Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary artists you need to know about
Specialist Hala Khayat introduces a selection of the region’s leading modern and contemporary artists
Along with Shaker Hassan Al Saïd, Dia Al-Azzawi is regarded as one of Iraq’s most influential Modern artists, creating works that merge contemporary techniques with references to ancient traditions. A former archaeology student, Al-Azzawi grew up captivated by the artefacts of the Iraq Museum, which continued to hold an influence when he studied at Iraq’s Institute of Fine Art in 1964.
In 1969, Al-Azzawi became a founding member of Iraq’s New Vision Group, its members united not by style, but by a desire to change an art scene they felt had grown rigid. Active during a period of political unrest, they created works that also reflected changes across the Arab world.
Shaker Hassan Al Saïd was a founding member of the Baghdad Modern Art Group in 1951, its members championing art that drew upon the country’s heritage, or istilham al-turath. Al Saïd came to be recognised as a pioneer of Iraqi modern art, penning a manifesto that has been described as ‘the true birth of modern art in Iraq’ (Qatar’s Mathaf Museum).
As a teacher, theorist and historian, Al Saïd was rooted in both past and present, his international outlook resulting in works that were a synthesis of Arab culture and European modernism. A brief period in France introduced the artist to works by Braque, Picasso and Klee, with the flat colour planes and bold contours of the post-Impressionist Cloissonism style also a visible influence in his work.
In 1950, Saliba Douaihy left his native Lebanon for New York. Although his abstract works had gained recognition in his home country, New York’s dynamic art scene offered an energy Lebanon did not. Here, Modernist principles vied with a new mode of Abstract Expressionism, with artists including Mark Rothko, Hans Hoffman and Ad Reinhardt challenging approaches to form and colour.
The move visibly shaped Douaihy’s output. After 10 years in New York, his earlier academic style had all but disappeared, to be replaced with a new mode of minimal abstraction. Working in series, the artist produced canvases depicting flat, monochromatic forms, their blocks of vibrant colour cut with fine lines and sharp edges. The style characterised his production until his death in 1994.
Composed of brightly coloured, interlinking asymmetrical planes, the work Connection in this sale explores Douaihy’s principle of ‘infinite space’, in which paradoxically ‘flat’ colour appears to extend beyond the boundaries of the canvas edge. Although abstract, the work echoes Douaihy’s earlier realist landscapes — a reference, perhaps, to the enduring influence of his childhood home in the northern Lebanon Mountains.
The son of Egypt’s Prime Minister, Mahmoud Saïd worked as a lawyer, prosecutor and judge. Although his successful legal career met with society’s approval, it denied a much stronger desire to make art. In 1947, at the age of 50, Saïd resigned from his legal career to become an artist full time.
Saïd’s oil paintings employ Western techniques to capture his native Egypt, depicting scenes of contemporary life that reference the country’s long history. His subjects include veiled, statuesque women filling water jars at the edge of ancient temples, men in turbans drawing water from wells, dances and scenes of Islamic ritual.
Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian lived and worked in New York from 1945-57, meeting artists including Milton Avery, Willem de Kooning, and Joan Mitchell. Other acquaintances included Andy Warhol, who gave Farmanfarmaian a selection of illustrations in exchange for a mirror ball — the glittering object remaining on the desk of Warhol’s Madison Avenue home until his death in 1987.
In 1957, Farmanfarmaian returned to her native country, learning traditional art forms including Turkoman jewellery, reverse-glass painting and coffee-house painting — a popular form of Iranian narrative art. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution would force her to leave again: Farmanfarmaian began a 26-year exile in New York, although her attachment to her distant homeland remained central to her practice.
Farmanfarmaian’s mirror balls exude the glitzy pop culture the artist encountered in 1970s America, employing the reverse glass painting she learnt in Iran to cast kaleidoscopic beams of coloured light. Though far removed from New York’s disco scene, the traditions of Islamic design, with its geometric forms, continue to be an influence.
Born in Ankara in 1919, Jewad Selim studied sculpture in Paris, London and Rome. His works exhibit a strong influence from 20th-century European masters including Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso. Together with the artist Shaker Hassan Al Saïd he formed the Baghdad Modern Art Group, as well as a new Baghdad School of Modern Art.
After his sojourn in Europe Selim was appointed Head of Sculpture at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad — a position he retained until his death in 1961. He died before completing perhaps his best-known work, the Monument to Freedom, which celebrated Iraq’s revolution in 1958 and is today located in one of the city’s main squares.
‘A feminist artist of Iraqi origin living in the States, in many ways her style is very classical — she studied in Florence and has lived across the globe in Africa, South East Asia and the US — but her subject is the struggle of women in the East. It’s done in a very delicate way to show how these women are looked upon as objects, or bodies — they’re like marionettes with very fine lines moving them. She is standing there for women, opening the eyes of people to expose how society is looking at them. Hayv Kahraman is a sought after contemporary artist in today's global art scene and her work, although it references Middle Eastern traditions and culture, is filled with references to global art history.’
‘Ramazan is known for making beautiful collages with various textiles, like jeans and khakis, creating a carpet-like picture. As a painter who is fascinated by photography, he turns paintings to photographs as opposed to the other way around, through a complex technique involving industrial acrylic paint and Plexiglas. If you look at it from afar it’s like one big picture, but upon closer inspection, one discovers a myriad of Plexiglas pieces delicately laser cut like a puzzle. To obtain this effect, he colour codes each piece of his puzzle. It’s a technique which requires hours of devotion, like prayer.’
‘Mounir Fatmi is international, and especially big in Paris where he works. He makes giant installations with white computer cables depicting intricate calligraphy or an Islamic motif. His work is about the contradiction between the very traditional background and the very modern lives so many are experiencing now in the Middle East. Islam is constantly interpreted wrongly in the media today and this work also explores how the revolution of wires and connectivity show you one thing but underneath there’s a totally different reality.’
‘Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki is already established; he’s really a star. One of his most significant series is about suicide fighters; they’re iconic images. His work represents the identity of the region; he is seen as the voice of the streets in the Arab world. He doesn’t produce a lot of work so what he has done is very much in demand. This work in our sale is one of his most iconic and rare works, one that alludes to the Tower of Babel that has been reflected upon throughout art history. ‘
‘An artist who always does a lot of research into her subject, Tagreed Darghouth is particularly sensitive to the endless conflicts in the Levant and has produced a series about weapons of mass destruction. Many of the bombs used here have unusual names like ‘Blue rabbit’ or ‘Colourful rainbow’, names which are intended to sugar coat the truth. Her response is to paint artillery, or large-scale skulls against a background of wallpaper patterned with blue rabbits or rainbows. She plays on that notion cleverly.’