the 7th century, Islam sweeps across the Arabian Peninsula, and in Oman, the locals adopt a branch of Islam called Ibadism, which advocates for a community-led form of religious leadership, which sets them apart from the Sunni and Shia majorities.

But not in any recognisably bad way, with even the Prophet Muhammad saying of the Omanis that, ‘God’s mercy be on the people… They have believed in me although they had not seen me.’

In fact, this early Islamic period in Oman sees the various tribes use their influence on the trade routes to help to bring Islam to the world.

In 1154, a new Nabhani dynasty takes over, which isn’t a great thing because they bring a lot of instability through bickering and in-fighting.

Europeans arrive in the early 16th century, with the Portuguese rocking up on Omani shores under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque, who captures Muscat and builds a stronghold there.

They hang out there for a 100 years, building forts and controlling the trade routes, despite frequent uprisings from the locals.

Eventually, in the 17th century, the Yaruba dynasty appears, succeeding in kicking out the Portuguese, and ushering in a new golden age of maritime adventure, taking an Omani navy out of the Middle East, and heading west, to East Africa, where they spread down the coast, trading spice, claiming the lands for their own, and building mosques, forts, and palaces.

By 1749, the Yaruba dynasty turns sour, and after some in-house conflicts, a new dynasty emerges under the leadership of Ahmad bin Said, whose family continues to rule Oman to this day.

In the 19th century, Oman expands again, using Zanzibar as a vital outpost on the African coast.
This brings them into conflict with the British Empire, and so to avoid violence, treaties are reached which means the British ‘protecting’ Oman for a fee.

The 20th century is a time of challenges and change, with Sultan Said bin Taimur's forty year reign being mostly remembered for his efforts in trying to isolate Oman from the world, and doing little to modernise the country.

But that changes when in 1970 he’s overthrown by his son (Sultan Qaboos) in a bloodless coup.

Under new management, roads, schools and hospitals are built, and Oman transforms into a vibrant, forward-looking nation.

Sultan Qaboos's reign lasts until his death in 2020, when his cousin, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, ascends the throne.

And that brings us to today, where we find Oman looking to diversify itself out of just oil and gas, and build a sustainable future for its people – one which honours its cultural roots, but also acts as a beacon of stability in the middle east.

The Great Recession
The term “Great Recession” is a period of global economic woe, starting in America without exact dates but generally considered to be between about 2007 and 2009, a period in which the US experienced the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression in the 1920s, and much like then, also brought down much of the rest of the world.
And it all started when the U.S. housing market went from boom to bust.
It’s complicated, but the headline is people were offered mortgages they couldn’t necessarily afford, based on the assumption that houses would keep on rising in value. These were known as subprime mortgages.
And house prices did keep on rising, as long as people kept taking out more mortgages, and so on and they’d remain affordable as long as interest rates remained low.
Meanwhile, financial institutions were creating new investment vehicles which were essentially packages of mortgages – known as Mortgage Backed Securities.
To make things more complicated, there was a thing called a Credit Default Swap which was sort of like an insurance – you pay someone to bail you out if your creditor defaults on their debt.
All this was fine as long as house prices were rising, interest rates were low so people could afford their mortgages and therefore the Credit Default Swaps weren’t having to pay out any ‘insurance’/
In other words, everyone’s making money, until they aren’t.
Of course, interest rates rose, people couldn’t pay their mortgages, defaulted on payments, triggering the credit default swaps for the insurance – all of which is fine if there is enough money for everyone to get paid.
Spoiler alert – there wasn’t.
Investment Bank Bear Stearns nearly went to the wall and needed to be bailed out.
This was followed even more dramatically by the failure of Lehman Brothers, an investment banking institution that had been in business since 1850, was wiped out and became bankrupt almost overnight.
This was the biggest bankruptcy in US history to this day. One site I read estimated the loss of value to be somewhere between $46 to $63 billion.
And that’s just one bank. Other banks were also affected without necessarily going bankrupt.
Shocks triggered through the financial systems of the US and then on to the rest of the world.
And, long story short, two or three hard years of recession, now known as the Great Recession, which were I have to say, not as great as the name suggests.
If you want to learn more about it, you could do a lot worse than watch the movie The Big Short, starring among others Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt.

Painters in Oman
It’s the year 2000, and an art gallery opens in the heart of Old Muscat. The gallery is called Bait Muzna, and it has the mission of promoting established and emerging artists in Oman and from abroad.

Through its relaxed atmosphere, delightful café, and series of thought-provoking events and exhibitions, the Bait Muzna quickly cements itself as one of the most respected contemporary art galleries and art consultancies in the region.

Employed at the gallery are a team of artists, consultants, designers, framers and carpenters – all of whom are highly experienced, and help those looking to buy some art with new and interesting work.

In doing so, the gallery regularly welcomes talented artists from around the world, all of whom known for their collections of Omani inspired artwork.

As of time of recording, in May 2024, the Bait Muzna is currently exhibiting a suite of fine art photography called ‘Lesser Spotted Oman’ by Irish artist Clive Gracey.

But in recent years, they’ve showcased a variety of works from established artists, including paintings by Rashid Al Khalifa, the Sheikh of Bahrain, ceramic sculptures by British artist Peter Hayes, drawings by the Albanian-born Gazmend Kalemi, an exhibition featuring local calligraphy, and many many others.. including, exhibits during 2007 to 2009!

Which brings me to the meat of my section, because of all the artists who exhibited their work at the Bait Muzna during the time of the great recession, a couple of notable individuals stood out to me.

The first is UK-born Karen Carpenter (not the singer), who presented a collection of paintings, charcoals, and pastels at an exhibition at the Bait Muzna gallery in 2007.

Primarily concerned with aspects of the human figure, Karen’s work uses a compelling range of themes and techniques to invite the viewer into the unique world of Oman.

Unusually, the collection featured portraits of Omani nationals drawn in serene and dramatic moments - but all seen from behind – with various images showing the backs of people’s heads, with bold, broad strokes and a vibrant palette helping to convey the folds and movement in the fabric of traditional turbans and hijabs.

I really liked this unconventional approach to painting people – it seems that we’re so used to seeing faces that to be presented solely with the backs of peoples heads, that you are asked to think more about them, imagining who they are and where they are going..

Anyway, I was intrigued enough to reach out to Karen, and she agreed to talk with me about her artwork and her experience in Oman. We talked about her first impressions of Oman and discussed her work.

It was a delight talking with Karen and she was incredibly kind to give me her time.

She now lives in the UK, teaches art, and is available for commissions – focused on the human figure (naked optional!) and also animals – which she says is especially popular in the UK, where owners of cats, dogs and horses want portraits drawn of their beloved pets!

You can find more about Karen at her website -

Following Karen at the Bait Muzna, a year later, in 2008, was an exhibition of paintings by George H. Lewis, another talented British artist whose work stood out to me in particular for their exploration of the cultural and historical tapestry of Oman.

His work which most often features Omani landscapes, uses a blend of traditional and contemporary elements to capture a feeling of Omani heritage in what I think is a striking and sometimes ethereal way.

George has had an extraordinary experience in the middle east, living there throughout 2007- 2012, during which time he lived with Bedouin tribes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen and Oman, where he had the pleasure of being the Court Painter to the Sultan of Oman.

So, given all this, I reached out to George, and was delighted when he said he would talk with me.

I asked George his journey to becoming a professional artist and what it was like living in Oman.

We also talked about his art, and how his experiences in Oman might have influenced his work, and what the response was from the Omani people.

And finally, I asked George if he had any advice for aspiring artists.

George, continues to paint today, but he is also a healer through astrology and sound healing, travelling the world delivering retreats that help people transform and step into their highest version of themselves.

If you’d like to learn more you can visit his website at and, or follow his page on Instagram @georgehlewis.

And while I’m recommending things, if you find yourself in Muscat, do go and visit the Bait Muzna gallery and see the latest collections in person, alternatively, visit their insta page at baitmuznaofficial or their website which is

So, there you go… Karen Carpenter and George H Lewis - two incredible artists who exhibited their paintings in Oman during 2007-2009.

I’m incredibly grateful to them both and wholeheartedly recommend that you all go check out their amazing work

Rock art
In February of 2009 Professor Mauritzio Tosi had a conversation with a man named Angelo E Fossati – an an Italian archaeologist who today teaches Prehistory and Protohistory at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan (Italy).
These two men talked about rock art, specifically, rock art in Oman and the need to capture and analyse some of the sites that had been identified and recorded so far.
So, in October of 2009 Fossati headed out to Oman to look at, record and analyse the figures that were sometimes carved, sometimes painted, on the ancient rocks that had been preserved for hundreds of years in the dry desert atmosphere.
For 10 years, Fossati studied and documented until in 2019 he published “Messages from the Past: Rock Art of Al-Hajar Mountains”.
In this book he documents and attempts to understand the ancient and not-so-ancient art found on the rocks of the area.
So this is a book about Petroglyphs and pictographs –petroglyphs are essentially carvings - scratched or chiselled into the stone whereas pictographs are painted on. Both can be found in Oman.
I will talk about both, but as this episode is about painting, I’ll say a little about that first. The pictographs of the area, and I’d imagine in most places, mostly feature the colours red yellow black and white. The materials used seem to be ochre, which is a kind is a natural clay earth pigment is a mixture of ferric oxide and varying amounts of clay and sand and the different mixes give you colours from yellow to deep orange or brown.
Different colours can be created by burning the ochre and after 300 degrees c the colours become redder, and looking at the pictures there are some pretty deep reds.
charcoal was also used, for your blacks and greys and also, and this is a direct quote ‘lime of some kind’ which doesn’t feel as scientific as I’d like.
These colours have been painted on in a few ways, it looks like a liquid paint was applied with some kind of bristle has been used in some cases. Also a stick, which doesn’t feel very satisfactory and in some cases he described the ‘paint’ applied directly like using a crayon, he says, so using a chunk of your colour to just draw directly on the wall.
There is also, to mix it up, in a place called Wada Massawa, a printed hand, where the artist has literally covered their hand in paint and applied it to the wall.
The petroglyphs, or carvings, show a few different techniques as well. Hammering or picking, so a sort of rock-pointillism and there’s scratching and abrasion.
So how far back does this art go? Fossati postulates a number of ‘phases’ and the characteristic things you might find drawn.
1st phase he places at around 5000, BCE - and features turtles and sea creatures, that he identifies as tentacley and concludes are anenomes, but to me looked like circles with lines sticking out. But I’m not an archaeologist.
2nd phase - he puts at around 4,000 BCE and features ibexes and other larger creatures what he calls a three stroke style, so simple one or two lines capturing the essence of the creature, and which to my mind looked like they would make excellent tattoos.
3rd phase he says is around 3,000 to 2,000 BCE and now you’re seeing angular stylised humans and the first appearance of a dagger in a distinctive T shape.
4th phase – 2,000BCE you’re seeing people riding on animals, horses and camels and some abstract patterns.
Then the 5th and 6th phases is where it starts to get wild. It’s the period 2,000BCE to today.
You’re seeing warriors and people riding horses and camels. You might find ostriches and boats. And, oh yes, you’ll also find… cars!
To age these images, there are physical signs and the older images are what he describes as ‘revarnished’. This initially confused me as I thought he meant the artist was varnishing their work in some way, which seemed odd.
It turns out there is a thing called Desert varnish or rock varnish, sometimes known as rock rust and desert patina. Apparently this is found in desert environments all over the world.
It is an orange-yellow to black coating found on exposed rock surfaces in arid environments. It’s about one micrometer thick and we’re not really sure how it forms, although it has high levels of manganese in it, suggesting it may in some way be connected with the activity of microbes.
It forms over thousands of years, so revarnishing in the case of rock art in Oman is a useful indicator that something is well old.
Fossati’s book also detailed a bit of the history of rock art in the area and one thing I found interesting was the evolution of techniques to capture this art.
The first recorded mention of this art was from a British explorer Bertram Sidney Thomas. Thomas took pictures of the rock but to pick out the images, he used the practice of basically drawing over the images with chalk, so you could see them.
This did make them visible, but wasn’t great for preserving the rock, although apparently he did wipe the chalk off after.
Worse still was a later practice of making the rock wet to increase the contrast, which is super not great given that being dry was the main reason these images had survived for so long in the first place.
Fossati himself describes this as “a technique that is detrimental to the conservation of the figures” which feels like an understatement.
Fossati, though, had a different approach. He and his people put a big piece of transparent plastic film over the rock, then traced with a marker pen over the images, without having to damage the rock below.
But time marches on and technology improves and a 2018 paper intitled The Ẓufār painted Inscriptions in Oman: Epigraphy and New Technologies identified basically an app that used photographs and an algorithm to pick out and enhance the images on the rock without having to go near them at all.
And work on preserving, recording and understanding this remarkable art continues with academics such as William Zimmerle, director of the Dhofar Rock Art & Arabian Inscriptions Project.
And to keep things current, I’ve also taken one of the images from the Rock art in Oman, put it through an online animator to bring it bang up to date – so are you ready to see some rock art in Oman Ryan?
And if you do want to see some rock art for yourself, there’s a whole chapter of Fossati’s book entitled ‘Where and how to see rock art in Oman’, so if you’re heading that way, get in touch and we can give you some pointers to painting, in Oman, from a book that started life in 2009.

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