Sotheby’s online auction shines warm light on Middle Eastern artworks - GulfToday

Sotheby’s online auction shines warm light on Middle Eastern artworks

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Hassan Ghaemi’s Untitled composition, 1959, oil on canvas.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

Featuring a time capsule of Iranian Modernism alongside a Bahman Mohasses, formerly in the Collection of Nelson Rockefeller, the online auction by Sotheby’s of Modern & Contemporary Middle Eastern artworks (open for bidding Oct. 20 – 27, public exhibition in London Oct. 24 – 27) will also shine a light on some of the greatest names in modern and contemporary art from across the region, including Mohamed Melehi, Mahmoud Mokhtar, Huguette Caland and Monir Farmanfarmaian.

Consisting of over some 100 lots, ‘20th Century Art / Middle East’ is, among other things, a journey to discover Iranian Modernism. According to Sotheby’s “with a powerful vision and relentless dedication to collecting, Sheila and Eric Azari (from whom the pieces are sourced) played an invaluable role in the trajectory of the Iranian Modern Art movement.

“These thirteen works (which are up for auction) have remained largely unseen for half a century, and their emergence on the market marks the opening of a time capsule of Iranian art from the most exciting time in its trajectory”.


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Having met at university in Berkeley, California, Eric and Sheila moved to Tehran in 1959, remaining there for five years and becoming heavily steeped in the discovery of Iran’s heritage and past.

On their return to Los Angeles, the Azaris succeeded in bringing ancient Persian folklore to Hollywood, hosting events to benefit LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Among these works in auction are a zen-like, abstract watercolour by Sohrab Sepheri (est. £8,000-12,000), a spiritual metallic work on paper by Faramarz Pilaram (est. £60,000-80,000) alongside two pieces by Massoud Arabshahi (est. £12,000-18,000 and £6,000-8,000, respectively).

Two of the artists have never appeared at auction, their works largely unknown to the public until now: Hassan Ghaemi and Fereydoun Rahimi-Assa. Ghaemi was a raw, self-taught talent, who picked up a brush aged nine and never looked back, his mysterious trajectory feeding into his modern aesthetic narrative.

Drawing on the traditional craft of his hometown in the Caspian region with a poet’s sensibility, his works seamlessly bring together the decorative design of woven rugs, the patterns of tiles in mosques and the colours of traditional dresses.

Rahimi-Assa too drew on memory in his vivid canvases but blended his Persian heritage with the influence of contemporary American society and secular themes.

The auction then presents a selection of Palestinian art, bringing together a group of important artists to showcase its depth. One of the most important and poignant works is by Ismail Shammout, Crucifixtion from 1972 (est. £50,000-70,000). Coloured by Shammout’s personal experience of Palestinian history, he handles the subject matter of sacrifice and loss with sensitivity.

artwork 1  Bahman Mohasses’ artwork Personaggio I, 1968.

An early work by Laila Shawa, The Souk from 1965 (est. £10,000-15,000) featured in the artist’s first solo show in Gaza in the same year. Known for her bold colour palette, storytelling and portrayals of women in Arab societies, Shawa’s early works are nostalgic and almost folkloric renderings of everyday local scenes.

At auction for the first time are Ibrahim Nubani and Nabil Anani, key figures in the contemporary art movement.

Mohasses is an icon of Iranian modernism, taking inspiration from artists including Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore and Alberto Giacometti – alongside myriad influences from theatre, mythology, tragic heroes and cinema.

In Personaggio I from 1968 (est. £70,000-90,000), a faceless head takes centrestage, encapsulating the artist’s tendency towards solitude and existential output. The work was formerly in the collection of Nelson Rockefeller, the US Vice President 1974-1977.

Rockefeller held a close relationship with the Shah of Iran, and travelled to the country extensively, including for the star-studded opening of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. It was later donated by the Rockefeller family for a charity auction in aid of the Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, where it was acquired by the current owners.

A leading light of the UAE’s contemporary art scene, Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim’s colourful conceptual works are a direct response to the landscape around him. He was the subject of a retrospective at Sharjah Art Foundation in 2018, and it has been announced that he will represent the UAE for its pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. The sale will feature Bouquet, a vivacious papier-mâché sculpture from 2018 (est. £6,000-8,000), alongside two archetypal works on paper.

Moroccan modernist Melehi’s radical vibrant works capture a postmodern aesthetic with the cultural richness of Moroccan-Berber crafts. He is currently being celebrated in two exhibitions concurrently, in Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue and London’s Cromwell Place. His painting from the start of the 1970s is estimated to bring £60,000-80,000.

One of the most influential female icons from Lebanon, Huguette Caland’s playful abstract works are imbued with the artist’s appetite for life and adventure, and the auction offers Dechirure (Jaune, Bleu), painted in 1986 (est. £30,000-40,000).

The only daughter of Bechara El Khoury, the first post-independence President of Lebanon, Caland’s audacious character is captured in her oeuvre. She explores the delicate balance between the suggestive and the explicit, challenging traditional conventions of beauty and desire.

Mokhtar’s depictions of the struggle for political independence and the emancipation of women in Egypt in the first decades of the 20th-century are unparalleled. Au bord du Nil is characterised by the elegance and determined posture of a water carrier, echoing the aesthetic of the great sculptures of Ancient Egypt and the fashionable Parisian Art Deco. The bronze will be offered with an estimate of £150,000-200,000.

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