In today’s crowded academic and commercial art world, there are few areas of expertise left where a budding young art historian or gallerist can still carve out a niche. But terra incognita does exist, though you’ll need to get your skates on. Potentially the most rewarding territory has been hiding in plain sight: the Middle East. The region has become a go-to zone for architects, attracted by the craze for futuristic mega-museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Museum of Middle East Modern Art in the UAE and the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Saudi Arabia. However, as with new museums in both the West and in China, the sheer glamour of the buildings has tended to obscure the fact that the contents often are not of the same quality as the containers.
The headline artworks making their way to the Gulf’s galleries are, by and large, all Western masterpieces. In the last few years, several of the world’s blue-riband works have headed east: the attributed Leonardo’s $450 million “Salvator Mundi” went to Abu Dhabi, while Cezanne’s $250 million “The Cardplayers,” one of his views of Mont St Victoire ($100 million), as well as Gauguin’s $210 million “When Will You Marry?” and Andy Warhol’s $100 million “Eight Elvises” have all gone to Qatar.
However, the last 15 years have also seen a dawning realization that the region has its own indigenous artistic culture — one that has been largely untapped. The auction houses, who had long held Islamic-art sales in their London and New York bases, woke up to this fact in the 2010s: Christie’s held the firstever auction of modern and contemporary art in the Middle East in 2006, shortly after setting up a permanent branch in Dubai in 2005; Bonhams opened an office there in 2008 (and sold the first $1 million Middle Eastern work, Farhad Moshiri’s mixed media “Eshgh (Love)”) and Sotheby’s in 2017, although it had already opened in Doha in 2008.
The international presence also helped encourage the establishment of the first local auction houses in the Gulf: Tehran Auction, founded in 2012, and AlBahie, backed by Qatar’s ruling family, in 2016. Meanwhile, the Art Dubai fair was launched in 2007; Sharjah has its Biennale; Syria hosts the Aleppo Photography Gathering, and Jordan has Art Week Amman.
The aim of all these initiatives was less to act as a conduit funneling western art to Middle Eastern collectors – though there is some of that too – but to sell those collectors their own local art. It was, in short, to create a new market by uncovering little-known artists, encouraging new ones, and establishing a demand for their work not just among the most well-heeled of established collectors but among those who don’t happen to have a spare $100 million for a Cezanne. “People had the idea that not much was produced in the Middle East,” the Sotheby’s director Lina Lazaar told the BBC. “They said: Really? This is coming out of Lebanon? Syria, Iraq? Saudi Arabia?”
The spin-off of the commercial activity is art-historical provenance: documentation about many of the region’s artists is sparse and scholarship almost non-existent. Hala Khayat, the head of sales at Christie’s Middle East, put it this way in an interview as the market started to develop: “We are building the market from an art-history perspective and that is something I am really proud of.
Nevertheless, while the market has been growing quickly, it is still negligible in global terms: in 2015 and 2016 the modern and Contemporary art sales at Christie’s Dubai were worth about $12 million, while, in 2017, Sotheby’s made $8.7 million and total auction sales for the region were a mere $33 million. In other words, the Middle Eastern market remains niche.
If the past few years have seen the initial growth spurt pause somewhat there are artists from the region attracting wider interest and that, in turn, might yet have a trickle-down effect on their peers. Mahmud Said (1897-1964), for example, is known as the father of Egyptian modernism, and is the highest grossing Middle Eastern artist by sales — some $18 million garnered by 48 works. In 2010 his “The Whirling Dervishes” and “Les Chadoufs” both sold for more than $2 million while in 2016 his “L’ile Heureuse” — a scene of a mother and baby on a donkey — sold for $1.7 million. Said’s “Fille a l’imprime” — an anonymous peasant woman brooding by the banks of the Nile — was the star lot of the Bonhams “Egypt’s Awakening” sale this April.
Said’s profile is helped by the fact that he was the uncle of Egypt’s late Queen Farida but, despite his aristocratic background, he took his themes from the lives of the country’s working people and was at pains to express their innate dignity. It made him a distinctively national artist and a corrective to the long tradition of Western Orientalist painting which saw the Middle East as a realm of the exotic and the erotic. In terms of its self-image, Said is to Egypt what Grant Wood is to America.
Just behind Said on the list is the Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri (born 1963): 67 of his works have sold for $11.5 million. “Eshgh,” the first of the region’s $1million paintings, is in many ways representative of a common strand in Middle Eastern art: it is non-figurative and calligraphic. These traits are a response to the Muslim prohibition on depicting the human face and a recognition of the important role calligraphy has played – both in books and in architectural tiles – in Islamic culture.
“Eshgh” is a calligraphic representation of the Farsi word for love picked out with thousands of Swarovski crystals. Moshiri is not, however, a traditionalist with a twist; he often works in an Iranian-Pop Art hybrid, courtesy of his California art school training. Calligraphy does indeed feature heavily though he also treats the figure, usually in the form of cartoons and often given three-dimensionality with beads or applique. There is at times a Jeff Koons quality to his pictorial humor, though Moshiri’s has a lighter touch.
His fusion style — eastern but not too eastern — has won him numerous adherents in the West and he is represented by galleries from New York and Tokyo to London and Paris. He also stands at the vanguard of the new Iranian art, which continues to thrive despite the economic sanctions imposed on the country. Indeed, the first gallery in Britain devoted entirely to Iranian art, the Cama Gallery, has just opened in London. Ironically, 19 of the artists in its inaugural show were unable to attend the unveiling because of visa restrictions.
The vibrancy of the younger generation may have made Iranian art the fastest-growing sector in the region (its domestic market grew by 58 percent between 2014 and 2015) but there is still room for the older generation of artists. The eminence grise of Iranian art remains Parviz Tanavoli, now aged 81. It is Tanavoli’s sculptures of calligraphic forms that ultimately lie behind “Eshgh”: in 2008, his “The Wall (Oh Persepolis)” became the most expensive work of Middle Eastern art when it sold at Christie’s for $2.8 million. The piece, part of a series called “The Walls of Iran,” is a 1.8 meter-tall section of bronze wall covered in pictograms that recall Iran’s Babylonian heritage: it is both modern in its block-like simplicity and ancient in its material and imagery.
According to Tanavoli, his generation did not look West: “Before us, artists were proud to follow Picasso or Cezanne, but we were different, we had our own schools, our own art,” he has said. “I didn’t want to follow westerners, we wanted to be more Persian, so I used all the tools around me.”
Nevertheless, as with Moshiri, there is enough of Western influence in his work, in this case the minimalism of the likes of Donald Judd, for it to have an international appeal. And like his younger countryman, Tanavoli is also interested in calligraphy, having made his name with a series of sculpted bronze representations of the word “heech,” or “nothing.” In 1971, he made a heech for the wife of the Shah of Iran and there have been at least 100 more, some freestanding, some sculpted as leaning against chairs, some as necklaces. Many of them are among the 60 of his works that have appeared at auction raising $10.5 million.
In 2013, a piece by Fahr-El-nissa Zeid (1901-1991) came close to toppling Tanavoli’s hold on the “most expensive” spot when her “Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life” (1962), a huge, kaleidoscopic abstract painting, sold for $2.7 million. Christie’s had even higher hopes for the work, giving it an estimate of $3 million to $4 million. Zeid’s profile has been helped further by a major retrospective at Tate Modern in London in 2017 and, like Mahmud Said, she comes with a glamorous provenance, being born in Istanbul and working in pre-war Berlin and post-war Paris before marrying into Iraq’s Hashemite royal family before eventually moving to Jordan.
The tessellated style of much of her works clearly derives from traditional Islamic mosaics and geometric tiles, while her figurative pictures also display her mixed heritage. As she said of her 1980 self-portrait, “Someone from the Past”: “I am a descendent of four civilizations. In my self-portrait... the hand is Persian, the dress Byzantine, the face is Cretan and the eyes Oriental, but I was not aware of this as I was painting it.
The art market likes an eye-catching personal story as well as eye-catching works and it would be naive to think that Zeid’s biography isn’t somehow reflected in the prices fetched by her work. Even so, “Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life” has proved atypical: the majority of her nine paintings so far consigned to large public auctions have sold not for millions but for low hundreds of thousands, meaning that she has accumulated sales of about $3.2 million.
Zeid has been easily outstripped by the likes of Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (born 1937), another Iranian nearabstract artist, 72 of whose works have made a cumulative $9.5 million; Mohammad Ehsai (born 1939), Iranian again and calligraphic again (43 works and $7.7 million); Paul Guiragossian (1926-93), an Armenian-Lebanese painter of pared down but attenuated figures (81 works and $6.9 million); and Fateh Moudarres (1922-99), a Syrian artist whose work is inflected by European Surrealism and Paul Klee in particular (123 works and $6.5 million).
The Middle-Eastern market currently appears to be at something of a crossroads. Things have calmed considerably since the boom year of 2008, when Christie’s Dubai auction sales peaked at about $29 million. Both the total value of the region’s sales and the number of lots consigned have been dropping since 2013-2104. Dubai, though, remains the region’s hub and Christie’s the major player, with sales of more than $200 million accruing from some 3,300 lots since 2003: its determination to mine this seam further and indeed to give it a necessary shot in the arm was evidenced last year when the auction house held its first-ever Middle Eastern modern and Contemporary art sale outside the region, in London; Bonhams has since followed its lead.
Meanwhile, there are other factors working in support. As well as Zeid, there have been an increasing number of major exhibitions of Middle Eastern artists in Europe and America: Saloua Raouda Choucair was shown at Tate Modern in London in 2013, the Iranian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian was exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York in 2015, Lebanon’s Etel Adnan appeared at the Serpentine Galleries in London in 2016, while an overview of Egyptian Surrealism was staged at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2016.
Further bolstering the infrastructure, both Zenderoudi and Guiragossian, like Said, are in the process of having catalogue raisonees compiled of their work. Such initiatives are a necessary step towards establishing a properly regulated market and therefore one that sustains consumer confidence.
Last year the Dalloul Art Foundation in Lebanon placed nearly 30 of its works — some $1.25 million worth — in “quarantine,” because of concern over their authenticity. Among them were pieces by the Syrian Modernist Louai Kayali (1934-78) and the Lebanese artist Saliba Douaihy (1915-94). As with many Middle Eastern artists, neither have estates or foundations, so verifying works can be hard. Christie’s recently turned down three “Kayali” pieces that had been submitted for sale.
As Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, the founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, has noted: “Because of the conflict in the region, whatever documentation there was has often been destroyed. You cannot go to many libraries and research artists in Syria and Iraq because they have been bombed to smithereens.”
Such problems need to be overcome, for the sake of living artists too. Masa Al Kutoubi from Christie’s observes that: “The Middle-Eastern secondary market is still very new and in some ways uncharted territory. There are so many artists we don’t know about.” Discovering them, documenting them and fitting them into a coherent scholarly and auction narrative will determine whether the region’s art resumes its upwards trajectory