Middle Eastern art help bridge gap between region and the West at Sotheby’s auction

Dozens of pieces across painting, installation art, photography and sculpture will go under the hammer from leading Arab and international artists.

Chant Avedissian's Icons of the Nile. Courtesy Chant Avedissian / Sotheby's
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Ahead of the stampede of contemporary art sales in New York comes an auction of paintings, photography, sculpture and installation art from Sotheby’s in Qatar.

Up for sale will be dozens of artworks from leading Middle East artists such as Chant Avedissian and Ayman Baalbaki, offered alongside pieces by more established and widely collected international artists including Anish Kapoor, Rudolf Stingel and Christopher Wool. The pre-sale estimate for the auction is US$6.2 to $8.9 million (Dh22.7 to Dh32.6m).

It is, according to Ashkan Baghestani, a specialist in contemporary Arab and Iranian art at Sotheby’s, this placing of regional and international side by side that sets the sale apart.

“It breaks that geographical boundary that a lot of people impose on Middle Eastern artists. We curate it as a contemporary sale. That’s very important.”

Among the lots to go under the hammer is a painting in oil from Baalbaki. The Lebanese artist was born in 1975, the year the civil war began, and the trauma of these years provides much inspiration. His most notable series is that of a veiled man wearing a kaffiyeh, which aims to refute the western prejudice that it's worn only by terrorists. One of these portraits, Al Mulatham I, will be sold next week. "Baalbaki tried to reinterpret [the kaffiyeh] in a much more positive way with a floral background."

The piece has an estimated price of $80,000 to $120,000.

Representing Egypt is Avedissian, whose installation, Icons of the Nile, is a mosaic of Egyptian and Arab culture. Avedissian is known for his stencil works and this 21-part piece features Cairo's past celebrities, such as Umm Kulthum, Dalida and Princess Fawzia. Icons of the Nile has an estimated price of $180,000 to $250,000 (a larger Icons of the Nile piece sold for $1.55 million in 2013 at Sothebys Doha, a record for a living Arab artist).

The presence of Saudi Arabian artists is testament to a vibrant art scene developing in the kingdom. Ahmed Mater's Green Antenna and Abdulnasser Gharem's Men at Work (Time Magazine Person of the Year 2003: The American Soldier) go under the hammer.

Gharem’s work is made by using Arabic stamps that are then produced on an aluminium board. It’s a very pop-art take on Saudi culture. Baghestani agrees, and says both artists are pioneers in their field.

Gharem is considered one of the most influential figures of the Saudi art scene and is part of Edge of Arabia, a platform promoting artistic dialogue between the Middle East and the West.

“Most did not go to Saudi art school as they are quite limited in that area. They are self taught. A lot are social media-based. For that, I respect a lot of these artists,” Baghestani says.

Particularly striking among the lots is The Shrines by Ali Banisadr, who is, says Baghestani, "the hottest thing in art right now".

Banisadr was born in Iran in 1976 and emigrated to the US during the Iran/Iraq war in the 1980s. The Shrines is part of a series inspired by war scenes from Persian miniatures. Earlier in the series, the merchants, warriors and king were clearly defined but the rendering of these figures has become more and more abstract.

“He is very well collected, impossible to get because his works are very laborious and take a few months to finish. It can [also] be a bit difficult for a western collector ... the subject can be a bit difficult.”

Baghestani predicts that the limitations that some collectors and institutions put on art from this region will vanish over the next 15 to 20 years – and the Doha auction is evidence of changing attitudes. “It’s very important for us to be here. There are so many things going, exhibitions, art roots with Dubai and Abu Dhabi. There is a lot we can do.”

Contemporary Art / Doha takes place on Tuesday. For more information visit www.sothebys.com