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Christie’s Dubai auction showcases Palestinian Cause | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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The work of Saudi Artist Abdulnasser Gharem. (The artist)

The work of Saudi Artist Abdulnasser Gharem. (The artist)

The work of Saudi Artist Abdulnasser Gharem. (The artist)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The first impression one gets when flicking through the catalogue of Christie’s auction of Modern & Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art is that the huge index contains the acquisitions of an entire museum.

Not only was the catalogue enormous but the lots on offer were created by the pioneers of modern art in the Arab world. The comprehensiveness of the catalogue is notable in its precise classification of the artistic production of various Arab countries. We see the work of the forefathers of Lebanese art, such as Paul Guiragossian and Shafic Abboud; by the Egyptians Hamed Ewais, Seif and Adham Wanly, Ragheb Ayad, Mahmoud Saaed and others; Iraqis Shaker Hassan Al-Said, Mahmoud Sabri and Dia Al-Azzawi; as well as Syrians Fateh Moudarres and Louay Kayyali.

Hala Khayat, Christie’s specialist in Dubai, said the auction is of considerable importance. “From an academic point of view, the auction is considered to be one that tells the history of art. It is also an auction that targets a type of collector who is eager to protect part of their country and their region’s history, especially at this time when we see powers acting to sweep away and destroy historical landmarks.”

The auction also showcases work from the Mokbel Art Collection, which contains Lebanese masterpieces that have been archived online, in what Khayat considers the “documentation” of Lebanese art.

The sale also sheds light on the Iraqi school of art, as well as displaying ten lots that have the Palestinian Cause as a common denominator. Having inquired about the story behind the iconic painting Jamal Al Mahammel II—or the Camel/Carrier of Hardships II (2005)—by Palestinian artist Suleiman Mansour, which is one of the main attractions on offer at the auction, Khayat said that the original painting Jamal Al Mauhammel I was created by the same artist in the 1970s and was gifted to the late Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Until earlier this week the original painting was believed to have been destroyed during the American bombing campaign in Libya in 1986; following Christie’s publicity campaign for the auction in January, a London-based collector came forward believing he might own the original work, which Christie’s has now confirmed as the original painted in 1973.

The piece is considered one of the most iconic Middle Eastern images ever produced, to the extent that it is printed on posters, T-shirts and mugs across the Arab world.

When Suleiman Mansour met Ehab Shanti in 2005—Shanti was then communications director at the United Nations Development Program in Jerusalem—it was suggested to him to bring Jamal Al-Mahammel back to life, something Mansour had thought about since the potential loss of the original work, Khayat said. She added that in the second version, the painter made some changes that reflected the new political realities on the ground. “Twenty years after the first painting was done, some additions were made, and the political dimension changed as well. Therefore, the changes in the second painting gave it a real historical essence.”

The painting is full of sorrow as represented by the over-burdened, stooping old man carrying a sack. Khayat says much of the imagery in the 2005 work has stayed the same as the original and the sack’s ocular shape still hints at an Arab idiom that
describes a loved one as the “pupil of one’s eye.” The porter’s presence in a bare expanse can still be understood as an echo of Palestinian life in exile. The city depicted inside the sack represents the idea of the lost homeland that Palestinians
“carry” with them: from Al-Aqsa mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the small converging houses.

When asked whether she considers the painting to be the star of the auction, Khayat answers: “The auction has many stars. Yet, as an artwork, it may be one of the top works to have survived in Arab nations’ living memory” . It resembles in its artistic importance and stature a handful of works that have captured the popular imagination like the So What? painting by Louay Kayyali, and Sabra and Shatela by Dia Al-Azzawi. Jamal Al-Mahammel, stands for the missing homeland that every Palestinian carries deep inside wherever they go and their prolonged suffering, as manifested by the old man in the painting, though his advanced age does not diminish his persistence.

Moving from the Palestinian collection to another painting that depicts the hopes and ambitions of an entire nation, we see the painting Protectors of Life by Egyptian artist Hamed Ewais, on display for the first time. Ewais painted the proletariat in
Egypt, mainly peasants, laborers and farmers. The painting was completed by the artist in 1967 and shows a strong, dark-skinned, man holding a gun. In the foreground, scenes from Egyptian society are seen: a wedding, children playing, a mother and her baby, farmers carrying a sickle and other farming tools. In the background, the High Dam, factories, mosques and farms loom in a bid to portray a strong image of the past to summarize the state of affairs in Egypt in the 1960s.

As for Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki, his artworks include the painting entitled Babel, which is considered the best of all his works. The painting takes its inspiration The Tower of Babel (1563) by Pieter Bruegel, the elder. However, unlike the great Dutch master, Baalbaki does not emphasize the details, such as people and buildings. His Babel has dark features, and no
individuals are portrayed, as if tending to reflect the impact of a destructive war. The painting also reflects a clear sense of loss and chaos.

Celebrated Egyptian artist Mahmoud Saeed is also present through his painting Portrait de Mme Ismail Mazloum, a portrait of the artist’s niece. The work of artists Mohammed Naghi, Seif and Adham Wanly, and Ragheb Ayad, all affiliates of the School of Alexandria art movement, were also put on display for auction.

As for the female artists, Khayat points to Egyptian Tahia Halim’s The Happiness of Nubia in which “life’s richness and the Nile’s floods” are illustrated. In the painting, the artist has distanced herself from the controversy surrounding the High Dam’s impact on the lives of Nubian people—who had to flee their homes when they were flooded by the waters of Lake Nasser. Instead, the artist expresses the Nubian people’s delight in the dam that completely transformed the Egyptian economy.

The auction also provides a popular showcase for a number of important sculptures, such as Sabiha by Michel Basbous, the father of Lebanese sculptors, according to Khayat. “It is difficult to acquire a work by Michael Basbous, as most of his work is either kept in private collections or put on public display in museums,” she said. There are also three sculptures by Iranian Parviz Tanavoli, and a statue named Key of Life by Egyptian sculptor Ahmed Abdel Wahab, and Labour by Adam Henein.

Among the displayed lots is also the wrought iron sculpture Seated Woman by Omar El-Nagdy, which was displayed in the Egyptian section at the Venice Biennale in 1968.

From Iran, the auction displays a number of works by prominent artists such as Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Mohammed Ehsai.

Christie’s Modern & Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art auction will take place on Wednesday March 18, 2015 at Christie’s Saleroom in Jumeirah Emirates Towers, Dubai.