Modern art from India, Pakistan breaks the mold at Art Dubai

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Rasheed Araeen, "One Summer Afternoon," (1968). (Photo courtesy: Grosvenor Gallery)
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OPUS TR, Untitled, (2017). (Photo courtesy: Grosvenor Gallery)
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GUL, “Untitled (Abstract Forms),” (1966). (Photo courtesy: Grosvenor Gallery)
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Ahmed Parvez, "Still Life with Vase of Flowers,"(1964). (Photo courtesy: Grosvenor Gallery)
Updated 22 March 2018

Modern art from India, Pakistan breaks the mold at Art Dubai

If you are passionate about modern art from India and Pakistan, the Grosvenor Gallery’s stands at Art Dubai — which will run until March 24 — will leave you in a state of wonder if you are lucky enough to be visiting the city. Here you will find works by pioneering artists including Syed Sadequain, Ismail Gulgee, Anwar Jalal Shemza and Rasheed Araeen.
Talking to Arab News, gallery director Charles Moore pointed out that the art establishment mostly ignored artists from India and Pakistan who arrived in the UK in the 1960s. Their talent went largely unrecognized until certain key figures took it upon themselves to break through the wall of indifference.
One who led the way in overcoming prejudice is Rasheed Araeen, a conceptual artist, sculptor, painter, writer, and curator, primarily known for his minimalist open geometric wooden sculptures. He has been working as a visual artist since arriving in London from Pakistan in 1964.
“Araeen was very involved in the promotion of foreign artists in the UK; the establishment ignored artists from Africa, Central America and South Asia, many of whom contributed massively to the landscape of 20th century art but were largely ignored by public institutions,” Moore explained. “Araeen curated an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1989 called ‘The Other Story’ which was a watershed moment — the first time any major UK institution showed such works. He also published journals such as the ‘Black Phoenix’ and ‘Third Text,’ which campaigned for these artists who were producing fantastic work in the UK but not getting recognition.”
Moore added that interest in Araeen’s work was “revitalized” after it was shown at Art Dubai and the Sharjah Biennale in 2014.
“That put him back in the international spotlight and since then there has been a huge amount of academic and institutional interest in him. His interactive work ‘Zero to Infinity’ was installed in last year’s Venice Biennale and there is a retrospective of his work currently on display at the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, which will travel to MAMCO, Geneva, The BALTIC Center, Gateshead and Garage Museum, Moscow. His most recent works are very colorful, geometric paintings inspired by Islamic history and calligraphy and the mathematics of geometry and minimalism. When you look at the body of work which we are presenting in our catalogue at the fair, you can see the progression from the 1960s till now,” said Moore.
Pakistani artist Syed Sadequain is another who rose to prominence despite the establishment’s initial unwillingness to embrace Asian artists.
In the early 19060s, Sadequain won a competition to illustrate an edition of Albert Camus’ debut novel “L’Etranger.” “This was a big deal — it was worth quite a bit of money and enabled him to continue to live in Paris,” Moore said, noting that it was a great coup for Sadequain, an outsider competing against the great talent pool in Paris, to illustrate such an acclaimed novel, so beloved by the French.
Sadequain’s painting illustrates a scene from the very end of the novel.
“This expressive image comes from the final chapter of the book and shows the protagonist being crushed by his inner demons,” Moore explained. “Sadequain’s illustration of Camus’ existentialist masterpiece is one of the key moments of his career. So, to be able to exhibit the original work alongside others from this period is a great joy for us.”
Unlike his peers Sadequain and Araeen, Ismail Gulgee resisted the lure of the cultural capitals of Europe and remained in Pakistan. But he was no less innovative in his own way, Moore said.
“Gulgee (created) portraits of well-known figures but is also one of the pioneers of action painting in the region. His 1966 work ‘Abstract Forms’ is a wonderful large-scale piece and an early form of this type of painting. Usually his works from that period are much more figurative, executed in small brush-strokes, a technique akin to pointillism, but you can very clearly make out the subjects — whether they be horses, camels or polo players. This is a very early example of the style he became known for, which people really took to and which made him extremely popular.”
Dubai is just the latest stop on the painting’s absorbing journey around the world, as Moore explained.
“This painting was in the collection of the Bell Federal Credit Union in Nebraska. Heaven only knows how it got from Karachi to Nebraska in, presumably, the late 19060s. It came out of that collection in the 1990s and went to an owner who had it on their wall for 25 years, until we bought it.”
The London-based Grosvenor Gallery has been participating in Art Dubai since its first edition in 2007. For Moore, the event provides an excellent opportunity to connect with collectors.
“We have clients in the Gulf region who collect works by the artists we represent and there is a large Pakistani and Indian expat community who are actively engaged in learning about and seeing the works,” he told Arab News. “There aren’t many galleries in Dubai promoting this kind of material. It is difficult to see at the best of times. Even in London it is difficult to find, so the opportunities to see this material all in one go are few and far between.
“Dubai is a great venue. It works very well — the whole place goes crazy for art and a lot of work goes into these events. Also, Dubai is just an eight-hour flight from Europe, so it attracts people from these countries as well.”
On how the art market currently values works by established South Asian artists, he said: “On the whole I would say the market is in a relatively good place. The prices for modernist works have grown organically over a long period of time. You have the ‘Blue Chip’ names, and there are now well-established bench marks for certain artists. The difficult thing, as in any market, is sourcing good quality fresh material. As the years go on it gets harder and harder because for every wonderful picture you sell that’s one less in the market – but on the whole the market is in a fairly strong position without being too frothy or inflated.”
Prior to joining Grosvenor Gallery six years ago, Moore was a specialist in Middle Eastern and South Asian works of art at Bonhams auction house. He clearly relishes his work but warned casual observers not to be taken in by the calm atmosphere that often pervades galleries.
“Art galleries can be like swans in appearance – they appear to be very calm and sedate, but there is an intense amount of work going on behind the scenes,” he concluded.

Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

Updated 21 May 2019

Zahrah Al-Ghamdi finds the beauty in sadness

  • This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date
  • Zahrah Al-Ghamdi discusses her love of land art and organic materials

VENICE: The Al-Baha-born, Jeddah-based land artist and arts professor Zahrah Al-Ghamdi has an unwavering passion for creating arresting, large-scale installations composed of natural materials — sand, clay, rocks, leather and the like. Explaining her love of shaping these organic substances, Al-Ghamdi once said: “It’s important for me to smell the sand and feel it with my own hands, because those senses of touch and smell allow my work a synergy, and if I don’t get that synergy, I can’t work.”

This month saw perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Al-Ghamdi’s career to date. The artist was chosen to inaugurate Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at the 2019 edition of the Venice Biennale —the art world’s largest public event and oldest contemporary art show — through an immersive solo exhibition entitled “After Illusion.”

Al-Ghamdi was jointly selected to represent the Kingdom by the recently developed Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Misk Art Institute, a homegrown arts foundation that aims to strengthen artistic activity within the Kingdom.

“To be honest, when I used to read about the Venice Biennale and its unique concept, I felt so far away from that world — it was like a dream,” Al Ghamdi tells Arab News. “In recent years, I’ve worked really hard and always hoped to achieve more through each work I would present. So when I received the call from the Misk Art Institute to participate at the biennale, it was like a dream I never thought I’d dream. I was elated but simultaneously felt a great deal of responsibility, as I am not representing (just) myself, but my country and all its artists.”  

Through her debut participation at the biennale, which is open to the public until November 24, Al-Ghamdi joins a canon of female artists putting on solo exhibitions and taking the lead in representing their countries to the world, including Larissa Sansour for Denmark, Laure Prouvost for France, Cathy Wilkes for Great Britain, Nujoom Al-Ghanem for the UAE and Naiza Khan for Pakistan.

In a dimly lit, almost celestial setting, “After Illusion” takes the viewer through a thoughtfully designed constellation of 52,000 manually manipulated leather spheres — or ‘creatures’ as Al-Ghamdi likes to call them — cascading down white drop curtains, while others are scattered on the ground. Adding intimacy to the overall experience, an audio recording of Al-Ghamdi working in her atelier plays within the pavilion’s interior.

'After Illusion,' the work Al-Ghamdi created for the Venice Biennale. (Supplied)

As with most of Al-Ghamdi’s works, the exhibition not only reflects an element of Saudi Arabia’s history and evolving identity, but also the artist’s own history, acting as an expressive form of self-portrait.

“One of the things that I liked about Al-Ghamdi’s work is that she makes her work by hand,” says pavilion curator and fellow Saudi artist Eiman Elgibreen. “This is something we are missing lately in the art scene — everyone is doing manufactured, plastic-y things. I was always interested (in the fact) that she works with something very traditional but transforms it into something really contemporary and new. The leather material used here reminds her of her grandfather herding, but now no one herds. And so she took the leather and transformed it, which I thought would go very well with our concept. Just imagine these creatures having a new life and then trying to settle in Venice, reassuring people that it’s not wrong to transform and change, because eventually you’ll reach a new reality that way.”

Al-Ghamdi, too, has undergone transformation in her life and career, evolving her artistic vision by exploring themes of memory and loss, exhibiting works in Dubai’s AlSerkal Avenue and London’s British Museum, among others, and participating in international residency programs and symposiums. It was Al-Ghamdi’s father — a teacher who enjoyed drawing — who first noticed her artistic abilities and encouraged her to pursue the arts.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Islamic Arts from Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University, Al-Ghamdi traveled to England, where she gained Master’s and PhD degrees in Design and Visual Art. It was during her studies abroad that Al-Ghamdi’s artistic knowledge greatly expanded, and land art was her greatest influence.

Land art — which, in its modern sense, gained momentum during the 1970s — was practiced by pioneering Western artists including Robert Smithson, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, and Walter De Maria. Resisting the commercialism of the art world and the confines of the gallery space, they turned instead to vast landscape settings for artistic expression — passionately sculpting into the ground or building massive installations using natural materials.

One of Al-Ghamdi's earlier works, 'What Lies Behind The Sun,' was constructed from thorns. (Supplied)

“In Saudi Arabia, the field of research was weak for me. But when I traveled abroad, I was introduced to a whole other world through the Internet and exhibitions,” Al-Ghamdi explains. “I was deeply influenced by land artists Smithson, Goldsworthy, and Long, and I was taken by their ability to use raw materials to express their feelings and attract the attention of viewers. They helped me see ‘nothing’ as something important, and that I could use raw materials to send a message. For instance, in a previous work I made, I placed tough thorns that were found in southern Saudi Arabia in a large circular shape. The thorns may indeed emit stories of pain, (but also), on the contrary, the notion of power and stability.”

Observing her experimental and thought-provoking oeuvre — from a carefully lined floor installation made of rubble to a layered gauze installation soaked in black paint — one may experience an unsettling sense of isolation, sadness, and vulnerability. A kind of destruction, almost.

“That is exactly how I want you to see my work. When I look at architecture, I do not necessarily see the beauty or happiness it exudes. My colleagues often ask me why I focus on the misery of architecture, but that’s what personally interests me — I need to see its truth. When I look at the old, abandoned buildings in the south of Saudi Arabia, they’re isolated and look unhappy to me, as they are surrounded by contradictory modern counterparts that do not attract me,” Al-Ghamdi says. “In my work, I am also trying to send a message to the viewer that the earth, which grants life and stability, suffers from the relentless actions of human beings through dryness, pollution, and war."