What to expect from largest exhibition of Arab art in London

The Christie’s show will present landmark works, as well as a section dedicated to contemporary Emirati artists

Powered by automated translation

Christie’s is presenting London’s largest exhibition of Arab art so far.

Summer is one of London’s most bustling tourist seasons, and for many, the show will mark their first glimpse of Arab art.

Ridha Moumni, deputy chairman of Christie’s Middle East and North Africa, took this into account when planning the exhibition.

Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World opens on July 20 and runs until August 23. Moumni wanted to feature landmark pieces along with more cutting-edge works, with the goal, he says, being to showcase a genealogy of Arab creativity spanning more than 80 years – from 1939 to 2023.

“It is important for us to show that there is a very strong narrative around Arabic Modern art,” Moumni says. “But there is also continuity in the richness of the creativity of the artists of the region.”

Moumni has curated both sections of the sprawling exhibition. While one brings Arab masterpieces from the collection of the Barjeel Art Foundation, the other is dedicated exclusively to contemporary Emirati art and was developed with the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth.

Kawkaba, Arabic for constellation, is the first section, which highlights 100 artworks from the Barjeel Art Foundation's collection. It features works by luminary figures of Arab art, including Marwan Kassab-Bachi, Mohamed Melehi, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Inji Efflatoun, Simone Fattal and Menhat Helmy, to name a few. Recent acquisitions by Barjeel, including pieces by Samia Osseiran Joumblatt and Mona Saudi, are also included.

“The selection was balanced and motivated by different criteria,” Moumni says. “There are masterpieces in the Barjeel collection that you can’t do without, artists like Saloua Raouda Choucair, Marwan, Mohamed Melehi. We need to represent them. I also wanted the presence of contemporary artists such as ​​Nadia Ayari."

Then there are a handful of works by modern Arab artists who have not yet had their due exposure.

Sultan Al Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, says he was delighted with the neutrality with which Moumni selected works from the collection, showing no bias towards a particular country or region.

“I was pleasantly surprised at the inclusion of lesser-known artists who would generally get overlooked, such as Maysoun Jazairi from Syria, Sabiha Bishara from Kuwait, Moazaz Rawda from Lebanon and Iraq," Al Qassemi says.

Kawkaba is evenly divided between male and female artists, a direction that the Barjeel Art Foundation has been incorporating for a few years.

“It’s a policy that we started taking advantage of since 2019,” Al Qassemi says. “All our exhibitions that are drawn from our collection are a gender-balanced display. If, for instance, a museum wants to borrow works, they can choose to borrow more works by male artists or female artists. But if we are exhibiting works exclusively from the collection, we try to stick to a gender-balanced display.”

The section showcases two decades' worth of the foundation’s collection efforts. While some works have been previously exhibited in London, a lion’s share of the pieces will be making their debut in the British capital with the Christie’s exhibition.

“Twenty-one of the 100 works have never been shown at Barjeel anywhere. Ninety per cent of the works are recent acquisitions that have never been shown in London,” Al Qassemi says. He adds that the last time the foundation exhibited in London was in 2015. The exhibition, titled Imperfect Chronology, was held at the Whitechapel Gallery and was curated by Omar Kholeif.

The collection has expanded greatly since then, with a notable change in focus.

“The DNA of the institution has shifted into being a gender-balanced collection, into being a collection that highlights minorities, and one focusing on modern art,” says Al Qassemi. “These were the three major changes between our last display in London and this display.”

The second section of the exhibition, Emirati Art Reimagined: Hassan Sharif and the Contemporary Voices, highlights the contributions of one UAE artist who was pivotal in establishing the contemporary and conceptual art scene of the country and wider region.

“Drawing from one of the most comprehensive private collections of works by Hassan Sharif, Christie’s will exhibit around 30 works by the artist, including paintings, drawings, sculptures, and objects spanning from the 1980s to the 2010s for private sale,” Moumni says.

“From his background in caricature art to his semi-systems and materials work, this collection reveals the iterative thinking and rigorous experimentation behind Sharif's practice”.

The collection of works presents the disparate forms of Sharif’s artistic practice, with paintings, sculptures, installations, works on paper and textiles from the 1980s up to 2015, the year before the artist’s death. The works will be presented alongside other pieces by contemporary UAE artists, highlighting works by youth and female artists.

The section, Moumni says, reflects “the ambitious thoughts and visions of Emirati artists as they explore the significance and the materiality of the art of their country."

Featured works by UAE artists include Mohammed Kazem's Acrylic on Scratched Paper, Alaa Edris's 2019 video piece Circus, an archival print Farah Al Qasimi's Curtain Shop, as well as The Red Dress, a 2016 work by Taqwa Al Naqbi composed of paper-making techniques as well as embroidery and Talli cotton thread.

“This exhibition is a unique opportunity for visitors to experience the artist conversation between past and present, tracing the legacy of Sharif's pioneering spirit through the vibrant works of today's artists who continue to advance the narrative of Emirati art”.

Between its two sections, Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World offers a chance to discover key pieces of modern and contemporary art from the region. For those who are more knowledgeable, the exhibition is a chance to draw new connections within 80 years of Arab art.

“London is probably one of the most important cultural destinations of the world,” Moumni says.

“We will be presenting in the middle of London in St James masterpieces of our art at the moment where the capital brings so many people from over the world. We will have a lot of people visiting from our region. The goal was to display this art, both for the people from our region, and also for the London public and visitors. I’m also thinking about all the universities around London. We don’t only want to attract visitors and tourists; we want to have an educational programme. We want visitors to be exposed to a different kind of art.”

Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World runs from July 20 to August 23 at Christie's London

Updated: July 19, 2023, 10:15 AM