FROM DUBAI TO LONDON: Christie’s Dubai brings Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art in the spotlight of the international art scene in London for the first time

King Street, London, UK
21-25 October 2017

Finally… everyone was anticipating the moment when Christie’s highly popular sales of Modern & Contemporary Middle Eastern Art held in Dubai bi-annually would come to London, one of the main platforms of the global art market. With an increasing demand from international collectors and institutions, and following 22 very successful auctions at Christie’s Dubai of Arab, Iranian and Turkish Modern & Contemporary Art, it was the next logical step to transfer one of the two sales to the prestigious saleroom of Christie’s King Street, keeping the March sale in Dubai to coincide with the Art Dubai and Dubai Art Week buzz. Taking place on the 25 October 2017, during the recently re-branded ‘Middle Eastern Art Week’ which will also include Islamic Art and Carpets sales, Christie’s inaugural Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art promises to astound the vibrant Western art scene, showcasing the ‘best of the best’ of what this region has to offer. A very tight, carefully curated sale of just under sixty museum quality lots will shed light on some of the Middle East’s leading modern and contemporary talents.

The front cover of the auction catalogue is an outstanding masterpiece, The Watermelon Sellers of 1953, by Iraqi pioneer Jewad Selim, founder of the Baghdad Modern Art Movement. The artist gifted it to the U.S. non-profit organization AMIDEAST in 1954, to thank them for their efforts in supporting his oeuvre. AMIDEAST was previously known as AFME (American Friends of the Middle East) that promoted cultural activities, such as exhibitions or conferences which presented Middle Eastern art and artists to the American public. In 1954, AFME had organised a travelling exhibition across America that included many works by Jewad Selim, boosting the artist’s reputation on the Western front. From that perspective, having such an iconic and historical work on the cover of Christie’s inaugural London sale catalogue of Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art is particularly fitting with Christie’s ongoing 11-year mission of internationalising the Middle Eastern Art market. In the same way Selim had brought a fleeting moment from his home country’s everyday life in the vibrant street markets of Baghdad to America in 1954, The Watermelon Sellers in the context of the Christie’s catalogue offers a sneak preview to the international audience of what Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art is about. As the traditionally dressed female watermelon seller waves her hands up in the air, to catch the attention of potential clients passing by her stall, she also here seems to shout out to the Western art collectors and institutions to come discover and understand what this young sale category has to offer.

And Selim’s female watermelon seller is right: the art lover, collector and museum director will not be deceived and can perfectly relate to Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art, as opposed to accepting the cliché of labelling it wrongly ‘Islamic art’, or qualifying it as being ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘exotic’. Again, Selim’s Watermelon Sellers shows the way: its resonance with Cubism and other 20th century Western art trends, its hints to Picasso’s approach to figure, and its overall tribute to Mesopotamian heritage constitute a pictorial vocabulary that can be understood in any language. This is the core of Middle Eastern Modern Art, a reconciliation between the past and the present, between Middle Eastern traditions and Western modernisation, and between the region’s rich cultural heritage and modern aesthetic means. The uniqueness of this art is its unparalleled diversity resulting from the eclectic nature of the Middle Eastern region expanding from the Maghreb in the West to Iran in the East, from Turkey in the North to Yemen in the South, and from its amalgamation of cultures built over centuries of history.

Bearing this in mind, the audience can now look at some of this wonderful sale’s highlights with a clearer open-mindedness. Spearheaded by Jewad Selim’s Watermelon Sellers, the Modern Iraqi artists are prominently featured in this auction, something quite extraordinary given the rarity of these works and the difficulty to access them. Three works by Hafidh Al-Droubi, who had co-established alongside Selim and others the Society of the Friends of Art, the first official artists’ group in Iraq, as early as 1941, exemplify this Iraqi artist’s assimilation and re-interpretation of 20th century Western art trends, notably Cubism, in his own personal style, very much imbued with Iraqi culture. Shaker Hassan Al-Saïd, another pivotal figure for the history of Modern Iraqi Art, is represented by two very different works, one of 1952 striking by its Fauvist colours and modern primitivism, and one of 1976 that demonstrates his artistic evolution towards abstraction. One of his students, Mehdi Moutashar, with whom he extensively corresponded to exchange artistic thoughts, stands out as the most daring artist of this Iraqi group, with his complex and highly intellectual geometric and vertiginous compositions, of which eight of a same series are being offered as one lot. Following the recent rediscovery of the oeuvre of Socio-Realist and Iraqi Communist Mahmoud Sabri, Grief by the same artist is an outstanding painting, most probably related to his funeral series presenting Ahmed Saleh, who had been jailed and later died, as a martyr for the Iraqi people. Such a strong Iraqi selection would be incomplete without the presence of Dia Al-Azzawi, probably the most important Iraqi modern and contemporary artist of this time, with a beautiful 1960s composition loaded with popular Iraqi symbols.

Modern Egyptian Art is equally well represented in Christie’s sale, featuring for instance, four very different works by Mahmoud Saïd (1897-1964) showcasing the Alexandrian master’s wide range of talents, from painting voluptuous female nudes (Nu au Rideau gris; 1934), to depicting warm sunny Lebanese landscapes (Coucher de soleil sur le Saanin; 1953), to portraying common peasant girls or ‘fellahas’ with an unprecedented humanism and sensitivity (Hanem; 1951). The fourth museum-piece by Saïd is La fille aux yeux verts (réplique), that caused confusion when it was first offered for sale at Christie’s Dubai exactly ten years ago, resulting in its withdrawal, when it is in fact a documented and authentic replica executed in 1932 that Mahmoud Saïd did of another work bearing the same title painted in 1931 and which now hangs in the Residence of the Permanent Representative of the Arab Republic of Egypt to the United Nations in New York. Other Modern Egyptian masterpieces in the sale include one of the last Italianate portraits by Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar depicting former Director of the Egyptian Academy in Rome, Salah Youssef Kamel; two works by Hamed Nada that incarnate his artistic evolution from his early days as a member of the Contemporary Art Group in Pain to his 1980s joyful caricature style found in Dancer and Pianist; a unique comprehensive work by Egyptian Socio-Realist Hamed Ewais that celebrates Egypt’s Nasserist transition; two examples by one of the most renowned modern and contemporary Egyptian sculptors Adam Henein; two different types of portraiture that glorify Nubian culture and female peasants, one painted by female Egyptian artist Tahia Halim and the other by Hussein Bicar. In addition, a small versatile group of Modern Egyptian artworks provide a rare insight onto the perception of female nudity seen through the Egyptian painter’s eye, including examples by Samir Rafi, Mahmoud Saïd (as mentioned above), Georges Hanna Sabbagh and Ramsès Younan.

The latter’s interpretation of the female nude in the large masterpiece offered in Christie’s London sale is probably the most striking because of its violence, crudeness and warm silky palette. La Passion Sauvage is one of the most visually powerful icons of the 1930s/1940s anti-conformist Egyptian art movement known as ‘Art et Liberté’, often considered as the Egyptian counterpart to André Breton’s Surrealism. Younan’s female nude incarnates that art rebellion. It literally transcribes into her shredded flesh the ‘Art and Freedom’ group’s frustrations, rejection and disgust towards conventional art and in particular, their reaction to the Nazi ban and destruction of the so-called ‘Entartete Kunst’ (‘Degenerate Art’). La Passion Sauvage also seems to illustrate Younan’s denunciation of the emptiness of History and of Academia in his first critical and influential essay Aim of the Modern Artist (1938), claiming ‘I do not want ‘friends’ but rather accomplices involved in the same crime: pierce through emptiness, rape emptiness’. In this tight composition, where the tortuous female nude is crammed into the pictorial space and trapped by a bloody arm that clutches her breast, probably alluding to artistic and political oppression, Younan ‘pierces through emptiness’. In other words he provokes the audience by making them physically feel the imposing presence of this dehumanized female nude screaming at the deadlocked artistic but also political scene.

Besides these strong sections of Modern Iraqi and Modern Egyptian art, many other masterpieces executed by equally seminal names shaping the History of Arab Art are included in Christie’s auction this season. A large composition by Armenian/Lebanese pioneer Paul Guiragossian is being offered, immediately recognisable by its rich palette and textured surface built with impasto, that depicts a group of figures, a leitmotiv in Guiragossian’s oeuvre, often referring to the exodus following the Armenian genocide. The other father of Modern Lebanese art who quickly gained international recognition having settled in Paris early in his career, is Shafic Abboud. His monumental lyrical abstractions, hinting to elements of reality and to the artist’s childhood memories, are a visual explosion of colours and emotions and a celebration of the joy of life, represented by three breath-taking works from a same series entitled ‘Chambres Verticales’ grouped as one lot and by a single elaborately patterned panel entitled ‘La Veste Chinoise’. Abstraction is taken a step further by Lebanese master Saliba Douaihy in his 1963-1966 luminous purple-blue minimalist composition entitled Connection, drawing him closer to the Colour Field Movement proned by Mark Rothko and Hans Hoffman, after Douaihy had moved to America in 1950.

Syrian counterpart Fateh Moudarres is the author of three jewel-like paintings in this sale, two of which are sold as a pair, portraying one of his art patrons Amal Al-Ghazi and her brother Ghiath. The third is an impressive 1980s quadriptych that alludes to the current events happening in Lebanon at that time, as well as to the region’s collective history, bathing in a fiery red giving the work an almost mosaic/stained-glass quality. Modern Syrian Art is further represented by Abstract Expressionist Marwan, in his signature work depicting a large head executed with thick impasto, whilst female Arab artists are also part of this auction, including Helen Khal with her portrait of a young boy floating between figuration and abstraction, contrasting with the Expressionist work of sought-after Kuwaiti female artist Munira Al-Kazi, depicting a female nude.

Balancing this rich collection of Modern Arab Art, a wide range of Modern Iranian artworks by internationally acclaimed artists is also being offered at Christie’s London on 25 October 2017. Pioneers Faramarz Pilaram, known for his intricate compositions full of symbolism and allusions to Iranian cultural heritage making him an advocate of the Saqqakhaneh movement as seen in the work at Christie’s, and Sohrab Sepehri, whose paintings of trees are on the verge of minimalist abstraction, influenced by Japanese prints, Buddhist approach and Zen philosophy following a trip he made to Japan in 1960. In contrast to Pilaram’s meticulous jewel-like works or Sepehri’s peaceful and poetic tributes to nature, Bahman Mohasses’ monumental triptych entitled ‘Tiresia did not know much about the future’ comes as a shock, with its horrifying figures and creatures shouting back at Younan’s above mentioned ‘Passion Sauvage’ with a comparable violence and frightening liveliness. Thought to be Mohasses’ only work which includes his self-portrait on the far right, the artist seems to be caught between threatening animals and monsters. Painted in 1976, a couple of years before the outbreak of the Islamic Revolution that changed the course of Iran’s history, Mohasses refers to the Greek myth of the transgender prophet Tiresia, who was temporarily blinded by a goddess as punishment. The crystal ball in the central panel, the eye-less creatures who seem to be wearing gas-masks and the piercing white eyes of the horse, eagle and of the artist himself, reveal Mohasses’ concern with the theme of clairvoyance and vision, emphasised by the mythological connotation to Tiresia. The artist here depicted a deep and universal human feeling: the fear of the future, along with man’s reaction when faced with the unknown, as well as the distress and the fantasy that comes with it. In fact, by the time Mohasses painted this triptych in 1976, Iranian economy and politics were in crisis and corruption, inflation and social discrepancies were highly criticized by the population who denunciated human rights violation and oppression. The imaginary underworld depicted by Mohasses with its dark colours, sanguine textures and oppressive style uses Tiresia as a metaphor for the social instability and the doubts amongst the Iranian people, but Tiresia may also incarnate the artist himself, and his helplessness at not knowing what the future holds.

Whilst the Museum of Modern Art in New York changed the hanging of its permanent collections a few months ago, which now includes a seminal work by Charles-Hossein Zenderoudi executed in 1962 exhibited side by side to works by Henri Matisse, Christie’s London sale will also be offering an exceptional work by this skilled Iranian-born French artist dating from the same period, SARI FE AZAR of 1965, sometimes referred to as ‘Persian Pop Art’. Although the latter depicts what seems to be a bird, Zenderoudi strips it from its meaning and from its reference in reality, just as he uses calligraphic writing, to use them as visual supports for his experiments in triggering a spiritual, sensory and emotional experience for the viewer, taking him beyond the pictorial realm onto a journey in space and in time.

Christie’s auction not only sheds light on the artistic talents of the Middle East, but it also demonstrates the multi-faceted styles and various media that have emerged from that region. Two of the most experimental and versatile internationally renowned living artists are Iranians Parviz Tanavoli and Farhad Moshiri. Despite their prolific oeuvre that touches upon so many different techniques and aesthetics, each of their works bear their unmistakable signatures, as seen in Tanavoli’s two ‘heech’ sculptures offered at the Christie’s sale, and in Moshiri’s two canvases depicting a jar and a bowl. On one hand, the single word heech used by Tanavoli means ‘nothing’, alluding to the feelings of unworthiness, frustration and ineffectiveness, which haunt modern man and permeate so much of the writing of contemporary literature. Tanavoli seeks to convey in his sculptures through a single word the mystical belief that recognises that God is permanent, while everything else has no true substance, bound to vanish. On the other hand, Farhad Moshiri is the true heir of ‘Persian Pop Art’ pushing the boundaries of painterly practice. His daring media experiments have established him as one of today’s leading Iranian contemporary artists. Using different materials ranging from everyday objects, such as the Christie’s lots that depict a jar and a bowl, to luxurious items such as pearls and crystals, Moshiri addresses the flaws of contemporary Iranian society while simultaneously plays with ideas of traditional forms. His work covers conceptual and picturesque elements from Eastern and Western art and allows them to co-exist in a universe using both painting and sculpture.

Highlights of Contemporary Iranian Art this season also include a beautiful composition by sought-after artist Ali Banisadr, in which he joins depth along with characteristics of Iranian miniatures, to represent his own reality. Other works in this sale feature Monir Farmanfarmaian, known for her magnificent reverse mirror compositions; Reza Derakshani whose style merges Persian miniatures reinterpreted with an abstract contemporary language; Koorosh Shishegaran who delves into the modern human condition through his contemporary calligraphic configurations and creates his own painterly language to portray different facets of reality, and the revolutionary Iranian neo-calligraphist Nasrollah Afjehei with his impressive ‘Peacock’ composition, in which he uses a very detailed script inspired from the Qu’ran as a pretext of form to create an enchanting universe.

From figurative to abstract art, from Mesopotamian to Greek mythology, from calligraphy to pop art, no doubt this landmark sale of Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art will embark viewers on an inspirational journey through time and through the region. The sale takes place on 25 October 2017 at Christie’s King Street premises, with a viewing opening on the 22nd that invites art lovers, collectors and institutions to have a different outlook on how these artists each forged their own personal style, bridging the heritage of their respective countries with modern and contemporary aesthetic means. Valerie Didier-Hess