In light of the obvious geopolitical challenges facing the Middle East, the need to protect its artistic and cultural achievements is critical. Traditionally, London has played a key role in the exposition of Islamic art through world-class collections, such as those at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Museum, as well as in private collections such as that of Nasser David Khalili.
The long shadow of the world’s largest empire continues to show itself in private collections and sales of some of the most impressive pieces from across the Middle East. Though there are issues regarding the legacy of empire, given the state of affairs in the region, it is important that Middle Eastern art has a home in which it can be studied, documented and collected.
Following decades of sales, the annals of provenance of the auction houses of London provide a hugely valuable modern record of some of the most important pieces. The existence of such historical records is a service, especially in the context of preserving details from pieces that may have been lost owing to tumult in the Middle East. The prevalence of items from Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Afghanistan is a success in itself.
With artistic creations commonly under threat in conflict environments, their safe transport to London is critical in the context of them being lost or falling into the hands of smugglers and criminal enterprises due to political instability. The looting of Baghdad’s National Museum, followed by a blaze in its National Library in 2003, are indicative of the very real threat Arab treasures are under regionally.
The prevalence of items in international markets with questionable provenance is not limited to the Middle East, though their existence is a constant reminder of crimes against heritage that are being committed regionally.
The survival of ancient items in London that would otherwise have been lost is illustrative of the importance of complimenting such efforts with regional projects to foster artistic appreciation. The rigid legal framework that exists to regulate the ownership and sale of items similarly has allowed for London to attract the interest of international dealers.
The specter of regional terrorist organizations is also a real challenge to protecting cultural heritage in the Middle East. The acts of Daesh in Iraq and Syria are symbolic of the danger that the region’s artistic treasures are in.
It is with some relief that pieces from Palmyra remain in London, New York and Paris, preserved for the world to see, given the destruction of ruins therein by Daesh. The very documentation of the history of Palmyra in London serves as an important service to a site that would have otherwise been abandoned, much as the original ancient settlement was.
With artistic creations commonly under threat in regional conflict environments, their safe transport to London is critical in the context of them being lost or falling into the hands of smugglers and criminal enterprises.
Zaid M. Belbagi
The decision to augment Islamic Art Week with sales of Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art was a vote of confidence in London’s commitment to becoming a home for the appreciation and sale of art from the region.
Aside from isolated projects, the comprehensive understanding of contemporary regional art is lacking, and hosting prestigious sales in this domain will do a lot to increase the importance of the field among global audiences.
The curated sale at Christie’s comprised of 56 lots that included work by the region’s modern masters, including Mahmoud Said, the Egyptian artist considered a pioneer in modern Arab art. The sales raised £7.3 million ($9.6 million), illustrating some gains for the industry, though not the complete expansion that had been predicted in some circles.
But interest in Middle Eastern art is growing, and as organizers gear up for Abu Dhabi Art, it is clear that the sector in general requires more attention. The upcoming opening of the Louvre in the UAE illustrates a willingness to support the arts to a significant degree. Nevertheless, it is more important that those keen to pursue a career in this field are given the mentoring and resources to build regional talent.
Art is a discipline that does not naturally lend itself to quantification and overregulation. In that context, it is important that the holistic approach of institutions, academies, foundations and the grand old auction houses that have worked so well in the UK to preserve Middle Eastern art is replicated regionally.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid