DUBAI: It was in late 2018 that Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) — the Jean Nouvel-designed cultural institution and museum that has enlightened audiences on art and culture from the Arab world for nearly 30 years — announced its largest donation to date, granted by Claude and France Lemand.
Comprising 1,300 works of art, this impressive donation is of great significance as it denotes the largest ever presented to a major French institution in the modern era. It also enriched and enlarged IMA’s collections by 40 percent, adding modern and contemporary artworks created by artists from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, Palestine, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.
From renowned masters such as Dia Al-Azzawi, Etel Adnan, and Shafic Abboud down to multidisciplinary contemporary artists including the likes of Kevork Mourad, Ayman Baalbaki, and Zoulikha Bouabdellah, the collection offers a comprehensive insight into the varying artistic energies and narratives emerging from the Arab world and diaspora.
The Lemands developed a passion for art collecting when Claude — a former linguistics professor and public servant for France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who was born in Lebanon — and France were residing in Egypt during the 1980s. They acquired works by the Egyptian luminaries Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar, Hamed Nada, and Gazbia Sirry. Claude’s interest in Arab art was sparked when, in 1969, he was enthralled by an exhibition in Beirut by the famous expressionist painter Shafic Abboud, who was one of the first Lebanese artists to move to Paris in 1947 and would eventually become a friend of his.
Due to the Lebanese Civil War in the 1970s, Claude fled the country and eventually started a new life in France, never to return to his home country. In a sentimental way, however, he remains attached to the Arab world through the art he and France have thoughtfully collected and lovingly safeguarded over the decades.
Today, at the age of 74, Lemand is an expert on Arab artists, actively promoting them through various activities — most importantly through the opening of his own unique art gallery in Paris. “I had the mission of promoting Arab artists to the Western world,” Claude once stated. “And of ensuring a continuity of Arab art, linking the present with the past throughout times.”
One wonders what encouraged the Lemands to generously give away such a substantial amount of artworks from their collection. With posterity in mind, they felt they had found the right place to share their collection with the world.
“According to French law, when an artwork enters a French museum, it can never ever leave its collection — which is unlike what is happening in America and other countries,” Claude told Arab News. “When my wife and I leave this world, we will be reassured by the fact that future generations will enjoy seeing this collection over the coming years.” The couple also set up a fund specifically for IMA, intended to encourage the acquisition of future artworks and finance upcoming publications and exhibitions.
Acting as a facelift for the institution, the arrival of this donation perfectly matches the vision of IMA’s president, Jack Lang, who seeks to revamp the building and revive its collections’ layout within the next couple of years. Until then, a selection of works from the donation has been (and will be) organized into three thematic exhibitions, each lasting for four months.
The current exhibition delves into drawing. On view until September 15, “With Pen, Brush or Pencil: Drawings from the Arab World” invites the viewer to explore nearly 90 artworks — gathered from both the museum’s permanent collection and the Lemands’ donation — showcasing a variety of themes, including portraiture, calligraphy, and social realism.
A clever feature of the exhibition’s layout lies in how the donated works are fused with displayed works from the permanent collection — which largely consists of historical items — creating a dialogue between the ancient and the modern.
“This was an opportunity to let audiences know that, even in the Arab world, the practice of drawing is an ancient phenomenon that was started a thousand years ago,” explained Eric Delpont, IMA’s director and exhibition curator. True to Delpont’s word, one of the very first works on display in the exhibition is an extremely delicate drawing fragment of a man being devoured by a lion — created in Fustat (modern-day Cairo) during the 11th century.
Across three floors of IMA’s building, one encounters many remarkable images, such as Abboud’s small work on paper from 1960, in which he uses Chinese ink to create a poignantly black composition. A miniscule notebook from the 1990s belonging to Egyptian-born artist Anna Boghiguian that contains imagery of colorful female figurines is also on view. Etel Adnan, who has remained artistically active into her nineties, is another showstopper of the exhibition. Two of her long, accordion-like Japanese notebooks — known as ‘leporello’ — reveal her handwritten Arabic poetry, while another records a minimalistic depiction of the rooftops of Paris.
The exhibition also goes some way to eradicating a few misconceptions about the Arab world, including its artistic production. The first part of the exhibition is dedicated to figuration and portraiture and features the Iraqi artist Dia Al-Azzawi’s sensual and abstract portrayal of bodies (as part of the Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh), which prompts Delpont to point out that “the pleasure of life has always been practiced in the Arab world — it is not a taboo.”
“A lot of people think that the representation of living beings is completely forbidden in the Arab world, which is not the case at all,” he said. “Before and after the birth of Islam, there has always been a representation of living beings in the arts or the crafts.”