The Al Zayani Collection Unveils a Personal History of Middle Eastern Art

The Al Zayani Collection Unveils a Personal History of Middle Eastern Art

I t’s regarded as one of - perhaps the - definitive collections of Modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art. Taken as a whole, the Al Zayani Collection is an overview not only of the blossoming confidence and verve, characteristic of artists across the Middle Eastern region over the past 100 years, but it also charts the growth of the unique art ecosystem that itself has unfolded and flourished, across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain since the early years of this century.

Abdulrahman Al Zayani’s family collection of art and jewellery is legendary, amongst fellow collectors, artists, dealers, art world professionals and curators. And this collection, selections of which are being auctioned at Sotheby’s in London in April 2023, is the a portrait of a collector, family's exquisite tastes and deep knowledge, with its constituent parts all having been displayed at the Al-Zayani Bahrain residence.

This is an exceptionally eclectic and personal collection. It spans 20th century Italian furniture to Chinese porcelain, Persian rugs to Orientalist objects. It also builds a fascinating overview of art across the Middle East during the 20th and 21st centuries - Abdulrahman Al Zayani’s collection was largely acquired via Dubai's thriving galleries and art fair. The collector himself acknowledges the vitality of the Emirati art ecosystem, stating that he is ‘proud to witness and be a part of that evolution, living in a region that is now becoming one of the cultural hubs of the world.’

“Showcasing works from the early part of Abdulrahman Al Zayani’s distinguished collecting career, this auction follows the journey of a collector who started very young, with a clear vision and bold taste, and believed in works from across the breadth of the Middle East. Bringing together the best of the best from this field – across the breadth of the Middle East – this sale marks a unique opportunity for budding collectors to acquire rare and important works from artistic masters from the region.” 

Ashkan Baghestani, Sotheby’s, Senior Vice President, Contemporary Art Specialist

Abdulrahman Al Zayani was a trailblazer for the UAE’s art industry, back when Dubai’s gallery scene numbered a mere handful of spaces, that have since paved the way for the dynamic, vibrant industry it is today.

Opening night at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai
The Dubai art scene has flourished in the past two decades. Pictured, opening night at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, 2018

‘When I started collecting 20 years ago,’ he reflects ‘There were fewer art fairs and galleries here in the Gulf. The region has expanded in terms of scholarship and attention, in no small part thanks to institutional and governmental investment. There is a lot of exciting contemporary work coming out of the region now.’

And we can see that growth reflected across the breadth of this unique collection. Over 95 lots, featuring 73 artists, it spans Modern and contemporary masterworks from Africa, Turkey, Iran, and the Middle East, with museum-quality works by icons such as Gazbia Sirry, Fouad Kamel, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Behjat Sadr and Farid Belkahia.

They sit alongside younger talents such as Dana Awartani, Hayv Kahraman and Lateefa bint Maktoum, amongst others. However, Al Zayani’s guiding principle was not to assemble a pre-ordained history of the region’s art, it was simply, according to the collector: ‘Buy what you love’.

 ‘The most important, overriding advice I have for anyone is to buy what you love’
- Abdulrahman Al Zayani

‘The most important, overriding advice I have for anyone is to buy what you love,’ Al Zayani says. ‘That is always my starting point. Then I do my research and focus on trying to buy the piece. All my works were collected with a lot of love and care. Secondly, speak to the auction houses, who are one of the best sources you can have, and the academics. And lastly, buy the piece not the artist – for example, checking the period a work has come from etc. Not everything by an amazing artist is going to be as good as each other.’

Across the oil and acrylic paintings, watercolours, sketches, ceramics, sculpture, and photography in the Al Zayani family collection, we can see the fruits of this passionate and committed approach, in one incredible artwork after another. For instance, a clutch of pieces by Mahmoud Saïd, the father of Egyptian Modernism, whose large-scale paintings usually sell for six-figure sums, is represented here at accessible price points, in smaller scale, watercolours and sketches. This is a recurring motif of the Al Zayani collection - the tendency to zoom into the lesser-known corners of an artist’s oeuvre. ‘My favourite works are, hands-down, my Mahmoud Saïds,’ says the collector. ‘A few will be presented in this sale, including an extremely rare self-portrait from 1950.’ Another example of this informed manner of purchasing is Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar’s Portrait of a Young Girl (Gratzella), which forms part of a limited series of portraits produced in the 1960s, whilst the artist was studying in Rome.

Portraiture is another recurrent theme, such as Youssef Nabil’s photograph of the bust of Nefertiti (now in Berlin’s Neues Museum) or Egyptian belly dancer and actress Fifi Abdou. Mahmoud Moussa, on the other hand, immortalised a young woman crouching in terracotta, and a work by the renowned Syrian painter, known for his devastatingly emotional monochrome works, Safwan Dahoul, who is represented here with Dream 139. The collection also features an important array of abstract and colourful compositions; from Palestinian-born Samia Halaby with a muted Billboard Collage from the 1960s and one of Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi’s late, bold designs from 2004.

There are works which reference the past, such as the inimitable Rokni Haerizadeh’s The Death Of Shab-Rang - a stunning example of that fiercely idiosyncratic artist’s distinctive style. Elsewhere, the perennially popular poet and painter Reza Derakshani’s Untitled work also alludes to the storied tradition of Persian storytelling and miniatures. And no collection of Middle Eastern art is complete without the Persian Pop master Farhad Moshiri, another artist who created his own technique in order to capture the essence of antique Persian ceramic bowls and jars. Moshiri famously appropriated elements of classical calligraphy in his Pop-inflected works, but there is much more calligraphically-inspired work here too, with powerful compositions from Omar El-Nagdi, Nja Mahdaoui and Rachid Koraichi.

These artworks are accessible, intelligently curated and intended to be lived with, and loved by, collectors - whether well-versed in the region’s art heritage, or newcomers, bewitched by the wealth of ideas and histories ingrained in each piece.

Middle Eastern Art will remain at the core of Al Zayani’s exciting collecting journey, but the international sales at Sotheby’s will also pave the way for the next stage of his project - and as a collector of rare vision and taste, we can’t wait to see what comes next.

Islamic, Orientalist & Middle Eastern Art

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