As Sotheby's gears up for its annual auction of 20th Century Middle Eastern art, it brings to light lesser-known artistic links between the Arab World and places like the Soviet Union and Armenia.
These connections go back to the 1950s, when improved political relations between the Soviet Union and the Middle East led to delegations of Soviet artists travelling to Lebanon, Syria and Egypt to perform and exhibit works. By the 1970s, a large number of Arab artists started studying in Moscow, including Afifa Aleiby.
Born in Iraq, Aleiby enrolled in the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow and studied at the Workshop of Monumental Art. Her work Sleeping Beauty, which features a female figure donning a fluid, silvery dress and peacefully reclining on fronds, is included in the auction and is estimated to $7,400 to $9,800 (Dh27,100 to Dh36,000). Made in 2001, the work illustrates the influence of Russian fairy tales and folk art on Aleiby.
There's also the work of Nazem Irani, who was the first Lebanese artist to join the Surikov Art Institute in 1960. When he returned to Lebanon, Irani set up a studio and workshop in Beirut, which was destroyed in an air raid in the mid-1970s. His bas-relief sculpture, Al Ghadab Al Sate, from 1969 survived. After remaining in a private collection since the early 1990s, the work will go on sale in London with an estimated price tag of $12,200 to $14,700 .
According to Mai Eldib, Sotheby's specialist and co-head of sale, this section was inspired by the research of Dr Olga Nefedova, who the auction house worked with in April 2019 for a work by Mahmoud Sabri, who also studied in Moscow from 1961 until 1963.
In another section, the spotlight is on Armenian artists with ties to the Middle East, such as Chant Avedissian, Ardash Kakafian, Seta Manoukian and Sonia Balassanian. One of the most notable is Paul Guiragossian, who was born in Jerusalem and eventually moved to Lebanon. His work Fable (estimated at $36,600 to $48,800) features abstracted human figures made with gestural, bold strokes of earthy colours.
"The reason we focus on the Armenian section is that many people don't recognise that a lot of Armenians … sought refuge in the Middle East and became a very important element in the artistic fabric of the Middle East," says Eldib.
For her, highlighting these rich, hidden historiesis extremely important for the Arab world, where the tools to learn about them are lacking. "There is no curriculum for modern Arab art in universities at all, and I find that problematic."
There is also a strong representation of female artists from the lot, including works by Etel Adnan, whose vibrant watercolours have performed consistently well at auctions. For the first time, Sotheby's is presenting a work by Saloua Raouda Chouchair, who drew from European avant-garde styles to create her own approach to colour and abstraction, as seen in her painting Rhythmic Composition, which is expected to sell at $36,600 to $48,800.
A rare, exquisite work by Turkish-Jordanian artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, Untitled (Green Abstract), shows a soft, dream-like scene of greens, blues and yellows that bears Impressionist qualities. The work, which is from a private collection in Turkey, is estimated to sell for $97,500 to $147,000. There's also a Monir Farmanfarmaian mirror and reverse-glass painting work from 1975 (estimated at $85,500 to $110,000), which was acquired directly from the artist in the 1980s.
The top two lots of the auction are by renowned Egyptian modernist Mahmoud Said and contemporary artist Ali Banisadr.
Said's Apres la Pluise (After the Rain) shows a moody landscape as a bruised sky looms over a village. Despite these dark colours, the light cast on the buildings offers a promise of renewal. Painted in 1936, the oil on canvas has been part of a private collection in Egypt for 15 years.
“It’s a very rare piece,” says Eldib, who claims she does not expect to see a Said piece of the same quality “any time soon”.
"There's not that many paintings by him, and a lot are in institutions and private hands who don't want to sell them. It's really hard for us to find a buyer who is willing to sell," she adds. As the top lot, the work is expected to sell at $366,000 to $488,000 .
The large-scale painting Stardust by Tehran-born Banisadr exemplifies his unique visual style – vibrant, sweeping curves of colour that appear to flow across the canvas. His chaotic, layered style is influenced by his synaesthesia, where one sense amplifies another. In the artist's case, sound is rendered visually, and his compositions are shaped by his aural environment as he paints.
While the work is not on view in the Sotheby's DIFC gallery, it will be shown in their London pre-auction exhibition and has an estimated price tag of $342,000 to $427,000.
A selection of works are on view at Sotheby’s Dubai until Thursday, October 10. More information is available at sothebys.com