Apollo Magazine (UK)
Emma Crichton-Miller on Arab modernism
In the last two decades, as public institutions in the West have woken up to the richness of modern art from the Middle East – particularly that produced in countries post-independence – important works have begun to find their way into the market
Interest in modern Arab art has risen steeply over the last years. So have prices. ‘When I first encountered Etel Adnan’s work in her pieces were selling for , ,’ recalls Andrée Sfeir-Semler, of Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Hamburg and Beirut. ‘From day one it has been exponentially up and up in price.’ Certainly the first work by Adnan sold through Christie’s Dubai, in – Iradat al-hayat (The Will of Life) ( ), a painted manuscript featuring poetry by the early th-century Tunisian Abul al-Qasim Al-Shabbi – fetched a relatively modest price: , , on an exploratory estimate of , – , . But in a large presentation of the Lebanese artist’s colourful abstract work at Documenta launched her internationally. Her auction record now stands at , for Untitled ( s), sold at Sotheby’s London in . Adnan (b. ; Fig. ) has moved from being a poet, painter and essayist much admired by cognoscenti in Lebanon and in the US, where she taught for many years, to being a market star. ‘Her work from the s was exceptional,’ Sfeir-Semler says: ‘Why was she not known to the market earlier?’
The same question applies to many of Adnan’s contemporaries. The painter and sculptor Jewad Selim ( – ) has long been regarded as the founding figure of Iraqi modern art; but the auction market for his work only took off in . That was when his sculptural masterpiece Mother and Child (Fig. ), sold from the UK collection where it had been held since being bought in Baghdad directly from the artist in , soared to , at Bonhams in Dubai, per cent above the midestimate. The work exemplifies Selim’s interest, as founder in of the Baghdad Group for Modern Art, in drawing together influences from European modernism – Picasso, Matisse, Henry Moore – and ancient Mesopotamian art.
His record now stands at , , achieved in at Christie’s London for his painting The Watermelon Seller ( ) – more than three times the low estimate of , .
Part of the explanation is that modern Middle Eastern art is barely a hundred years old. It was born after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. For Arab countries the first phase, the age of ‘the pioneers’, as they are sometimes called, was characterised by the embracing of European models, as close links were established between Arab countries in the Levant and Britain and France, the new colonial powers who took over from the Ottomans, as well as the closest European neighbours, Greece and the Soviet Union. But as Arab countries began to gain independence from Europe – Egypt from , when it became nominally independent of the British Empire, others from the s and ’ s – artists started to assert their national identity. The works they produced were also vital contributions to a pan-Arab process of regional self-definition,
particularly after Gamel Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt in . Important artists’ groups emerged: in Egypt headed by Hamed Abdalla ( – ); in Iraq, where leading figures included Shakir Hassan Al Said ( – ) of the One Dimension Group, and Dia Al-Azzawi (b. ) of the New Vision group; in Lebanon, Saloua Raouda Choucair ( – ), Shafic Abboud ( – ) and Paul Guiragossian ( – ); in Morocco, Mohamed Melehi (b. ) and the Casablanca Art School; in Palestine, Samia Halaby (b.
); and in Algeria the short-lived but influential Aouchem Group, founded in by the Spanish-Algerian artist Denis Martinez (b. ) and Choukri Mesli ( – ). This history is still being written. Much documentation was lost in conflicts and revolutions. Moreover, many of the works achieving high prices at auction have until now remained in the hands of their first owners. This is true, for instance, of the vast, haunting canvas Sarajevo ( ), by the Egyptian artist Omar El-Nagdi (b. ), which sold at Christie’s Dubai in
for . m (estimate , – , ). Change came slowly. Robin Start, director of the Park Gallery in London, remembers: ‘I was focused originally on Orientalist paintings. It was apparent in about that there was a growing awareness and appreciation among Arab collectors of the art of their own regions. With the advent of the Arab Spring [in the early s] you could see which way the wind was blowing.’ He ascribes increased visibility internationally to exhibitions such as the British Museum show ‘Word into Art’ in
, curated by Venetia Porter and focusing on abstraction, and the exhibition ‘Edge of Arabia’ at the Brunei Gallery in . ‘Then,’ Start explains, ‘you had the big push from the Gulf States to provide a framework, with Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, with Art Dubai, the Gulf Art Fair and so on.’ Christie’s opened in Dubai in , with Sotheby’s following more recently. Important exhibitions helped raise the artists’ profiles internationally – Tate Modern’s celebration of Saloua Raouda Choucair in , the Serpentine Galleries’ show of work by Etel Adnan in , and the Whitechapel’s multi-part survey in – of the modernist holdings of the Barjeel Art Foundation, which is based in Sharjah in the UAE. The Mosaic Rooms in London, a not-for-profit space run by the A.M. Qattan Foundation, has spot-lit artists such as Mohamed Melehi and Marwan Kassab-Bachi ( – ), a Syrian painter much admired in the Arab world for his subtle figuration. More recently, Yale University Art Gallery had an important survey in , and this year New York University’s Grey Art Gallery has hosted ‘Taking Shape: Abstraction from the Arab World, s– s’ (see Apollo, March ).
‘These artists have always been highly appreciated in the Arab world,’ says Saleh Barakat, who runs his own gallery in Beirut. ‘What is only recent is their recognition by Western institutions, which resulted in an increase in their prices.’ He suggests that America encouraged the abstraction now popular among collectors in the s and ’ s as a counter to ‘Soviet-inspired social figuration’, adding: ‘But no doubt that abstraction is closer to Arab culture because of its higher affinity to text than image.’ Hala Khayat, Christie’s specialist in Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art, confirms, ‘These artists did not wait until to receive recognition. They were collected, albeit privately, in Europe. They were shown in Europe.’ There are untapped collections all over the Middle East, Europe and North America. Her job is to keep prices high by selecting only the best. ‘I want to see what is particular to each country. And people will pay money for something rare.’
As Mai Eldib, Cairo-based consultant to Sotheby’s, suggests, it is hard to generalise about a market covering more than different countries. ‘Until the market was a bit niche, with Egyptians buying Egyptian art and so on,’ she says. ‘Now it is a mature, global market. Collectors are looking for thoughtprovoking work.’ She notes the popularity of Lebanese female artists from the s and ’ s, such as Etel Adnan and Huguette Caland ( – ), the latter for many years based between Paris and California. Caland had her first UK institutional show at Tate St Ives last year. Her auction record stands at ,
(on estimate , – , ) for Bribes de Corps (Body Parts) (c. – ; Fig. ).
Sfeir-Semler is hoping to bring other artists out of the shadows, one being the Lebanese painter and sculptor Aref El Rayess ( –
): ‘He is almost unknown. His work is still in the studio.’ However, Catherine David, deputy director of the Musée Nationale d’Art Moderne at the Centre Pompidou, an authority on art from the Middle East and curator of numerous groundbreaking shows, is now writing his monograph. o