A head of the Contemporary Curated auction in London on 19 November, Head of Sale, Ashkan Baghestani, sat down with guest curators Elisa Sednaoui Dellal and Alia Al-Senussi to discuss the origins of their friendship, collecting art, and their shared passion for education.
Ashkan Baghestani: Let's start at the beginning: what do you love most about art?
Elisa: Art is an incredibly powerful tool which cultivates minds and hearts, opening up the imagination and nurturing the soul. What I am passionate about is creating learning spaces, where individuals have the opportunity to explore personal interests, learn fundamental life skills, widen their perspective and deepen their awareness. This is reflected in my selection, which was undoubtedly also influenced by my upbringing as a citizen of the world with roots in France, Italy and the Middle East.
Alia: Every work of art can tell a million different stories, and every person has the freedom to discover what that can mean to them. Ultimately, it is about what speaks to you when you stand in front of it, and that entirely personal moment of magic, when a painting takes on a new depth of significance so far beyond its material existence. There is also an aspect of community to our work together, for Elisa Sednaoui Foundation (ESF) and for this collaboration, and I hope that people enjoy the pieces that I have fallen in love with during this process.
Instinct, Experience and the Creative Risk of Contemporary Art
You seem to have a very dynamic, creative friendship and working relationship. How did the two of you first meet?
Elisa: It was my husband who introduced us a few years back, and we haven't really left each other since. For me, meeting Alia was one of those "friendship love at first glance" moments, the instinctive recognition of having been reunited with a life-long soul mate. It's funny that we both lived the first five years of our life in Cairo, and though our specific interests and paths may differ, there is a similarity of intention, the desire of living a full life, of human connection. Alia is not afraid of saying what she thinks, which to me is a fundamental quality for any long-lasting relationship.
Alia: We were "set up" by Elisa's husband a proper match-make indeed! Elisa and I have shared similar life arcs but in such different ways. It has been fascinating to trade stories of Egypt, of our lives that touch the creative worlds, and to try to work to create positive moments for all of those that are a part of Elisa Sednaoui Foundation (ESF). Egypt is at the center of our bond — truly "Um Al Donia", the mother of our world. The works being sold to benefit the charity will help to facilitate the work that Elisa Sednaoui Foundation does.
Can you tell us about the mission statement of the charity's work?
Elisa: Our mission is to promote the personal and educational development of young people through hands-on creative learning experiences that embrace innovation, while celebrating rich traditions and cultural exchange. We work to improve the quality of teaching and learning, both inside and outside the classroom.
Alia: I was recently able to visit the birthplace of Funtasia (project funded by the ESF), in Luxor, on the edge of the Valley of the Kings and Queens. Experiencing the community built by Funtasia first hand was magical, and truly indescribable. I understood the power that Elisa has had in building confidence through creativity in a part of the world that has had an ancient connection to culture, but needed a push to make that contemporary bridge. Funtasia changed my life in one afternoon, and I can only imagine what it does for the countless children that are there every week.
Are there any artists that you are particularly excited about — from any region — that you would urge people to see?
Alia: I am passionate about the artists and patrons of Saudi Arabia. I see in them this deep commitment to art as a cornerstone of an evolving society. I have been proud to be a part of this fascinating art world, and to help introduce more and more of my friends to Saudi culture, and to the artists of the region.
When and where did your interest in Contemporary art begin?
Elisa: It started back in high school, when I began to learn about the context and history of art. As I visited exhibitions, I loved being transported to different perspectives, journeys and universes. For me art has always been a place of total personal freedom, offering a moment of introspection and exploration. I knew that I was going to find a project which would use art as a tool for a better present and better tomorrow.
Alia: The first time I really understood what contemporary meant in the context of art, was visiting Tate Modern in January 2004 and experiencing the life-changing Olafur Eliasson: The Weather Project. It felt like an overwhelming moment, to gaze in to this vast space and to see people treating a museum like a social space rather than a temple to worship art. In this way art could change the way we see, the way we act — I became a believer.
How do you see the art world shifting, what trends do you see?
Elisa: I can't really say that I have closely followed or identified specific trends. I guess I feel lucky to be surrounded by different experts, who explain to me the background of specific works. And there is always something fascinating in hearing the stories of artists' journeys and what defines their careers or their value at auction.
Alia: Artists, collectors and institutions are becoming more aware, and taking ownership of their ability to be changemakers. I applaud institutions like the Tate and LACMA that are working to accurately reflect our world in their galleries--the global cosmopolitan world that is inevitably going to present itself, because of the work of these artists, curators and patrons.
How has your taste in art changed over time?
Elisa: I definitely learned a lot from my husband and his taste and perspective, as well as from my mother- and father-in-law. I would say they have been my biggest influences, with their varied taste; Andrea, my mother-in-law, for example, with her love for contemporary Brazilian art. I do have a particular personal interest in anything Egyptian. With time, my personal taste is strengthening, identifying what it is I really love. I am also beginning to have stronger opinions on what works together, how the art is hung.
Alia: I have decided to embrace beauty. I also have committed myself to art, and artists, that reflect my values, and who work to effect positive change in their worlds, and in mine.
What makes contemporary curated an interesting collaboration for you?
Elisa: The link between an individual, a person, and the auction, ignites opportunities for very dynamic exchanges. It's been a learning experience for me, to understand better how this world functions and its inner structure and process. Sotheby's commitment to the Funtasia project and to social responsibility is also particularly meaningful. This event has created an opportunity to highlight how art impacts academic and socio-emotional education around the world, whilst simultaneously creating a platform to raise some of the funds needed to make this vision a reality. Contemporary Curated is a very concrete example of how an entity like Sotheby's can make a real difference.
Alia: Being able to work together is always a whirlwind — Elisa motivates me to do more, and to see different aspects of the art world. Having the opportunity to collaborate in this way, and to think about the community that has come together to support ESF has been extremely emotionally touching.
You have both worked with renowned artists (Hassan Hajjaj and Peter Lindbergh), how would you describe your experience with them?
Elisa: I wish I had worked with Hassan Hajjaj! Not yet, but hopefully one day soon! Working with Peter Lindbergh is a gift I will cherish forever. His love of his art was so pure and his immersive enthusiasm for each shot was mind-blowing, totally captivating. In those moments, everyone was always totally present, and this would apply to the whole team, which made the experience particularly special. Peter had this way of making us feel that what we were was enough. I believe this is why he was able to portray so much truth.
Alia: I hope that I am able to give back even just a fraction of what Hassan has done for me and for our community of Arabs, of North Africans, and of those who love the spirit of the Arab world. His generosity of spirit is effervescent. Hassan truly epitomises that saying "a rising tide lifts all boats" — he is that tide.
If you could save one artwork from destruction, what would it be?
Elisa: A hard question to answer, because if I had to follow my heart it would have to be one of my favorites, Alexander Calder's pyramids, Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs, or a work by Joan Miro? But then rationality kicks in, and one would need to consider history, legacy, the ‘human responsibility’ as they say, and so works Michelangelo Da Vinci or Caravaggio come to mind, along with Pablo Picasso's Guernica...
Alia: All of those that I have yet to behold with my own eyes.