Middle Eastern art goes under the hammer in London
Middle Eastern art goes under the hammer in London
The auction’s fourth iteration was held last Thursday in a beautiful hall in The Lanesborough hotel. A room full of well-heeled people sat under chandeliers as they bid for artworks in a great range of styles and mediums from artists across the Middle East. The auction was conducted with flair by experts from Bonhams while many of the artists were on hand to explain their work.
Six charities — the Iraqi Welfare Association, MERCY Malaysia UK, The Prince’s Trust, People Act for Tunisia, World Wide Welfare and The Women’s Council — benefitted from the sale of the artworks gifted to the charity section of the auction.
The event was the brainchild of Zainab Al-Farhan Al-Imam, founder and director of the Women’s Growth and Success Foundation. She is a whirlwind of energy and is passionate about helping women reach their full potential. She is also committed to promoting the work of both established and up-and-coming artists from across the Middle East.
She works closely with the artist Ihsan Al-Khateeb, founder and director of the Inter Craft Gallery in Sharjah. Al-Khateeb has a wide network of contacts throughout the art world and is a great pioneer of promoting and nurturing talent from across the Middle East. During the auction, he gave his personal insights into the works about to go under the hammer and invited the artists who were present to say a few words about their work.
A piece by the Saudi artist Almaha Al-Kulabi, entitled “Symphony of Desire,” went under the hammer during the event. The artist was not present but Al-Khateeb said Al-Kulabi, who lives in Dubai, was driven by a sense of great pain over the suffering in the world.
“She feels sad because people are not taking care of their neighbors and children,” Al-Khateeb told Arab News.
He did note, however, that Al-Kulabi’s work, while conveying a sense of bleakness and despair, does contain elements of optimism.
“Her work is black ink on paper, but nothing is totally black. There is always some hope and the hope is represented in the colors in the work,” he said.
Talking to the artist Amal Al-Zubaidi, whose artwork “The Self and the Soul” was auctioned off for the Iraqi Welfare Association, proved an unexpectedly emotional experience due to her account of a visit she paid to Baghdad last year.
“I went back to Iraq for the first time in 40 years last year. I was shocked to see so many widows and orphans — over five million orphans. The poverty is unbelievable. You travel by car and the moment you stop at the traffic lights, crowds of children come begging,” she said.
What struck her most was the fortitude of the women, many of whom are struggling to raise their families single-handedly.
“I was astonished at their strength. I met so many widowed women going out to work to support their families,” she said.
She described the work being done by her sister, Eman Al-Zubaidi, to provide support to the women whose lives have been devastated by war.
“My sister is very active in helping to support widows and disabled people. She herself is ill with cancer but her charity ‘My Message’ in Baghdad helps widows and sets up courses for them, such as sewing clothes. With the proceeds made from the sale of the clothes, she invests in more sewing machines. We have a lot of disabled people because of the war and many don’t have wheelchairs. She bought 3,000 wheelchairs and also called upon doctors to assist those who performed operations for free,” Al-Zubaidi explained.
She recounted a phone call she received from her sister recently.
“The other day, she rang me and said: ‘I have a guy who has no legs, both have been amputated and he is in a wheelchair. He has no father and no brothers, (they were) all killed in the war. He has many children and elderly relatives to support. He needs to buy a motorbike which can be modified to make it into a small car so he can use it to transport goods to sell and make a living. He needs just $200 to modify the bike and then he can support himself and his dependents’.”
Al-Zubaidi studied interior design at the Art Institute of Atlanta and most of her work has been focused on designing interior spaces around the world. But she has always loved painting and has turned it from a purely private pastime into a way of supporting charitable causes.
“I used to paint just for myself in the house and then I started doing charitable work and all the proceeds of my paintings go to help widows and orphans of war. I work with the Iraqi Welfare Association to help women and children from Iraq integrate into (British society). The charity provides educational courses and also arranges trips to show people different parts of the country. They assist women who can find themselves stuck at home without the language skills to move about and engage with the wider community,” she said.
Another artist from Iraq whose work helps to demystify the country is Mayassah Al-Sader. She showcased a series of three paintings entitled “Round City.” Each of the paintings featured names that have been used to describe Iraq: “City of Peace,” “Land of Black” and “Field of Carnations.” The third piece was sold for charity with the proceeds going to the World Wide Welfare organization, established after the 1991 Gulf War to help women and children left widowed and orphaned.
Al-Sader, who is a landscape architect by profession, spoke about her artworks.
“My ‘Round City’ series is inspired by the 8th century layout of Baghdad. The city was built in a circle with buildings and gardens revolving around the center, occupied by the palace. As a landscape architect, I am influenced by the layout of cities. The first piece, entitled ‘Land of Black,’ carries a name given to my home country of Iraq because it was so lush with greenery that it would appear black from a distance.
“I know that years of war have turned much of the country into ash and ruins, but by working on this painting I felt as though I was excavating the city. Unfortunately, the house of power at the center is still controlled by powers outside of the borders. This is why I have the threads emanating from the center and connecting with the outside as though it is being controlled like a marionette. So, we have a reference to the ancient culture of the golden age of Baghdad and the present day.
“The other two paintings in the series, called ‘City of Peace’ and ‘Field of Carnations,’ are also names given to Baghdad. They reflect my hope that we will again see it as a city of peace, which I believe it can be if we all stand together. If we stand in a circle we don’t take sides.”
Cubist-style paintings by the Emirati artist Badr Abbas, depicting a traditional Emirati bride and a Bedouin boy with his owl, showcased strong cultural images in a novel way at the auction.
Two beautiful paintings by the artist Naman Hadi were especially eye catching. A captivating depiction of a woman called “Waiting” and a work entitled “Passage” both drew attention from attendees.
Film director Jaafar Muraad of Harmonica Films Ltd. was also present at the auction. His most recent film, “Back to Victoria Station,” is about radicalization and terror and is attracting attention at film festivals around the world. Speaking about his work, he said: “As a Muslim Iraqi who lives in the UK I can say that I am completely against any terrorist acts because Islam is peace. We need to take action and we need to make films and talk in the media, and through social media, about this issue. We should defend what we believe in. It is very important.”
Defending and depicting personal beliefs seemed to be a thread that ran through many of the fine works that went under the hammer at the buzzing event, one that is making great strides in promoting Middle Eastern art.
Beirut Art Fair: For artists faced with the unfair
- The annual Beirut Art fair runs from Sept 20 to 23
- The fair offers a platform for Arab artists to present their work to the outside world
ABU DHABI: Arab artists from countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Morocco, shared visions of their homelands and experiences this week at the Beirut Art Fair.
The Samer Kozah Art Gallery in Damascus, the only Syrian gallery at this year’s event, displayed works by 12 Syrian painters and sculptors.
“Most of them are now based in Vienna, Paris, Denmark, Dubai, Beirut, and a few in Syria,” said Samer Kozah, the gallery’s founder and manager for the past 24 years. “It’s safer and easier for them to work from outside. I don’t know when they will come back but I hope they do — you can feel the country in their artwork.”
The annual fair, which runs from Sept. 20 to 23, offers a platform for Arab artists to present their work to the outside world, something that is much needed by those from areas embroiled in conflict and turmoil.
“Nobody comes to Damascus to see art anymore,” Kozah said. “They can see it online, send emails or view on Instagram but they used to come a lot more. The main market for Syrian art in the past was Lebanese and Gulf collectors.”
Most galleries in Syria struggled during the civil war and were forced to close between 2013 and 2017, though there are signs of a slow recovery.
“It really affected the art industry here but most of them are now open, although it’s a bit quiet,” he said. “Everything can be shipped from here, but the Beirut Art Fair can always help.”
Palestinian artists face similar challenges, as many of them are unable to travel to showcase their work.
“The majority are based in Ramallah, others in Jerusalem, the Occupied Territories, Gaza and in the diaspora,” said Ziad Anani, director of the Zawyeh Gallery in Ramallah. “Their work is mainly political — even if it’s a landscape or a Palestinian family, many show the wall, the prisons, the construction and how we are losing the land.
“Palestinian artists are describing their emotions through their work and the surroundings they live in, from the checkpoints and occupation to the distances traveled.”
Many, however, are unable to travel to the fair to see their work on display due to passport issues.
“Some hold Palestinian papers and it’s even harder to get out of Palestine, so it’s not comfortable for them,” said Anani. “It’s not fair that all the other artists from around the world can see their work but Palestinian artists cannot. It seems like they are in prison; they cannot travel and cannot see the world, when they should be hearing other people’s opinions about their work, hear curators and see other artwork, so it’s a struggle.”
He said the only way people can learn about and understand this struggle the artists face is by seeing their work.
“It is through the art that we exhibit and the messages they send from that art,” he added. “We work with about 25 artists that work with paint, oil or acrylic, video, photography and cultural installations, and the event will be an opportunity to reach out to those who are interested in Palestinian art.”
He described Beirut as the cultural hub of the Middle East.
“It’s always focused on art and culture, and they also have a good number of Palestinians who live in Lebanon,” he said. “We know Palestinian art collectors living there and new initiatives, such as Dar El-Nimer (in Beirut, an interactive space dedicated to the culture of Palestine and the wider Arab world), are interested in collecting Palestinian art so, for us, Beirut is a good spot where we can reach out to those people and try to promote the work.”
Lama Koubrously, head of collections at Dar El-Nimer, said the art scene in Lebanon has been growing thanks to new art spaces, especially in Beirut.
“As an art foundation dedicated to showcasing cultural and artistic productions from the Arab world and the region, we believe it is a necessity to have a platform to raise awareness of art practices, including film screenings, debates, exhibitions, workshops and auctions,” she said. “Moreover, Dar El-Nimer is a place that invites both professionals and amateurs to exchange dialogue with regard to the current art scene shaping the region. Over the years the Beirut Art Fair has been bringing an influx of people from the art world, which is putting Lebanon on the art map.”
Karim Francis, owner of the Karim Francis Art Gallery in Egypt, agrees.
“If you look at the Middle East, what is left are the Emirates, Egypt and Lebanon,” he said. “Lebanon is a small country but it’s quite active and there is a lot of interest in art. Each country usually looks to his own artists, but Lebanon looks to its own and also around – in the end it’s all linked in one area.”
Francis, who is participating at the fair for the first time, is part of the Egyptian pavilion, where he will showcase pieces inspired by Coptic, Islamic, folkloric and Egyptian art.
“It gives a small panorama into what’s going on in Egypt,” he said. “The art scene across the region is growing and becoming more active.”
Gallery Misr, also from Egypt, works with seven artists and presented their work at the fair.
“Beirut has more of a personality than other places where you find art fairs,” said gallery founder Mohamed Talaat, who worked for 12 years at the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. “Dubai is more global but Beirut has something different about it. It has great culture and a good connection with Paris.”
The fair this year featured more than 50 art galleries from 20 countries, exhibiting more than 1,600 works by 250 artists. It includes 18 first-time exhibitors, alongside 33 returning galleries, with two sections dedicated to galleries that focus on modern and contemporary art from the region.
“To me, the fair is an interesting place to exhibit, as a local and international artistic platform with many collectors, galleries and foundations, not only from Lebanon but also Europe, Africa and Asia,” said Jacques-Antoine Gannat, international development director at the Loft Art Gallery in Morocco, which exhibited Moroccan photographer Hicham Benohoud’s new series, “Landscaping.”
“For us, it’s also the link between the Maghreb and the Middle East, with its similarities and differences.
The fair is ‘human-size,’ which allows collectors and galleries to meet more easily than at some bigger fairs.”