Indian, Islamic art collected by UK artist Howard Hodgkin to go under the hammer

A fragment of a carpet and a painting from Howard Hodgkin’s collection. (Photos supplied)
Updated 12 September 2017
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Indian, Islamic art collected by UK artist Howard Hodgkin to go under the hammer

LONDON: This October, Sotheby’s will exhibit some 400 items from a collection including Indian and Islamic art that belonged to renowned British artist Howard Hodgkin, to be sold at auction in London on October 24.
Hodgkin, who died in March at the age of 84, is widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest artists. He has been a central figure in contemporary art for more than 50 years.
Frances Christie, senior director and head of the department of Modern and Post-War British Art, described the artist as highly influential.
“Howard Hodgkin redefined the way in which we look at the world. Just as his eye for the exceptional resonates through his paintings, his ability to identify the extraordinary in unexpected places was deployed in his incessant hunt for art and objects of exquisite beauty. So confident was he in his selection, and of the importance of each piece to his needs, that he created his own collecting alchemy. Spanning art history through time and geography, they offer a vivid revelation of his private world in all its intense and exhilarating glory,” she said.
Hodgkin spoke about his passion for collecting in a talk given in 1991 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington’s Smithsonian Institution, where Indian paintings and drawings from his collection were being shown.
From the transcript of that talk, we get an insight into his thinking.
“Everything that I’ve ever done as a collector has been based, ultimately, on the strength of feeling,” he said.
The urge to collect, he observed, can stem from many motivations.
“A great collection often seems to be the result of one very rich man going shopping. It isn’t. It is really partly illness, an incurable obsession. It’s partly — sadly, in some cases — a desire for future or posthumous glory, perhaps more often for status while the collector is still alive. Also, and of course far more importantly, it represents the human desire to get near works of art. At its worst, it’s greed or the desire simply to possess, like a child at a party being given something to take home. But it’s much more than that at its highest.”
Hodgkin remarked that he found painting solitary but that collecting brought him into contact with like-minded people. Furthermore, the discriminating eye that he developed was nurtured by close friendships with experts in the field. It was Hodgkin’s art master at Eton, Wilfrid Blunt — brother of the leading British art historian and Soviet spy, Anthony Blunt — who first introduced him to non-Western art and who inspired him to collect his first examples of Indian paintings.
Later, Hodgkin became friends with the collector Robert Erskine and through him the network of various Parisian dealers, including Charles “Uncle Charlie” Ratton. Robert Skelton, who was the assistant keeper at London’s Victoria and Albert museum, became a lifelong friend with whom the artist first visited India in 1964. It was with Skelton that Hodgkin was able to meet other connoisseurs and collectors, including Jagdish Mittal, Kumar Sangram Singh, Milo C. Beach and Stuart Cary Welch, whose own collection of Islamic and Indian art was sold at Sotheby’s in 2011.
Hodgkin wrote about his fascination with Indian art in an Asian Art article entitled “About my Collection” in 1991.
“Disconcertingly, a collection begins to have a life of its own and to make demands on its owner that seem both impersonal and peremptory. For the most part, it’s really quite easy to resist the innocent charms of gap filling. But when a picture somehow demands to be bought (at whatever price) because it appears to be a great work of art of a kind not otherwise represented in the collection, it means trouble. I long wanted marvellous Basohli pictures and eventually got some good ones. Early Mughal pictures were seemingly impossible to come by, and then, by chance, I managed to acquire the fragmentary painting on cloth (titled) ‘A Prince Riding on an Elephant in Procession,’ but my favorite and longest-lasting enthusiasm has been for Kota painting.
“Elephants are heavy animals but are depicted in paintings from Kota as capable of such wild movement that they appear almost weightless — and how mysteriously they seem to haunt the rather conventional landscape.
“As a collector, my enthusiasm for these Kota pictures became my downfall — my Waterloo. The acquisition of ‘Maharao Durjan Sal and Shri Brijnathji Hunting Tigers and Wild Buffalo’ was such a traumatic event in my life as a collector that I felt I could go no further. It’s the largest, most expensive picture I have ever bought and the only one for which I have exchanged one of my paintings. This great, though fragmentary, picture finally enabled me to escape from the almost nagging lust that often keeps collectors in a slightly restless and unfulfilled condition for the rest of their lives.”
The Sotheby’s experts who catalogued Hodgkin’s collection described a treasure trove within every room of his Georgian house in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum in London.
“Surprises lay around every corner of the house. A precious 17th century Indian sandstone relief formed a backdrop in the kitchen to the artfully-stacked china on display. A wonderful fragment from a carpet, with its interlocking geometric pattern, faced a series of wall-mounted Kashan star tiles and the foliate motifs were echoed in monochrome form in the craftsmanship of an exquisite inlaid Mughal box.”
They observed that ornamentation is a prominent thread that runs through the great variety of objects he was drawn to, from both India and Islamic cultures. He especially sought fragments — particular motifs, calligraphy, colors and textures appearing in Ottoman, Indian and Islamic tiles, textiles and rugs. Fragments of calligraphy were not sought after for their meaning, but purely for the visual language of their linear forms and he honed in on specific parts of larger pattern schemes. In doing so, he focused on small yet powerful details, freeing his imagination from the original form.
Hodgkin collected in such depth that, despite covering almost every surface of his home, many of his acquisitions were not displayed. The basement library held a rich treasure trove of prints, paintings, fabric, books and furniture and exquisite fragments. Items consigned there were not relics, but an astounding array of source material of the most varied and wonderful kind. Many items were acquired on his travels, but were never as mementos. “I particularly don’t like objects of sentiment — people who have things not because they like and admire them, but because they have associations,” the artist is known to have said.
Hodgkin, who was awarded the much-coveted Turner Prize in 1985, has been the subject of numerous international exhibitions and art fans in the Middle East will soon have the chance to view highlights from his collection at the Sotheby’s gallery in Dubai between October 8-12. The full exhibition will be on show in London from October 20-24.


Talal Derki: ‘I’m not a part of this, but I have to understand’

Updated 22 February 2019
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Talal Derki: ‘I’m not a part of this, but I have to understand’

  • Why the Syrian filmmaker risked his life for his Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Of Fathers and Sons’

DUBAI: Of all the achievements of Arab filmmakers in recent times, Talal Derki’s “Of Fathers and Sons” may be the most stunning. The only non-American film nominated for Best Documentary at the 91st Academy Awards, which take place this Sunday, “Of Fathers and Sons” is the kind of film one might imagine making, but never believe could actually be made. It’s a story that Derki risked his life to tell.

For two and a half years, the Syrian filmmaker lived in northern Syria with Abu Osama, a member of the Al-Nusra Front (also known as Al-Qaeda in the Levant), and his family. There, he pretended to be sympathetic to their cause so that he could film them in an attempt to learn, first-hand, how young men become radicalized. Focusing on a father and his sons, the film lays bare in terrifying detail how young boys with kindness in their hearts find themselves in an Al-Qaeda training camp at a tender young age, all to gain the approval of their beloved patriarch.

“The idea started with my previous film,” Derki tells Arab News. “After the siege of Homs in my last film, ‘Return to Homs,’ after all the massacres, a lot of people on the ground moved to be more radical. It’s a war, but I started wondering how this movement managed to brainwash and bring all these people (over) to their side, and how they gained their trust. I saw a lot of kids with their fathers involved in fights. All these things put questions in my mind. I’m not a part of this, but I also have to understand.”

Derki didn’t want to make a film about the Syrian war or about violence. He wanted to examine life behind closed doors, focusing on the generation of young Syrian men raised in wartime. To do so, he had to go deep undercover.

After starting research for the film at the end of 2013, Derki used many ‘fixers’ to help him work his way into this close-knit community, gain people’s trust, and identify his subjects. He settled on Abu Osama and his sons. He convinced them that he was on their side, and was given intimate access to their lives in return — all the time aware that he could not let them know what kind of film he was actually making.

“Abu Osama wasn’t well known. He’s not the leader. What attracted me to him is how strongly he believed in what he was doing, in the ideology. When you look at him, he looks like a normal father, a lovely father,” says Derki. “This paradox between these two faces — between a lovely father and the father who is ready to sacrifice his kids in order to (realize) his ideology — this is part of my cinematic vision. If I went to a regular cliché jihadist, people would not watch the film. People would leave the cinema after five minutes, believe me.”

Though Derki managed to gain the trust of the family and the Al-Nusra Front, he was always conscious that no matter how friendly they were with him, he was never really creating a true connection with anyone he was filming. And he was powerless to create positive change while he was there.

“I was undercover as a sympathizer,” he says. “This is how they know me. I couldn’t be more than an observer. Sometimes, if I could, I would act as a merciful guy with the kids so they would not get punishment. I played that role. But in a big-topic issue, you couldn’t do anything but make your own film out of this chaos.

“I was connected to them only as a filmmaker, because, at the end of the day, if they knew I had a different purpose than what they thought, I would lose my life,” he continues. “When I had a good moment to film, I was satisfied and happy. As time passed, I had to accept all these things — all these ideas, all this behavior — without any (question). My mission there was to make a film.”

“Of Fathers and Sons” is purely observational. Derki keeps himself out of the story as much as possible, zooming in on a father and his son in everyday moments, in order to see how they interact, the love and trust they build, and the ways that a son’s dedication to his father is twisted to dark ends.

“The knowledge I got from this experience is about the roots of violence — the circle of violence — and the eternal relationship between the dictatorial father and his son; the masculine power that destroys our society,” Derki explains. “All of these things gave me more understanding that it all starts from childhood. Why does someone like me decide not to carry a weapon? If you grow up in a society in which your father, your teacher, are harming you, and punishing you by hitting you, and you’re used to receiving violence, then when you grow up you are very capable of carrying weapons and killing someone for any idea you start to believe in.”

By the second half of the film, the eldest son of Abu Osama is participating in an Al-Qaeda training camp. In one harrowing scene, the young boys are told to lie still on the ground while bullets are shot next to their heads and feet in order to teach them to lose their fear. Even now, years on from filming, Derki thinks about Abu Osama’s young children, hoping they can escape from the fate that already killed their father, who Derki says died at the end of 2018.

“Emotionally, I feel sad for the kids. They are still around 12 years old, it’s still possible to take them out of this and start a new life. Even in the moment when I was there, it was still possible,” he says. “They appreciate life. (But) in this ideology, they appreciate death. Death is their request — not life. Not humanity.”

Derki is speaking to Arab News from Los Angeles, ahead of Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. While there, Derki has had the chance to celebrate with the other Arab nominees, Egyptian-American actor Rami Malek and Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki.

“It was great to meet them and to have some conversation — to be three nominees from the Arab world at the biggest global celebration. It’s very intense,” he says. “I hope that, in the upcoming year, this will bring more success for Arab filmmakers.

“Nadine said she liked it so much. And I liked her film,” Derki continues. “I really want to work with Rami in the future, he’s a very talented actor.”

Whatever happens at the Oscars, Derki hopes the attention his film has received will ultimately be a force for good in the Arab world.

“It’s about how we can protect the new generation in the other Muslim countries,” he explains. “What can we do to build a generation without violence, to focus more on life, love, and communicating with other cultures, instead of building walls around us?”