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Modern Renaissance

Demand is growing for 20th century art from MENASA region

By Arsalan Mohammad

One of Art Dubai’s most significant success stories, now in its fourth edition, Art Dubai Modern features 15 galleries, showing solo or group exhibits of 20th-century art from across Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Since its inception in 2014, the programme has thrived. Over the past decade, the boom in contemporary art across the region has naturally precipitated interest amongst local and international collectors in revisiting lesser-known names from the past, pioneers and adventurers, who synthesised European and Arab ideas in search of new forms of expression. 

The work of these artists also speaks of turbulent times, periods of profound social and cultural change, nationalistic identities and questioning ongoing tensions with colonialism, domestic power struggles and deep-rooted issues of Islamic identity. Many Arab artists in particular studied abroad during the 1930s and 1940s, absorbing Western concepts such as surrealism, Cubism and abstraction and returned home to marry them with traditional local forms such as Islamic geometry, calligraphy and less commonly, figurative painting. 

All these factors retain their relevance today. As increasing numbers of collectors are aware, the market value of names such as Syrian painter Lousy Kayyali, Iranian Sohrab Sepehri, Egyptian Mahmoud Said and Turkish Azade Köker, has rocketed at auctions, with six-figure sales not an uncommon occurrence. Meanwhile, record-breaking artist Said has just seen a catalogue raisonné  published by Skira (see below). 

Drifting around the Art Dubai Modern’s booths, in its Mina A’Salam home, presents an unprecedented history of art from the region. Furthermore, the introduction of the Art Dubai Modern Symposium, taking place across Alserkal Avenue and Art Dubai Modern (13-18 March) includes speakers such as HRH Dr Princess Wijdan Al Hashemi and Dr Venetia Porter of the British Museum, among others. 

Seeking not to saturate the market with work, but rather create another dimension of discovery and understanding, fair director Myrna Ayad posits Art Dubai Modern as a key component of the revitalised Art Dubai. “I really encourage people to ask gallerists to narrate the stories of the works,” she says. “They are so rich and layered and offer incredible insights into the region and its recent past.” 

Mahmoud Saïd Catalogue Raisonné    

A catalogue raisonné of the works of the Egyptian artist Mahmoud Saïd (1897-1964), the first dedicated to a Middle Eastern artist, includes 56 newly discovered works. The catalogue, published earlier this month by Skira in Milan, was co-authored by Valérie Didier Hess, director of business development at Christie’s Dubai, and Hussam Rashwan, an Alexandrian collector of Modern Egyptian art. The publishing project began in 2010 when Didier Hess met Rashwan at the Christie’s Dubai sale of the collection of Mohammed Said Farsi.

“We are delighted to have compiled the first ever published catalogue raisonné of any Middle Eastern artist, a major milestone for the history of Modern Arab art,” says Didier Hess in a statement. Saïd was a judge until 1947, and only painted in his spare time, making portraits of family members and friends, along with Egyptian landscapes. Saïd’s 1949 painting Assouan-île et dunes/ Assouan-île et dunes (esquisse) will go under the hammer at Christie’s Dubai on 18 March with an estimate of $250,000-$300,000. G.H.