Middle Eastern art goes under the hammer in London

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A room full of well-heeled people sat under chandeliers as they bid for artworks.
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Mayassah Al-Sader stands next to her paintings.
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Zainab Al-Farhan Al-Imam poses by a painting.
Updated 04 October 2017
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Middle Eastern art goes under the hammer in London

LONDON: The Konooz Fine Art Auction and Exhibition in London is continuing to make strides for Middle East-based artists.
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.


West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

Updated 20 June 2018
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West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

  • The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle.”
  • The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.

LONDON: London theatergoers used to spectating in comfort are in for a rude awakening after the authors of a play swapped the traditional plush velvet seating for wooden benches and covered the floor with soil to simulate the feel of a migrant camp.
The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle,” whose authors hope their play will stoke debate about migration.
“People often hold strong opinions about this subject because it doesn’t seem to have any immediate answer,” said Joe Murphy, 27, who co-wrote the play.
“Discussion is the only think that is going to get us forward ... and hopefully this play can provide some of that space for debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Co-author Joe Robertson said the pair had “tried to depict both the terrible conditions that existed in the Jungle camp, but also the hope that existed in that place.”
Up to 10,000 people seeking ways to reach Britain used to live in the giant slum before it was cleared by authorities in late 2016.
Immigration remains a major political issue across Europe, as well as in the United States, where the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border has caused an international outcry.
Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria are to hold talks on Sunday to explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.
Murphy and Robertson, 28, based the script on their experience as volunteers in Calais, where they ran a temporary theater within the camp.
The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.
“There were 25 different nationalities of people all forced to live side by side often on top of each other and the phenomenal story about that place was people did make an effort to come together,” said Robertson.
Theatre-goers are invited to seat at the tables of the camp’s makeshift Afghan café, where the action unfolds.
“The closer you are to the audience the better the message is delivered,” said actor Ammar Hajj Ahmad, who plays one of the leading characters.
Ahmad, from Syria, is one of many actors from a refugee background featured in the play. Several asylum-seekers the authors met in Calais are also part of the cast.
“I am proud of this, I love telling stories ... about the many people who lived in Calais,” said cast-member Mohamed Sarrar, a musician from Sudan who arrived in Britain two years ago.
The play, which premiered at another London theater The Young Vic, last year, runs from July 5 to November.