A. B. Meadows

Modern Middle Eastern Paintings hammered by the Art Marketeers: 
Glimpses At An Article Published by the Beyrouth Daily Star
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.


  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:
             For a society to create and nurture an artistic tradition, there

            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 Iraq".

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. He writes:

             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.”

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 to work.
             The auction is indeed significant for the gradual increase in

            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 Short notes:

             These pieces reveal the pride of peoples who, despite their scars,

            attempt to overcome despair, and show their more attractive side,

            more perfect image [...]

They also

            remember their heritage and critique

            their situation.

            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 and publisher.

            Rayyes began collecting Arab contemporary art in the 1960s and

            bought paintings directly from the artists.
            Particular highlights are works by SyrianLouai Kayyali, IraqisFaik

            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 socio-political

            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 painted simple

            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 European


            Part of the reason for what might be considered the low estimate for

            this and the other featured Iraqi artists’ works is the

            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 Zgaib

            (1911-75) is expected to fetch $10,000-$15,000. Zgaib is

            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 Arab painting.

            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 concerns.