Contemporary Art

A Labour of Love at London’s Whitechapel Gallery

By Roxane Zand

Great art invariably examines aspects of the world around us. This relational perspective needs a focal point of reference which is often the 'self'. Maria and Malek Sukkar started a collection nearly a decade ago which evolved into an existential dialogue about identity, and other significant universal themes such as birth, love, pain and death. As a partnership between husband and wife - like many other famous spousal collaborations - this has been a labour of love, reflecting two different yet complementary approaches. Counter-intuitively, Maria has been the more analytic, cool, classically-oriented of the two, while Malek is impulsively drawn to the visceral, expressionist works. To quote Chief Curator Lydia Yee, "Ultimately the ISelf Collection can be understood as a collective portrait that tells the Sukkar's story in a way that an individual portrait cannot possibly do."


The ISelf Collection was on show in four parts at London's Whitechapel Gallery to critical acclaim. A substantial catalogue sets out the aims and aspirations of both collector and the show: to look at the complex ways in which artists are thinking about themselves in relation to others, to society, and the wider world. As a fascinating expose of what a private vision can achieve in terms of contemplation and statement, it is a show that has extended well beyond the life of its own display.

Maria tells me, "Our starting point was an Anthony Gormley sculpture that we bought from the White Cube Gallery, entitled Extract. It's the artist's own body curled up in a foetal position and cast in  small steel blocks.  It was this piece that gave the collection the coup d'envoi because of its connection to the human body.  We named the collection ISelf because it has the Self at its core with particular reference to the human condition.  It explores the central themes of birth, death, sexuality, love, pain and joy. The collection is very figurative with portraits and and sculptures ranging from caricatures to traumatized figures and erotic imagery. Photography constitutes an important part of the ensemble. It is something I am personally interested in.  I tend to gravitate towards vintage and /or black and white images because of the quality of the works and the fact that these images are generally untouched and not photoshopped. I was first attracted to this genre of photography when I saw a Man Ray work at Paris Photo more than ten years ago.  That image haunted me until the time that I started collecting photography as part of iSelf. Other photographic works that featured in the early displays were works by the likes of Linder, Cindy Sherman and Andre Breton.  These works reveal how artists stage their own bodies to examine the different ways we build our sense of self."


The multi-media, eclectic approach of the ISelf Collection speaks of multiple modernisms. The third 'chapter' of the show in particular - perhaps my favourite - addressed our relationship to the material world around us; what consumption means today and how we engage with environmental themes. For example, Mona Hatoum's paradoxically unwelcoming sculpture (Doormat 11, 2000-01) takes the form of a doormat made of steel pins that spell out the word "Welcome", implying pain and injury instead of what we should expect. The artist invites us to look at how we are all surrounded by the mundane and everyday household objects that could harm or threaten us. At a more complex level, the work is also about the concept of exile - a foreigner on the threshold of what is ostensibly welcoming and yet with the power to cause pain. It is a work that can transform the space where it is placed. Similarly, the chair by Ai Wei Wei can be seen as both a throne or a banal object in an interrogation cell. The object is the message. Another captivating work for me in chapter three of the Collection, was the 'Produce, Consume, Die' light installation by Claire Fontaine. A whole lifetime's journey captured in three short words, and yet so illuminating of our times.

"At present," says Maria, "my favorite work in the collection is the one entitled The End of Love by Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari who is really interested in revisiting overlooked Arab photography collections.  It's a series of forty-eight black-and-white pictures mainly of brides and grooms, and the work comes from the archives of Hashem El-Madani in Saida. I love this work because it is mainly about a moment of encounter between two people, a moment of love. The work was chosen by the Whitechapel curators to feature in the second display of the ISelf show at the Gallery and I was extremely happy  and proud that they gave the name of that same work to the display.  The house felt very empty without it while the work was on loan."


The significance of an exhibition is often reflected in its post-show longevity. I return again and again to the lavishly illustrated catalogue and refresh my experience of what was undoubtedly one of the more important private collections I have seen. To quote Maria, "When we pose [in photographs] we always present ourselves in different ways to the world.  It's those self reflections that help us build our sense of personal identity." Surely there is not a more relevant preoccupation in life - today, as in times before us. ISelf reminds us how today's artists explore and expose this preoccupation.

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