Collecting guide: Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary art

Specialist Hala Khayat explains how post-independence optimism in the region generated a new form of Modernism that transcended borders. Illustrated with works offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art  on 24 October 

Since 2003 the market has been growing steadily for art from the Middle East, with prices hitting the £2.7 million mark for paintings by Fahr El-Nissa Zeid. The recent opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the continued success of Mathaf in Dohar, and major exhibitions of painters such as Saloua Raouda Choucair, reveal there is a vigorous appetite for art from the region.

The origins of Middle Eastern Modernism

To understand the beginnings of Arabic Modernism it is important to go back to the spirit of optimism forged in the post-war era, when, having gained independence from imperial masters, artists in the Middle East and North Africa began to search for a unifying Pan-Arabic cultural identity that would span new national divisions. Movements like the New Vision Group in Iraq, spearheaded by the innovative artist Dia Al-Azzawi, championed the idea of an Arab Modernism united on ideological grounds rather than style.

‘Then there were other artists,’ says Christie’s specialist Hala Khayat, ‘like Mahmoud Saïd, who started to look inward and say, “OK, I don’t want to paint a woman who looks European, I want to paint a picture that looks like my mother or my sister, I want to paint the street outside my window”.’

Mahmoud Saïd (Egyptian, 1897-1964), i) La mosquée blanche 
ii) Le Nil, executed circa late 1920s. Each 3¼ x 4⅞  in (8.2 x 12.3  cm). Estimate £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

Mahmoud Saïd (Egyptian, 1897-1964), i) La mosquée blanche ii) Le Nil, executed circa late 1920s. Each: 3¼ x 4⅞ in (8.2 x 12.3 cm). Estimate: £10,000-15,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

Today collectors are actively looking for artworks that were part of this pioneering moment in the history of Middle Eastern art. ‘It defines an era and it defines us, as a people,’ says Khayat.

What are the hot trends in Middle Eastern art?

‘The big trend in the Middle East right now is female artists,’ says the specialist. ‘There are a lot of works empowering women’. In the Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art  sale in London on 24 October, painters like Afifa Aleiby and Shirin Neshat are amazing artists who have provided stepping stones for a younger generation.’ Such artists paved the way for the likes of the young Iraqi-born painter, Hayv Kahraman (below).

Hayv Kahraman (Iraqi, b. 1981), The Kawliya Dance, painted in 2013. 47⅔ x 96⅜  in (121 x 245 cm). Estimate £50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

Hayv Kahraman (Iraqi, b. 1981), The Kawliya Dance, painted in 2013. 47⅔ x 96⅜ in (121 x 245 cm). Estimate: £50,000-70,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

‘The war and the ongoing political unrest in the region is also a big theme: these are key moments in the socio-political scene,’ explains Khayat. The Syrian painter Naim Ismail and the Lebanese artist Zena Assi look beyond the atrocities to the lives of individuals caught up in the struggles, and seek to find a common identity.

Naim Ismail (Syrian, 1930-1979), Al Fiddaiyoun (‘Freedom Fighters’), painted in 1969. 39⅜ x 51¼  in (100 x 130 cm). Estimate £20,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

Naim Ismail (Syrian, 1930-1979), Al Fiddaiyoun (‘Freedom Fighters’), painted in 1969. 39⅜ x 51¼ in (100 x 130 cm). Estimate: £20,000-25,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

For many years, countries like Egypt, Lebanon and Syria were the leading producers of Middle Eastern Modern art, but Khayat is less certain now. ‘With people migrating there is a lot of lost identity.’

But one overriding theme that continues to dominate the market is Arabic calligraphy. ‘A lot of people look for a calligraphic element,’ the specialist says, ‘and a lot of works explore abstraction.’ Paintings by the Iranian artists Mohammed Ehsai and Farhad Moshiri ‘look calligraphic to someone who doesn’t understand the script, but it is actually Lettrism, a form of art that uses letters but is not supposed to mean anything. It is really about the beauty of the thing.’

Mohammed Ehsai (Iranian, b. 1939), Untitled, painted in 1972. 91¾ x 46 in (91 x 117 cm). Estimate £60,000-80,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

Mohammed Ehsai (Iranian, b. 1939), Untitled, painted in 1972. 91¾ x 46 in (91 x 117 cm). Estimate: £60,000-80,000. This lot is offered in Middle Eastern, Modern and Contemporary Art on 24 October 2018 at Christie’s in London

Ultimately, Khayat thinks collectors are looking for a good story, particularly one that bridges the gap between the East and the West in a universal way. A good example of this is The Last Supper  by Fateh Moudarres, which reflects the artist’s experience of living on both sides of the divide.

‘A lot of the works we are selling now from collectors are the fruits of friendship,’ adds Khayat. ‘Someone believed in the artist back in the 1950s when no one was looking at his work. It takes a long time — you have to be passionate, and not look for the monetary value.’

Who are the important artists to know in Middle Eastern Modern art?

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.

Dia Al-Azzawi (b. 1939) is an Iraqi abstract artist and founder of the New Vision Group in the late 1960s, which sought to create a new Arabic Modernism. He divides his time between London and Dohar and was recently celebrated with a joint retrospective at Mathaf and the Qatar Museums Gallery Al Riwaq.

Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), one of the most famous artists to have come out of Iran, is known for her photographs and films that explore ideas of femininity in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in her home country. She won the International Award at the Venice Biennale in 1999.

Shakir Hassan Al Said (1925-2004), the founder of the Baghdad Modern Art Group, wanted to create a distinctive Iraqi cultural identity, picking up the thread of Iraqi art from where it had been cut short by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. He later formed the mystical One Dimension Group that sought to reveal, through Arabic symbols, the hidden essence of being.

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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, are the most sought after by collectors.

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.

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.

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 (b.1922), who is now in her nineties, returned to live in her Iranian homeland before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 forced her to back 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 re-appropriation 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.