Mahmoud Saïd (Egyptian, 1897-1964)
Lots are subject to 5% import Duty on the importat… Read more Christie's is honoured to have been entrusted with the sale of El Zar and Pêcheurs à Rashid. Both works come from a prestigious private collection in Egypt, the owners of which are closely related to the artist Mahmoud Saïd. The two masterpieces offer a rare insight into Said's oeuvre. El Zar is a rediscovered preparatory oil painting for a larger well-known composition, depicting an unconventional subject matter loaded with spirituality and mystery and providing a striking visual support to Mahmoud Saïd 's'art in the making'. Pêcheurs à Rashid is one of the artist's most comprehensive works, which fuses Saïd 's personal iconography with his own stylistic interpretation of Western art principles and with his expression of national Egyptian identity. PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EGYPTIAN COLLECTION
Mahmoud Saïd (Egyptian, 1897-1964)

El Zar

Mahmoud Saïd (Egyptian, 1897-1964)
El Zar
oil on board
19¼ x 24 3/8in. (49 x 62cm.)
Painted circa 1939
Acquired directly from the artist by the previous owner, and thence by descent.
Special notice

Lots are subject to 5% import Duty on the importation value (low estimate) levied at the time of collection shipment within UAE. For UAE buyers, please note that duty is paid at origin (Dubai) and not in the importing country. As such, duty paid in Dubai is treated as final duty payment. It is the buyer's responsibility to ascertain and pay all taxes due.

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Lot Essay

El Zar is an outstanding preparatory oil sketch for a larger composition bearing the same title. The comparison between this work and the final version, which is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo, offers a rare opportunity to understand better Mahmoud Saïd's art in the making. Just like the Flemish Baroque painter Peter-Paul Rubens whom he admired, Saïd produced 'modelli' or finished preparatory oil sketches for some of his largest and most challenging compositions. Unlike 'schizzi' or 'bozzetti' (sketches), 'modelli' are the most complete and detailed sketches. They are masterpieces on their own, scarcely bearing any changes once reproduced in the final painting and they represent the direct final product of the artist's mind and conception of his subject matter. As mentioned in the text of the next lot, Pêcheurs à Rashid was based on a 'modello' that Saïd had executed shortly before painting the final work. Other paintings for which it is known that Saïd made a 'modello' include La Pêche Miraculeuse (1933), El Zikr (1936), La Ville (1937), L'Inauguration du Canal de Suez (1947), Le Cirque (1949), Le Port de Beyrouth (1954) and Le Suradek (Qur'an Reciter - 1960). The present 'modello' for El Zar most probably dates from the same year of the final painting, dated 1939. It is unusually large compared to some of Saïd's other 'modelli' and it represents one of the most mysterious yet fascinating subject matters.

The Zar refers to a particular religious cult, which may have originated in central Ethiopia during the 18th century and is believed to have been founded by female Assyrian slaves, later spreading throughout the East and North Africa. It is mainly found today in Sudan, Egypt, Somalia, Djibouti and some parts of Iran and Iraq. The aim of the Zar ritual is to cure illnesses and misfortunes, which are believed to be caused by the possession of the spirit, hence it is not only a religious cult but also a therapeutical ritual. The possessed is usually a woman who has physical or psychological weaknesses.

Once she acknowledges that her spirit has been possessed, she registers to be part of the Zar's group by paying a significant amount of money. She then begins a long process of peace-making with the possessing spirit achieved through various types of rites, dances, music, animal sacrifices, or using other ritual objects, which can take place in a private or public place. Unlike exorcism, the goal is to keep the spirit within her, whilst accepting to live with it yet always making sure to be in control of it.

Saïd painted several other works where he explored diverse religious rites, such as La Prière (1934),Le Muezzin (1941), Les Derviches Tourneurs (1929) or his monumental work El Zikr (1936), depicting the Islamic devotional act of repeating all the Names of God. Yet El Zar is the most unusual through the nature of its rite and through the way Saïd represents it. He was fascinated by the power of people's beliefs on their devotion and sought to illustrate in his paintings the spiritual atmosphere, each differing from one religious rite to another.

The present lot appears to capture one of the first steps of the Zar cult, possibly depicting the so-called 'kachf-al-athâr'. This initial ritual corresponds to the defining moment where the 'kudiya' (the woman officiating the Zar ceremony) attempts to identify what kind of spirit has possessed the new Zar participant by playing music and seeing to which musical piece the possessed reacts. Saïd has therefore chosen to paint the women in trance, two of which seem to have reach that state as they whirl around in the background with their arms stretched out. The female figure in the foreground could be identified as the 'kudiya' as she carefully watches the women dancing and the group of musicians in the lower right quadrant of the composition. The black man dressed with an elegant white costume may be the 'songa' or leader of the musicians' group. He wears a very ornate belt, which is most probably a traditional musical instrument used in Zar rites, called the 'mangour'. Goat hooves are sewn onto this heavy leather belt, which is tied around the performer's waist. As the latter shakes his hips, the belt makes a rattling sound produced by the collision of the hooves between them. The musician sitting in the foreground holds and plays what seems to be a lyre but which is actually another typical Zar instrument known as the 'tanbura', a six-stringed lyre.

Although there are some very minor differences between the preparatory oil sketch and the final painting it appears that Saïd opted for a vertical format in the final work as opposed to the original horizontal orientation used in the present work. In both works, all the various participants and elements of the Zar ritual mentioned above are present, yet two female figures appear to have been added in the background of the final version. However, it seems that in the 'modello', all the attention is directed to the black performer. The white highlights contrasting against his dark skin and the background make him stand out amongst the participants and recall 17th century Dutch painting, namely Rembrandt's well-known 'chiaroscuro' compositions. The vibrant movement of the hysterical women in the background, creating a circle with the three other women on the left side of the painting, again puts the black male figure in the spotlight. In the final work, the change from horizontal to vertical format has broken the circle of women surrounding the black figure. The focus of attention is drawn upon both the black male figure and the woman on the right, with their profiles facing each other.

Creating the sense of whirling movement in the same way Saïd had achieved in Les Derviches Tourneurs ten years earlier was one of the artist's main concerns as illustrated in the 'modello'. The drama of the scene not only lies in the figures' dynamism but also in the theatrical and cinematic lighting generated from Saïd's 'chiaroscuro' painterly effects. The silver light reflecting on some specific parts of the work conveys a very strange, mysterious and almost magical atmosphere, embracing the uncanny spirituality of the Zar ceremony. The choice of colours, light and movement of the 'modello' undoubtedly dictated the composition and ambience of the final work. Yet the former appears to be more loaded with spirituality and mysticism as it is the artist's direct pictorial transcription of both his impressions and expressions of what he had possibly seen, read or heard about the Zar ritual.

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