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”.’
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,’
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).
‘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
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.’
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?
(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
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.
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
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.