Collecting guide: Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary art
Middle Eastern Art specialist Masa Al-Kutoubi surveys the market and introduces the key artists to buy
How has the market grown, and what has driven this?
In 2016 Christie’s celebrated its 10th anniversary in Dubai, which reflects how young the market is in the Middle East. Galleries have promoted Middle Eastern artists for some time, but the international market only really started to sit up and take notice in around 2003 when works began to be included in Islamic auctions in both London and Paris.
Since then the market for Middle Eastern art has grown exponentially, as shown by the prices realised for the works by Louay Kayyali, above, and Dia Al-Azzawi, below, in our Dubai auctions of 2006 and 2007, compared with the prices for works by the same artists in 2016’s sale. This upturn has been fuelled by a growing appreciation and understanding of Middle Eastern artists and their markets.
With new museums opening and artists such as Dia Al-Azzawi having major retrospective shows (Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha, October 2016), Middle Eastern artists are becoming internationally known. A good example of this is the surge of interest in the work of Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli (below) since his 2015 show at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College.
What themes are prevalent in both Modern and Contemporary art in the Middle East?
The most common focus is on the adaptation of traditional motifs and ideas. Many Middle Eastern artists also grapple with notions of identity, as well as with the cultural and political events that change the way people think and live, while for those artists who have left their homelands to work abroad, ideas around the notion of self-identity are particularly prevalent.
Are there specific movements, schools or trends that are popular with collectors right now?
Collectors are actively looking for works around the start of specific movements within art history. It is extremely difficult, for example, to find Iranian Modern works from the Saqqakhaneh School of the early 1960s. Untitled (Composition 3) by Faramarz Pilaram (1937-1982) — the largest of his works to come to auction (below) — is a true testament to the Saqqakhaneh style, incorporating elements from votive motifs in a manner that is truly Modern.
There is also a new appreciation for female artists — previously overlooked in what has traditionally been a male-dominated world. In the Modern & Contemporary Art sale in Dubai in October 2016, we had works by the Lebanese artist Helen Khal, the Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian, the Turkish/Jordanian artist Fahr el Nissa Zeid, and Tahia Halim from Egypt.
Which countries have tended to produce the leading Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary artists?
Traditionally, the key centres for Modern art — which generally encompasses artists whose main body of work and practice is from the early 1900s until the late 1980s — have been Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. The region’s leading Contemporary artists tend to come from Iran and Lebanon.
Who are the important names of Middle Eastern Modern art to look out for?
Mahmoud Saïd (1897-1964) is renowned as the father of Modern painting in Egypt. His oil paintings employ Western techniques to depict scenes of contemporary life that reference the country’s long history. The son of an Egyptian prime minister, he left a career in law to study painting in Florence.
Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937), one of the founding members of the Saqqakhaneh School, aims to reconcile contemporary sensibilities with his Persian heritage using classical poetry, calligraphy, mythology and miniature painting as sources of inspiration. Known primarily as a sculptor, his paintings are quite rare, touching on classical stories such as Farhad the Mountain Carver and the The Achaemenid Empire of Darius the Great (also known as the First Persian Empire).
Burhan Dogançay (1929-2013) is regarded as Turkey’s leading Modern artist. In the 1970s he moved to New York and became fascinated with the dynamism and spontaneity of street art; works from this period, including the renowned Ribbons series (below), are the most sought after by collectors.
Kadhim Haider (1932-1985) is one of the pioneers of Iraqi Modern art, adapting traditional imagery and ideas through Western stylistic elements such as Cubism, Expressionism and Abstraction. Intrigued by Shi’ite cultural traditions, his most celebrated works are the Martyr series depicting the Battle of Karbala in the 7th century, in which the Prophet’s grandson Hussein was killed.
Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian (1926-1993) is acclaimed for his Expressionist paintings in which groups of women are a recurring theme, symbolising hope, continuity and freedom. In the 1980s his work became less figurative, and his vibrant colour palette and intense brushstrokes laid the groundwork for the completely abstracted works that followed.
Who are the key names to know in Middle Eastern Contemporary art?
Farhad Moshiri (b. 1963) has been described as ‘the Warhol of the Middle East’. His works play on the kitsch, the material and the banal to highlight the gulf that exists between Islamic history and tradition on one side, and contemporary attitudes within Iran and the Western world on the other.
Ahmed Mater is a founding member of Edge of Arabia, a group of Saudi Arabian artists seeking to highlight Contemporary artistic practice in the Gulf, and Saudi Arabia specifically. Mater is a medical doctor, and his art encompasses photography, calligraphy, painting, installation, performance and video.
The Lebanese artist Nabil Nahas (b. 1949) lives and works in New York, where he blends Western techniques with traditional motifs from his homeland in richly coloured abstract works that celebrate nature.
After living in New York between 1945 and 1957, Monir Farmanfarmaian, now in her nineties, returned to live in her Iranian homeland. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 subsequently forced her to return to the United States, where she spent a further 26 years in exile.
It was in New York that she variously befriended artists such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. Her reappropriation of the traditional Iranian technique of mirror-mosaic has produced mirror balls that exude the glitz of the pop culture the artist encountered in 1970s America. In 2015, the Guggenheim in New York staged a major retrospective of Farmanfarmaian’s work.
Where are the best places to see Modern and Contemporary art in the Middle East?
Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha and Sursock Museum in Lebanon are both excellent, although the previews of our auctions in Dubai offer a truly comprehensive selection of Modern and Contemporary art from the Middle East.