Owing to the instructions issued by the British Government on Monday 23rd March, the sale of 20th Century Art / Middle East that was scheduled to take place on 24 March will now take the form of an online sale, running from 27 to 31 March. Details of how to bid online are available here.
D ating back to the classical period in Egypt, circa first century B.C., the Fayoum Portraits were the first example of the desire to preserve mortality – or at the very least, its memory. Here lifelike portraits were buried with mummies of aristocrats, military personnel and clergy. Portraits were not simply intended to be pictorial records but rather, they functioned as a status symbol – a display of social milieu and an appeal to a vanity that was only with the purview of the privileged few.
With the advent of photography in the 19th century, it became the most widely used medium. The work entitled Hindiii, by Hassan Hajjaj marries not only photography but also adds elements of kitsch. Embracing kitsch pop, Hajjaj can position the sitter of his portrait to illuminate what is cool about Moroccan culture and pushed the sitter to express their true identity – an air of cool nonchalance.
In contrast the other photograph from 1997, by Youssef Nabil entitled Ehsan Crying, one of his most iconic images in his body of work. The work was part of a fashion shoot by Nabil, where Ehsan provides us with a fleeting possibility of an intimate melancholic moment. Where photography was able to capture tangible images to preserve history and national identity, both examples by Hajjaj and Nabil, embraced the contemporary face of portraiture in photography, by manipulating the identity of the sitter.
While, mostly used to elevate national identity, we also see Youseff Sida’s work Hindya which translates to Indian woman exotifying and romanticizing a woman from a different country and culture.
Each portrait gives a sense of character and façade of the sitter. Society portraits were intended to celebrate the sitter’s beauty, affluence and panache. Examples of society portraits were typically by commission, Marie-Alice by Fahrelnissa Zeid inversely was not a commission – rather a visual embodiment of a friend of the artist within her social circle. Marie-Alice, a friend of Fahrelnissa added an element of personal investment and a visual outpour of kinship expressed through paint.
Another example of a society portrait is Mahmoud Sabri’s Portrait of Basima Al Bahrani. An extremely rare work in the oeuvre of Sabri – he paints the wife of his dear friend, Dr. Hamdi Touqmachi showing her a symbol of Iraqi feminism and expression of national pride and aspirations.
Portraiture is both a revealing and enduring part of any artist’s oeuvre. These works remind us of the beauty and possibility of the human form and the variety of its rending. The rich selection on offer epitomizes both the talent of its makers and the cultural lifeblood that inspired them.