Originally printed in the April 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
Can you buy art based on an algorithm for financial investment? “Sure, just like you can buy a car,” jokes Myrna Ayad, director of Art Dubai. “But that takes so much fun and enlightenment out of the process. Buying art can be financially beneficial, but I would much rather subscribe to buying art being beneficial for your mind and passion, in addition to its aesthetic pleasure.”
Although there has been a thriving creative scene in the region for decades, the roots of the commercial art market were planted with the opening of Christie’s Middle East and Art Dubai in 2006. It has rapidly flourished and art from the region is now being shown and sold in cities worldwide – and women are at the forefront. “We had many women pioneers in the region’s art scene and that continues today – women dominate,” Ayad says. Some of the early starters include Janine Rubeiz, who founded artistic platform Dar El Fan in Beirut in 1967. Princess Wijdan Ali opened Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts in 1979 with works from her own collection, and Sheikha Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan established a namesake foundation in Abu Dhabi.
While the perception of a collector is someone with a vast number of works at their disposal, Salma Shaheem, the head of Middle Eastern markets at the Fine Art Group, argues, “A valuable collection can start with as little as five or six very rare, museum quality pieces.” Even if this level of investment is not a reality, a collection can begin with just one standout work on paper by a favorite artist, a piece you return to with every morning coffee, as though lingering in conversation with the work. Four female collectors from the region are proving that collecting is not a staid hobby focused on financial returns, but rather a full-time pursuit incorporating philanthropy, patronage, and community.
Maria Sukkar has built a remarkable collection with her husband, Malek. They tend to harmonize in taste. “We try to agree on most works,” she says. “We try,” she repeats, laughing a little. “We allow one another 10% deviation. Not because I don’t like what he has chosen, but because sometimes I think a work is a little too far out, too edgy. I think he does the same.” The family’s Victorian townhouse in London is so filled that the Lebanese Sukkar admits to having removed practical seating in order to fit more art.
Their collection is titled ISelf. Like a coin with two sides, “One side is quite tough, brutal, full of angst, and visceral to look at, and is mirrored in pieces by Jenny Saville and big sculpture works by artists like Antony Gormley. The other side is more feminine. This is me. Domestic and spiritual, and that is reflected with pieces by artists like Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin.” Through leadership positions, Sukkar supports the Delfina Foundation, The New Museum, and the Tate Modern. As part of Whitechapel Gallery’s initiative to open up seldom seen collections to the public, pieces from the ISelf Collection have been on view at the London Gallery since April last year and will continue to be exhibited until August.
Rana Sadik’s role in the art world transcends labels of any kind. Is she a collector, patron, or curator? Does it even matter? Ever the nonconformist thinker, she states, “These are oversimplified terms, because the cultural landscape requires you to be all those at once if you are looking to be effective.” Sadik’s studio, minRASY Projects, regularly runs interventions around the region, memorably among them “Study for a Domiciled Gallery (2015),” in which the art and furnishings of her own living room were transported to Kuwait’s Museum of Modern Art, then displayed in sterile glass cases to provoke discussion about unspoken protocols of collecting, particularly in countries where immigration is non-fixed.
The collection Sadik keeps with her husband, Samer Younis, in their Kuwait home is a separate matter altogether. “It is based around politics. It began more than 20 years ago at a time when people thought it was unusual to collect things with a message rather than things with symbolic meanings, like doves, olive tree branches, and keys.” She claims to have no favorite. However, she has a few rules for acquiring. “I no longer buy from dead artists. I have a very strong preference to buy from living artists. If I can meet them or their studio, that’s great.”
Mouna Atassi and her sister Mayla’s art gallery in Homs, Syria, was a legendary gathering place in the 80s and 90s for those modern Syrian artists whose names dapple today’s auctions. The refined Atassi believes that artists are “always the conscience of society,” so when the civil war forced her to shutter the gallery and move to Dubai, she and her family formed the Atassi Foundation in 2015 as a home for the study of Syrian art. This encompasses an astoundingly thorough collection and includes work by some of Atassi’s greatest friends, such as Fateh Moudarres, who once frequented the family’s mountain home.
Brushing away the prestige factor with a wave of her hand, Atassi says, “The collection is around 450 works, but that’s not what’s important. Its importance stems from the fact that it is coherently Syrian, covering more than 100 years of artistic production in Syria.” So far, the Atassi Foundation has taken a pop-up approach, most notably presenting “Syria Into the Light,” the inaugural exhibition at Concrete, the Rem Koolhaas-designed space on Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue. Atassi’s pet project, the Modern Art Syria Archive, an online research platform for the study of Syrian art is in the works next.
Maya Rasamny’s love of art often blinds her to the practicalities of its placement in her London apartment. “Sometimes I buy work that is extremely heavy and I don’t think about the actual logistics until it arrives,” she says. A Cindy Sherman self portrait featuring clothes from the Chanel archive was gracelessly hoisted through a window. A massive stainless steel Urs Fischer sculpture addressing domesticity through the image of an iron board silkscreened on all sides was nearly impossible to get in the elevator.
Rasamny left Lebanon for the UK as a child, then found her place in the art world after studying at Christie’s Education. It was an encounter with one of Egyptian artist Ghada Amer’s embroidered canvases at a fair that ignited her desire to collect. One of Art Dubai’s initial patrons, she now co-heads the Tate Modern’s committee on Middle East and North African acquisitions, along with her friend Maryam Eisler – the role affords her the opportunity to host art salons, dinners, and discussions in her home for the Tate and other institutions. “It’s not just about buying art for me anymore,” she says. “It’s about powerful connections and inspiring conversations made through art, and how the universal language of creativity can be used for social change. I have a collection, but what has taken over is an adventure of curiosity and discovery.”