Hot And Getting Hotter: Islamic Contemporary On The Block At Christie’s Dubai

Tonight and tomorrow, Christie’s Dubai will hold its Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian,and Turkish art sales, featuring some of the stars of the region including Charles Hussein Zenderoudi, Shirin Neshat, Lalla Essaydi, and Farhad Moshiri, along with modern masters Mahmoud Said, Louay Kayyali and Paul Guiragossian.

Lalla Essaydi, Harem 16, 2009 (c. Christie's)

Remarkably rich in quality, the works being offered also incude some refreshingly affordable gems, such as Hassan Hajjaj’s “Eyes on Me,” a portrait of a woman veiled by a thick Louise Vuitton scarf, cropped into a frame filled with colored sand-filled bottles (estimate U.S. $10-15,000) and  Youssef Nabil’s “Natacha with eyes closed, Cairo”, a hand-colored gelatin print of singer Natacha Atlas, dressed exotically in sequined gold ($12,-18,000). A saturated, but delicate oil, shimmering like stained glass, by Reza Derakshani (from the Pomegranate series) is also especially tempting, though pricier at $40-60,000.

But the gist of the sale is simply this: there are few works I myself would not love to own, and the selection continues to impress on me the powerful talent coming out of Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa.  And it’s impossible to address that work without addressing, too, the single common denominator among the artists: an Islamic tradition in art, and a political history – and present – in which Islam has played a crucial role.

I mention this last because the term “Islamic contemporary,” which is one I have used frequently to

Ayad Alkadi - At The Beginning

Ayad Alkadi, At The Beginning, 2012 (c. Christie's)

describe the genre, is a sensitive one. And yet, with rare exception,  there is an aspect of Islamic culture – past or present – inherent in what makes these works successful, never mind in the basic root of their aesthetic.  It’s impossible to imagine a photo by the Iranian Shirin Aliabadi,  whose “Hybrid” series presents a blonde Iranian girl, a Bandaid across her nose where she is recovering from a nose job and carrying one or another extremely Western, sexualized accessory (in this case, a lollipop), without Aliabadi’s own Iranian background. Charles Hussein Zenderoudi’s works gain their elegant forms and poetic rhythms entirely from the calligraphy that marches, dances, stretches end to end across his canvases.

Even so, when I discussed the work coming from Middle Eastern and North African artists with Christie’s specialist for this sale, Michael Jeha, he remarked wryly, “we have no plans to hold sales of Middle Eastern art as a stand-alone sale in London. We don’t sell American art as stand-alone, or stand-alone Chinese sales; American art stand-alone is done only in the US, and Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern in Dubai.”  (That Turkey is not the Middle East does not seem to figure into this equation.)

Still, call it what you will, the artists-working-with-Islamic-traditions-and/or- who-were-born-in-the-Middle-East, North-Africa-or-Turkey (see why this doesn’t work?) continue to produce art that speaks from the core of their beings, at once relevant to Western art traditions as to the political and historical backgrounds of their own lives.  Leave the George Bushes fornicating with pigs to the British, the comical recreations of space ships to the Americans; these artists create richly exquisite, visually powerful and philosophically challenging art works that bear a depth rarely found in international art now.

Paul Guiragossian (1926-1993) Untitled (c. Christie's)

And perhaps this is explains why interest continues to grow globally in these works, as Jeha noted: “About thirty pecent of the Dubai sales are bought by non-Middle Eastern clients globally – in London, the US, and elsewhere,” he said, “and also from institutions: Tate, MoCA, the Met.”  More artists are emerging, as well, particularly coming out of Saudi, according to Jeha, and from Egypt.  “I think the whole region in the next five to ten years will show a stronger awareness and appetite for art from collectors,” Jeha told me, “and an increase in the quality of art – the whole package.”

I’m quite certain he is right.

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