Under the hammer: Contemporary art from the Arab world

Iraqi artist Mahmoud Sabri created this 1953 painting in Moscow. (Supplied)
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Updated 19 March 2020

Under the hammer: Contemporary art from the Arab world

  • Highlights from Sotheby’s “20th Century Art/Middle East” auction, scheduled for March 24

‘Piraeus at Dawn’

Mahmoud Said

Sotheby’s is billing this 1949 depiction of a Greek port in the early morning by the Alexandrian painter — widely regarded as the founder of Egypt’s modern-art movement — as the highlight of this auction. It is expected to fetch close to half-a-million dollars. “An otherworldly stillness emanates from the work,” the brochure says, “as Said maintains a harmonious balance between the various elements of the composition and bestows his signature grandeur on the scene. He picked dawn as the time of day for this painting to emphasize the beauty and grandeur of the sea, mountains and trees. He gracefully expressed the nature of the place and its magic as he saw it, producing a glorious landscape.”



The work of acclaimed Algerian artist Baya Mahieddine was reportedly the influence for Picasso’s series of paintings called “Women of Algeria.” Baya was self-taught — she was orphaned aged five and did not attend school — and her art is often described as “naïve,” “surrealist,” and “primitive.” She was certainly heavily influenced by the traditional tribal art of her homeland, but also by Picasso’s own techniques (she was invited to work with him in 1948). “Picasso nurtured Baya’s aesthetic — particularly her use of color and line, while Baya’s cultural vitality served as creative lifeblood for Picasso,” according to Sotheby’s. This piece, from 1990, is expected to fetch between $10-15,000 at auction.


Naim Ismail

Ismail — like his older brother Adham — is one of Syria’s most significant painters and, according to Barjeel Art Foundation, “contributed to a movement in Syria to cultivate a sense of national consciousness through visual culture.” His works often contains influences from Islam, particularly geometric patterns, and are often depictions of everyday life in his homeland. This work from 1960 is expected to fetch up to $22,000 at auction.

“A Family of Farmers”

Mahmoud Sabri

The Iraqi artist actually created this 1953 painting in Moscow. It is one of many of his works to highlight the hardships faced by the working class and the dispossessed. “Sabri came of age during far-reaching social and economic changes in Iraq, committed to depicting the realities of persistent poverty and social injustice yet with an underlying message of hope and a shared responsibility to transform society,” Sotheby’s writes. “A Family of Farmers” is expected to fetch between $120-185,000 at auction.


Hassan Hajjaj

A typical image from the Moroccan artist’s dazzling portfolio, “Hindiii” is a portrait of singer, actress and artist Hindi Zahra. As Hajjaj told Arab News last year, many of his subjects are of “friends and friends of friends who have some kind of talent that is inspiring to me. They’re not mainstream … but somebody who has something.” Zahra said of Hajjaj: “We have different visions but we have a love of Morocco in common. I love this guy because he really pushed people to express themselves... He told me I had to take my drawings seriously and really pushed me into painting, so I'm grateful.”

‘The Well’

Laila Shawa

The Palestinian artist created this oil painting in Beirut in 1967, not long after the June War between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. “Beneath the disc of a searing sun — a visual element recurring throughout Shawa’s oeuvre — three exhausted women in traditional garb with water urns, the diminutive well of the title and a bulky, masculine mosque, are strewn across the picture plane,” the catalogue notes state. “The Well” is expected to fetch up to $30,000 at auction.

‘My Bed, Fifi Abdou’ 

Youssef Nabil

The Egyptian artist-photographer has spent much of his career creating intimate portraits of celebrities. He is influenced by the golden age of Egyptian cinema from his youth, and his photographs recall, as his gallery bio from The Third Line puts it, “evoke the deliciously outmoded feel of the photo-novels that accompanied cinema at the time and highlight the extraordinary character of his models…” This portrait, taken in 2000, is of Egyptian actress and belly dancer Fifi Abdou and is expected to fetch between $5,000 and $7,400 at auction.

What We Are Eating Today: Made Rustic

Updated 10 July 2020

What We Are Eating Today: Made Rustic

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