|A. B. Meadows
Modern Middle Eastern Paintings hammered by the Art
Glimpses At An Article Published by the Beyrouth Daily
|Recently, the DAILY STAR in Beyrouth published an article
on auctions by Sotheby's in London that concentrated on the sale
of Middle Eastern modern art.
Despite the deep worldwide recession that is still aggravating,
the people involved in the art market are struggling on, against plummeting
art sales and falling prices. Right now, it seems, they are "discovering"
once more Middle Eastern art.This does hardly surpise, in view of the attention
focused on the Middle East after the reckless American aggression against
Iraq put that part of the world again squarely into the headlines.
We fear that this market-driven attention to modern artists
from the Middle East and their often neglected achievements will not even
do justice to the specific contribution of Arab culture, as the perspective
will undoubtedly be a Western one and the works most easily praised by
Western art "promoters" and critics are likely to be exactly those works
which succumb to Western trends, if not fashions. It is quite obvious,
however, that the most valuable and enriching contribution of contemporary
Arab art will not be a mere duplication of Western art, but must be seen
as constituted by those works which genuinely fructify the intercultural
exchange process, due to the fact that they are genuinely reflecting a
specific heritage and socio-culture.
For a society to create and nurture an artistic tradition, there
In the DAILY STAR article, published under
the title, "Modern Middle Eastern paintings," Ramsay Short writes that
the sales effort of Sotheby's benefits artists "from Lebanon, Syria,,Iraq,
Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Sudan." The author goes on to say:
are two requisites; first, there must be the artists themselves; and
second, there must be a public to support them.
|This is a fairly obvious insight, trivializing whatever
knowledge we have, thanks to the sociology of the arts, regarding the "author
- audience relationship" which is much more complex and far-reaching than
the mere "seller - buyer relationship" suggests. The Egyptian fellahs that
spontaneously participate, as an audience, in Samir productions,
"support" this form of Arab popular theater not simply in so far as they
have paid an entrance fee but by their active, and thus productive interference
that in turn leads to spontaneous reactions on the part of the performing
artists. Similarly, the village folks, their folk beliefs, their
narrations, the village atmosphere, the
landscape, the fauna of the swamps in the hinterland
of Basra "supported" the creative process of an artist like Haddad Maurice.
Artists, no matter how isolated they appear to be, are part of a human
universe, a social context, and this supports them, and is one of the driving
forces of the productive process. That they have to eat and drink to stay
alive, to pay rent perhaps, and bills for water and electricity, for canvas
or paper, for lithographic stones or plates, for colors and brushes
and pencils, is another matter. It is true they have to make ends meet.
If they can do so by selling some of their work, so much the better. But
we should not deceive ourselves: A paying public, especially an affluent
one, as much as the art market, the museums etc., can achieve something
quite different from what we should call "supporting an artist:"
they can slowly begin to put him off course, turning him to what is more
marketable, momentarily fashionable, "en vogue." A buyer's market is a
dangerous affair for artists. A large and appreciative public at home,
instilled by desires to copy the "West," could prove fatal to strong and
original and creative art in the Middle East, pushing it into a background,
making life and survival for its creators only the harder.
So what really is "an appreciative public" (which is
what Ramsay Short seems to ask for, and not only he, we can be sure)?
Is it a public that has formed its tastes, no matter
how superficially, in the West?
Is it this what he asks for? Perhaps. For he lets us
know his regrets about an
innate conservatism [ whatever this means] of the general [affluent? --
art buying?] public in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and
|This "innate conservatism", he claims,
in the 19th and early 20th centuries made it very difficult for the
artists that there were to find a place in society.
Yet despite this lack of demand, the standard of Arab painting
flourished, initially in religious or other acceptable backgrounds,
and later more openly.
|This sounds fair enough, despite its lack of facts and
its platitudes: Yes, Arab painting existed, and continues to exist; there
is no reason to assume that it is, as such, inferior to modern Western
art. Perhaps we should not even speak of a "standard" but of "standards",
not of a "canon" at any rate, that almost by implication will be Western
in origin. The specific, regional and local culture, including its religious
themes, motifs, and everyday forms of behavior, are the real 'humus' of
today's art in the Middle East.
This allows us to marvel a bit at the meaning of "innate
conservatism." Is it that of the urban workers and badly paid employees?
Of the fellahs, the peasants, or perhaps the rich land owners? Of clerics?
The 'classe politique'? Internationally active entrepreneurs? The bankers
of Beyrouth and Ryadh and Cairo? Is it even a term used to denounce the
artists in touch with local (folk) traditions and drawing from them?
Is it meant, finally, to denounce the absence of an "international
style" that would prove (when clung to) that modern Middle Eastern art
had come off age?
If looked at in the context of the article, the meaning
of innate conservatism becomes apparent if we reflect on its opposite:
the supposedly progressive stance of those art connosseurs, art buyers,
art traders who take to this art internationally. International recognition
is the measuring stick for achievement. Local and regional standards, local
and regional concerns and ways of art appreciation are suspect. "Finally",
we are told,
modern Arab painting has begun to carve out a small
but important place for itself within the international market, and
today sees only the second-ever international auction of 20th
century Middle Eastern paintings being held by Sotheby’s Auction
House in London.
|It is this aspect that is considered "worthy" to be trumpeted
in the media.
I will therefore give you a brief glance at the way the
DAILY STAR reporter in Beyrouth is focusing on Sotheby's auction in detail.
A group of more than 40 works by 26 artists from Lebanon, Syria,
Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Sudan will go under the hammer, and
Sotheby’s is hoping the sale will surpass last year’s inaugural
auction of Contemporary Middle Eastern paintings which sold for a
total of $493,780.
|Middle Eastern art counts, you see. It counts as a commodity.
It is being globalized, merchandized, commodified. Isn't that innovative,
isn't that progressive?
In fact, the dealers and the Western investors in this
art need courage. They put up risk capital, sort of. They are placing a
bet. This is another "emerging market," with its risks and promises of
large profits. How much did the Middle Eastern artists, in the countries
mentioned, get from the nearly 500,000 US Dollars their paintings were
sold for in London last year?
O, come off it, this is beside the point, I can hear
the specialists say. What counts is the recognition received, the breakthrough.They
will profit from being part of the art market, profit because they've made
it, they are " known" artists now, brand-names, sort of.
“Modern Arab painting is a very new and small field on the
international art market,” Mehreen Rizvi, Sotheby’s specialist
for 20th century Middle Eastern paintings explained.
“And there needs to be much more promotion and exposure through
international exhibitions and international museums the British
Museum has a small collection as well as corporate collecting,
not to mention more research and publications in this field to make
a bigger impact on the international art scene,” she said.
“But we are hoping that we will manage to do this on a regular
basis and thus have auctions at least once a year of 20th century
Middle Eastern Art.”
The auction is indeed significant for the gradual increase in
|Yes, promotion is the core almost, in the international
art market. Today's globalizing Capitalism doesn't work well without public
relations. The intrinsic value of the work, the experience and emotion
and creative process of the artist count little; his ambiente, the small
world he lives in and traverses, count little. Perception counts, though
not genuine perception, the productive process you and I engage in when
we confront a work of art. The perception that counts is a mirage, the
world of images created by the liars and fakers of the PR business, the
empty praise of those who tell you a work was selling for "this much" or
"that little." They measure the value of the work by the price it is fetching;
they have no other gauge.Their empty brains and hearts in pursuit of money,
of realizing the monetary value of a commodity, are the hearts and brains
of exploiters, exploiting the work of the artist. Sadly enough, the latter
often needs them, just as the laborer needs his employer to sell his capacity
attention modern Arab art is receiving in the West, but more
importantly because the painters and their works indicate the
unswerving pride of the Arab people at a time when almost all pride
has disappeared and Arabs are feeling increasingly disillusioned in
the face of a Western cultural and political onslaught.
|Is that so?
Do today's Arabs masses feel pride that Sotheby is successfully
auctioning off the art of their compatriots? Do the subaltern classes of
this region feeling the onslaught of western neo-imperialism really need
to be comforted in this way? Are they all waiting to surrender to the "cultural
onslaught" of the West? Okay, let's not be entirely unfair towards the
author of this article. Maybe the fact that some of us in the West are
indeed in touch with Western art, but also opening up to the artistic contributions
of other cultures is a good sign. Maybe the fact that some Arabs and Iranians,
some people in Turkey and Sudan, are not blind to the artistic achievements
in their countries needs indeed to be recognized. The Sotheby auction aside,
it is a good thing that we curiously look beyond the fence of our cultures,
hoping for some genuine and fruitful exchange between equals. Cultural
exchange can only be exchange between equals, because the historically
produced difference of specific cultures allows for no common gauge to
measure the greater or lesser cultural contribution of each. We are dealing
with qualities that are specific and cannot be quantified.
Looking at some of the works offered by Sotheby's, Ramsay
These pieces reveal the pride of peoples who, despite their scars,
attempt to overcome despair, and show their more attractive side,
more perfect image [...]
remember their heritage and critique
The works are varied, eclectic and pluralist and the rich diversity
in the cultures of the countries represented has seen many of the
artists look both East and West, individually and creatively
incorporating a variety of influences.
|More specifically, we are alerted to the collection of
art works assembled by Riad al-Rayyes. From the article, it
is not clear whether the attention it receives is accidental or not. On
the one hand, there are references to qualities of the works, and concerns
of the artists that transcend a purely commercial interest. On the
other hand, it is quite obvious that these qualities are "instrumentalized"
to buttress the commercial value the works are said to possess. Again and
again, prices already paid for these works, or prizes Sotheby's expect
to fetch are mentioned; the commodifikation of art thus contrasts starkly
with the existential involement of the various artists. That some of them
were heavily indebted to Western currents of arts, is a well-known fact.
The merging of influences, a resulting hybridity is a much more interesting
phenomenon - a theme that the writer fails to develop. Social commitment
in a world were stark social contrasts and contradictions abound could
well go together with an absorption of both Western and Middle Eastern
aesthetic influences. All this would require closer scrutiny and analysis.
But the article serves mainly as a billboard for Sotheby's who probably
furnished a press brief providing the basic information included here.
But judge for yourself, by briefly scanning the remainder
of Ramsay Short's contribution. As you will see, Short stresses the centerpiece
of the auction, a seemingly important collection offered for sale by the
Lebanese collector Riad al-Rayyes, before commenting briefly on a few Iraqi
and Lebanese, as well as a Syrian and a Turkish artist :
At the core of the sale is a selection of 30 paintings submitted by
Riad al-Rayyes, a Syrian-born journalist, writer
Rayyes began collecting Arab contemporary art in the 1960s and
bought paintings directly from the artists.
Particular highlights are works by SyrianLouai
Hassan, Rafa Nasiri and Shaker
Hassan al-Said, and Lebanese Chafic
Abboud and Khalil Saleeby.
Two striking works, The Little Net Restorer and The Sleeper, by
Kayyali (1934-78), arguably the most prominent
artist of the Arab world, are expected to fetch sums from $17,000 to
They demonstrate a highly individualistic style based on elegant
lines and tightly arranged compositions. Kayyali
people and conveyed their suffering through their distinctive
In Damascus in 1967, in his exhibition For The Cause, Kayyali
portrayed the Arab struggle as expressive and tortured figures, but
following Israel’s devastating victory in the 1967 war and the
further occupation of Arab territories, he grew deeply depressed,
and destroyed all 30 works. He stopped painting, left teaching at
the College of Fine Arts in Damascus, and
retired to Aleppo where he
briefly began painting again before committing suicide.
The painting from Faik Hassan (1914-92) is
likely to arouse
particular interest, as many of his works, along with some of the
other Iraqi artists included, have been looted from the Baghdad
museum in recent days.
Although not one of his best, the gouache and colored chalk on
paper abstract from 1965, estimated at $2,000 to $3,000,
demonstrates Hassan’s deft understanding of
Part of the reason for what might be considered the low estimate for
this and the other featured Iraqi artists’ works
devastating effect of the UN imposed sanctions on Iraq.
It is widely acknowledged that Iraqi paintings
used to be
much more expensive, but the last decade saw Iraqis become very
poor and many important paintings wound up being sold for low prices
out of financial desperation.
Rizvi, however, values the paintings less by the average market
price, but rather by their quality and history.
“I value them after researching the prices from different sources.
Some of the established artists are regularly bought and sold at
galleries, some are available at auction,” she said.
“The most important criteria is the rarity of the work, the
importance of the artist, the medium (whether it’s oil and pencil)
and of course, condition of the work such as damage.
“The provenance (who it belonged to in the past) as well as where
and when it was exhibited all determine the price. Also, as it is a
public auction, prices are available to anyone at and after the
auction upon request,” Rizvi said.
Hassan is one of the most important figures
in the formation of the
Iraqi modern art movement, founding the first art group with Hafiz
Drubi, the Society of the Friends of the Arts
in 1941. He painted
simple city dwellers, peasants and Bedouin, and believed that
although he was using international art concepts he could develop an
indigenous approach through the choice of subject matter rather than
a uniquely Iraqi style.
Politically important, Hassan founded the
Al-Zawiyah group in 1967,
with the aim of expressing through art some of the emotional and
psychological fallout of the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli
war and of Pan-Arab nationalism.
Shakir Hassan al-Said and Dia
Azzawi also have important works in
the sale. Said, who studied in Paris, is a
pioneer in Abstraction
and introduced the Arabic character in his graffiti-like mixed media
paintings. Alongside Azzawi and Nasiri,
Said developed the school of
al-hurufiyya al-arabiyya, (Arabic Letterism),
which uses the Arabic
letter as a base for compositions, applying it as a design as well
as a spiritual symbol.
From Lebanon, works by Chafic
Abboud are expected to fetch high
prices, in particular his Gestes I, which is oil, pencil and
newspaper on canvas, a brilliant mixture of French
post-Impressionism and almost mathematical abstraction, estimated at
The Village School, an oil on panel piece by LebaneseKhalil
(1911-75) is expected to fetch $10,000-$15,000. Zgaib
particularly interesting as he was a barber by trade and a
self-taught artist who, though recognized in both Lebanon and Rome,
died penniless in Beirut.
Proving that female Arab artists are as well
regarded as their male
counterparts, works from Iraqi Suad
al-Attar and Turkish Princess
Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-91) are also on sale.
One large vibrant canvas from Attar, the first
Iraqi woman artist to
have had a solo exhibition in Baghdad, entitled Tender Moment, is
romantic in style and particularly beautiful, estimated at
Zeid’s work The Death of the Five Fisherman
Brothers, expecting a
similar price, demonstrates the blending of Islamic and Byzantine
artistic elements from the East with abstract and other influences
from the West in an oil on canvas for which she was celebrated.
For Rizvi, the Sotheby’s auction will be a considerable
breakthrough if it does as well as the 2001 sale, and she is hoping
buyers will include a larger number of Westerners.
“The buyers are mainly people connected in some way to the Middle
East, whether living in Europe or the Arab world, but (the sale) is
attracting interest from Westerners and that interest is even
translating into a few buyers,” she said.
“Hopefully the auctions will help broaden the field and we will
see more activity from non-Middle Easterners.”
Ultimately, this auction will be an important marker for Arab modern
art at a crucial time in the Arab world.
It will indicate how far current interest in modern Arab painting
has been stirred up by the increased attention being paid to the
political and cultural status of the Middle East in the West, as
well create an investment market for modern
But also, just by its existence and the high quality of the pieces
on offer, the auction is acknowledging the power of art to express
and communicate human feeling and the Arab experience, and to show
the history of art in the Arab world, a history with a past, a
present … and a future.
|It is not astounding that the last thought of this author,
writing for the Beyrouth DAILY STAR, is turning to art as an investment
and thus to the "investment market for modern Arab painting" that Sotheby's
auction this year, and the one last year are hoped to create. Arab modern
art, and its creators have deserved a better perspective, a more humane
concern than is typical of the clerks of globalization, with their money-making