H eadlined by a stunning and celestial canvas by Ali Banisadr, a dark and striking work by Bahman Mohasses, and one of the most impressive landscapes by Mahmoud Saïd ever to reach auction, 20th Century Art / Middle East sale is a veritable cornucopia of exceptional and challenging art from the region.
In the richly diverse sale, to be held in London on 22 October, works by pioneering modern masters will be joined by some of the most exciting and vibrant contemporaries of today. Mai Eldib, Sotheby’s specialist and co-head of sale, said: “Over many years we have been proud to build a vibrant international platform for artists from the Middle East, whose importance and boundless talent is not restricted by borders. Our star lots are testament to this. At the same time, this is a sale of many firsts – from the survey of the Armenian diaspora to auction debuts for young, fresh talent – it is a chance to discover and rediscover artists and movements.”
Painted in 1936 by the founder of modern Egyptian art, Mahmoud Saïd's glorious Après la Pluie is set to make its auction debut with an estimate of £300,000–400,000. An erudite and travelled artist, Saïd brought together elements from the European art movements – from 16th century Venetian Old Masters to Cézanne’s radical post-Impressionist explorations of geometry – while remaining anchored in an authentic understanding of Egypt, capturing the Egyptian spirit during a time of intellectual renaissance.
The late 1930s marked the pinnacle of Saïd’s accomplished output, named the ‘Amarna period’, as he moved to a style that embodied Ancient Egypt. This enchanting scene depicts a sleepy countryside village, which became the ever-present background to all the paintings of this period. The canvas is at once both light and dark, capturing the complexities of light to illustrate the depth of a sky as it is after rain – heavy clouds looming, yet with the hope of light and promise of sun. Imposing impactfully in the composition is a ripened palm tree, which was to become a recurring motif in Saïd’s works – a whimsical nod to the idyllic charm of the Egyptian landscape. The colours also subtly reference the Nile, with his emblematic cobalt blue peppered with hints of turquoise and deeper, darker shades.
Ali Banisadr’s intoxicating canvases are unmatched in their technical prowess and visceral impact. Laden with multi-layered meaning, his works weave together art historical contexts as Islamic worlds easily meld with Medieval Europe, and the gestural power of Abstract Impressionism is fused with battlegrounds from Persian miniatures.
The boundless nature of his work runs parallel to his success in the global arena, with the artist currently the subject of two concurrent museum shows at the Gemäldegalerie of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna – creating conversations between the magical worlds created in his works and those of Hieronymus Bosch – and Het Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands.
Stardust, painted in 2011, is one of the most joyous works by the artist ever to appear at auction (where it has an estimate of £280,000–350,000), the effervescent colours enveloping the viewer with a cosmic sense of harmony and serenity.
Dubbed the ‘Picasso of Iran’, Mohasses was a pioneering poet and painter whose daring oeuvre was infused with a theatrical flair for depicting raw feeling. His work from the 1960s holds a particular fascination due to its host of dark, mythological characters used to express the anguish and despair of the human condition. This 1966 work – Untitled, with an estimate of £120,000–180,000 – depicts a robust yet austere figure set against a stark blood-red background – encapsulates the artist’s unique ability to capture strength and vulnerability in the space of one canvas.
Monir Farmanfarmaian’s inimitable style evokes a nostalgia for Iran’s ancient culture, geometry and craftsmanship alongside the influences of her close friendships with the leading names of Abstract Expressionism in New York. One of the most celebrated Iranian artists – with a retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2015 – Farmanfarmaian lived to see the first-ever museum dedicated to a female artist in Iran set up in her honour.
This beautiful 1975 work, Untitled, which has an estimate of £70,000–90,000, was originally part of a mural and is a fine example of the artist’s mirror geometric abstractions, bearing her characteristic flair for manipulating form, reflections and prisms.
In 2013, 97-year-old Saloua Raouda Choucair became the first female Arab artist to have a solo show at Tate Modern – her inaugural major international museum exhibition. Prior to this, her works had rarely been seen outside Lebanon and this forward-thinking step was a huge feat. More recently, her work was featured in a major survey exhibition at the K20 Museum in Dusseldorf last year, which revisited the history of modern art through a global narrative.
Born in Beirut in 1916, Choucair travelled to Paris in 1948 – spending three years in Fernand Léger’s atelier – and her unique response to the European avant-garde translated into a pioneering brand of Arab abstraction. Her aesthetic is shaped by, but not restricted to, Islamic geometry and calligraphy, coloured with the daring palettes of her Parisian contemporaries and infused with the soft landscapes of Lebanon. The wonderfully poetic and elegant Rhythmic Composition from 1949 marks the first time a painting by the artist has appeared at auction, and it has an estimate of £30,000–40,000.
Palestinian-Saudi artist Dana Awartani was born and raised in Jeddah, where she currently resides, having studied at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design and the Princes School of Traditional Arts. Her works gently fuse the lineage of Islamic craftsmanship, its motifs and tessellations with contemporary practice. Dodecahedron, a delicate yet powerful work estimated at £18,000–22,000, marks the artist's debut at auction, and encapsulates her contemporary approach to the age-old spiritual appreciation of geometry. Working with craftsmen in Morocco, Awartani has created the core shapes in wood, suspending them within the fragile lens of glass and rigid copper framing – marrying the precarious with the perfect.
One of the most influential female Turkish artists, Princess Fahrelnissa Zeid’s dynamic works embody a fusion of influences from Islamic, Byzantine, Arab and Persian art, combined with stylistic elements of post-war Europe from Fauvism and Expressionism to Cubism. Two of the artist's works from the 1950s and 1960s are in the sale – Untitled (Green Abstract) and Purple Fog. Unequivocally abstract, her works from this period are composed of organically formed geometric shapes, recalling a surface of fractured light, luminous with colour, gently reminiscent of Monet’s iconic series of softly abstract waterlilies.
Zeid’s first solo show in London opened at St George Gallery in 1948 – attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother – following which she was dubbed the ‘Painter Princess’. Since then, the artist has been the subject of exhibitions across the globe, including a recent retrospective at the Tate Modern in London in 2017.
The Armenian Diaspora
The relationship between Armenia and the other countries of the Middle East goes back for centuries, and this rich past has influenced political, economic and cultural perspectives both ways. Today, there are well-established Armenian communities in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey. This unprecedented survey takes a look at the unique and multifaceted Armenian artistic heritage. Through exile and war, many artists preserved their culture, history and language and some even moved back to the country in the 1990s – namely Marcos Grigorian and Sonia Balassanian – driven by a desire to participate in a growing local art community.
One of the few Armenian artists from the Middle East diaspora that never moved to a Western country, Chant Avedissian lived and worked in Cairo his whole life – fusing the cosmopolitan experiences from his travels to Canada and France with his heritage to produce striking commentaries on the world around him. Avedissian’s captivating works integrate traditional Arab motifs, Islamic geometric patterns, Ottoman design and iconic figures from Egyptian history with modern pop culture featuring local celebrities and politicians.
This painted stencil from the 1990s – Cities of Egypt / Greetings from Masr – is a window into the vibrant landscape of Egyptian cities, the curtains opening onto traditional touristic visuals of Egypt, from the pyramids and the sphinx to the Cairo Alabaster Mosque. The title is intended as a provocation, as the artist combines a standard Western form of greeting with the Arabic Word for Egypt, perhaps a statement on colonial rule and cultural appropriation.
Born in Jerusalem to a family of exiled Armenians, Paul Guiragossian moved to Jaffa in the early 1940s, teaching in several Armenian schools. In 1956, the young artist landed a scholarship to study at The Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, a pivotal moment in his career. The auction offers four artworks painted in different periods – from a small-scale watercolour to a monumental triptych – showcasing how the artist stayed loyal to his bold aesthetic vision. The selection includes Untitled, a 1984 acrylic on brown paper work, with an estimate of £50,000–70,000.
During the Civil War in Lebanon, Seta Manoukian was profoundly affected by the death, violence and devastation that she witnessed around her, and after a number of difficult years in Beirut, she moved to Los Angeles – where she lives today as a Buddhist nun. For almost ten years, she devoted her life to Hinduism and Buddhism and only began painting again in 2016.
This 1987 work, Untitled, is her meditative self-portrait from a period when she had just moved to Hollywood, and is a reflection a lost and confused individual. The artist sits with two artworks, one of which is a small watercolour of a carpet seller in Tehran, by Iranian-Armenian artist Aroutyun Vartanian in 1950.
Arab Art Students in the USSR
Beginning in the 1950s, the Soviet school of realist art had a strong impact on the cultural development of mainstream Arab art. This was largely due to the creation of government-sponsored exchange programs in music, cinema, fine art and performing art at the leading art institutions, that led to hundreds of Arab nationals studying in the USSR. Education was free and the students were provided with a scholarship, book allowance, clothes and tickets to and from the USSR, which went hand in hand with an admiration of the communist regime and Soviet way of life, as well as the splendour of the artistic and cultural heritage of Russia.
Kuwaiti artist, Thuraya Al-Baqsami, alongside Afifa Aleiby from Iraq (a work by whom is also included in the sale) was among the first female Arab art students to join the Surikov Moscow Art Institute. Her 1978 work, Alem, has an estimate of £6,000–8,000.