‘My highlight of 2016’ — Omar El-Nagdi’s Sarajevo

‘My highlight of 2016’ — Omar El-Nagdi’s Sarajevo

Middle Eastern Art specialist Masa Al-Kutoubi selects the Egyptian artist’s ambitious, politically charged masterpiece, which led the specially curated Now and Ten anniversary sale in Dubai in March

On 16 March, Omar El-Nagdi’s extraordinary painting, Sarajevo, sold for $1,145,000 in the Now and Ten  auction in Dubai, almost doubling its high estimate. The work led the specially curated sale celebrating Christie’s tenth year in Dubai, and established a world record for the artist at auction.

‘I was really blown away by the sheer power of its size and composition,’ says Middle Eastern Art specialist Masa Al-Kutoubi. ‘Seeing an image of the work really does not do it justice. Because of its scale, the work was not stretched until the sale was set up, so there was a sense of sheer awe when it was finally hung at the auction viewing.’

Omar El-Nagdi studied fine arts in Cairo under Ahmed Sabry before attending the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in 1959. Travelling between Venice and Rome in 1959–60, he found himself at the heart of avant-garde artistic and intellectual circles, with Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico becoming one of his most influential mentors. Before turning 30, El-Nagdi was being referred to in the press as ‘the Egyptian Picasso’.

Omar El-Nagdi (Egyptian, b. 1931), Sarajevo, 1992. Oil on canvas, in three parts, each 124 x 141¾ in (315 x 360 cm); overall 124 x 425¼ in (315 x 1080 cm) (3). Sold for $1,145,000 on 16 March 2016

Omar El-Nagdi (Egyptian, b. 1931), Sarajevo, 1992. Oil on canvas, in three parts, each 124 x 141¾ in (315 x 360 cm); overall: 124 x 425¼ in (315 x 1080 cm) (3). Sold for $1,145,000 on 16 March 2016

Although El-Nagdi is generally known for his colourful folkloric depictions of daily life, Sarajevo demonstrates his ability to capture the essence of pain. Painted in 1992, the Sarajevo triptych is undeniably his most important and ambitious piece. As the title suggests, the work takes as its subject the tragedies that befell the city during the Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian conflict of 1990–94, particularly the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Bosnian and Croat population by Bosnian Serbs.

‘I am from the Middle East, and Syria specifically,’ explains Al-Kutoubi, ‘so even though the artist chose to depict the massacre of Muslims in Sarajevo, his choice of very impactful imagery feels so relevant in terms of today’s humanitarian crises in Syria and the Middle East as a whole. For me, it felt very poignant. Works like Sarajevo are the most expressive documentation of life. With its stark imagery of suffering and dark earthy tones punctuated with turquoises and reds, it's impossible not to feel compelled to do something. A painting’s ability to move the viewer is what makes it a masterpiece.’

El-Nagdi’s decision to tackle this difficult subject can be seen as reflecting a broader trend among Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern artists, who, says Al-Kutoubi, often ‘grapple with notions of identity, as well as with the cultural and political events that change the way people think and live’. Shortly after its completion in 1992, the work was exhibited in a one-man show at Cairo’s Al-Ahram Gallery; the opening was documented by CNN and several European networks, and the exhibition subsequently travelled to London. 

‘The  fact that such a large-scale work — the largest we have ever offered — was included in our celebratory 10th-anniversary auction in Dubai was a reflection of how far, both as a market and as an office, we have come since we started in 2006. It was a deal that had been worked on for a few years so it was very rewarding to have a work like this appear in our saleroom in Dubai. The record price achieved indicates that specific masterpieces from contemporary artists continue to interest top collectors, no matter the political, social or economic environment.’