Fakhriya Al-Yahyai has had a passion for art since childhood. She joined the first batch of art students at Sultan Qaboos University’s department of art education in the 1990s.
At the time, the young student did not much care that some of her relatives questioned the merit of her chosen field, which they deemed unimportant. But Al-Yahyai continued her studies and became one of the most prominent names in the plastic arts in the Gulf region, in art practice and teaching alike.
Al-Yahyai is proud of being the first academic artist and researcher specializing in the plastic arts in the Sultanate of Oman. “The path to success was difficult, but I was determined to keep going. I wanted to succeed as a mother, a wife, an artist, and an academic.”
After graduating ranked first in her department in 1995, Al-Yahyai joined the faculty as a teaching assistant. She later obtained a master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Wales and De Montfort University, in Britain.
Studying in the United Kingdom was Al-Yahyai’s first time travelling abroad alone. Initially, she said, she faced difficulties from the academic community’s view of her “as a woman with a headscarf coming from a Bedouin Gulf state to study art in Europe. There were very few visual or written references to the history of Omani art, despite the rich artistic movement that has dozens of works by Omani artists.”
“Those plans, training programmes, and conferences were to encourage the largest possible number of students and scholars to experience as many fields of art as possible.”Fakhriya Al-Yahyai
But she regarded difficulties as incentives and searched for everything related to Omani culture in her field of study.
Building International Connections
Al-Yahyai returned to Sultan Qaboos University in 2004 and began working with Mohammed Al-Amri to document the Omani fine arts movement. In 2006, they released their first book, “The Plastic Arts in Oman”, published by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation.
She led the university’s art education department for two terms, between 2013 and 2019. During that time, she updated the art curricula to international standards. She also worked to obtain recognition for the Bachelor of Art Education programme by a team of American experts and obtained global accreditation for the department’s academic courses from the National Association of Schools of Art and Design, in the United States.
Through these efforts, Al-Yahyai sought to help younger generations avoid the difficulties she faced, to widen their frame of reference and help them integrate with international trends despite the huge differences between the European and Arab art environments.
To familiarise students with the latest artistic developments abroad, Al-Yahyai invited foreign artists to spend a week in Oman and give workshops. The project continued for three semesters but had to be halted during the Covid-19 pandemic. The project included organizing exhibitions to enhance students’ connections with the visiting artists and their works.
In 2015 Al-Yahyai launched a research group for Omani visual arts, holding conferences and seminars to document everything related to arts in the sultanate. She also presided over the university’s first master’s programme in art education.
“Those plans, training programmes, and conferences were to encourage the largest possible number of students and scholars to experience as many fields of art as possible,” she explained.
A Supportive Mentor
Najla Al-Saadi, an assistant professor at Sultan Qaboos University’s department of art education, was among the students who benefited from Al-Yahyai’s experience.
Al-Saadi told Al-Fanar Media: “Al-Yahyai gave a lot to her students and me personally by her openness about her experiences studying art in Europe. She was supportive in everything: knowledge, advice, and scientific research cooperation with her colleagues and students.”
“Dr. Fakhriya has played a major role in the development of Omani art through the research, books, and publications.”Najla Al-Saadi
An assistant professor at Sultan Qaboos University’s department of art education
She added: “Dr. Fakhriya has played a major role in the development of Omani art through the research, books, and publications.”
Badar Almamari, head of the art education department, added that Al-Yahyai’s experience had encouraged many academics and women to study the fine arts.
“Today, we can see her impact on the new generation of the department’s faculty members,” he wrote in an email. “Moreover, her artistic experience has had a tangible impact on local and regional women artists.
Al-Yahyai’s international recognitions include an honourable mention at the 16th Asian Art Biennale Bangladesh (2014), membership in the International Museum of Women in San Francisco (2013), a first prize in sculpture in the 2001 exhibition of the Omani Society for Fine Arts, and the Best Researcher Award at Sultan Qaboos University (2018, 2019).
She has also held numerous local and international solo exhibitions. In her most recent, “Folds in the Void” (“Tawaya Al-Barah”), in 2019, she exhibited 35 of her works at Sultan Qaboos University Hall.
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She says that her drawings are “a reflection of scattered and forgotten memories” of her Omani upbringing. “I even draw impressionist paintings of shapes inspired from the Omani environment.”
Al-Yahyai still wants to encourage more female students to study fine arts. “Although more women have enrolled than men since the opening of the department, there are not enough Omani women in art criticism,” she said.