Spray and play as Riyadh stages first street art festival

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DUBAI: On Oct. 24, Sotheby’s will present the most important collection of Saudi modernist art ever to appear at auction as part of its 20th Century Art/Middle East sale in London. The sale presents a unique group of modernist works assembled by Shatha Ibrahim Al-Tassan, a prominent collector who founded the Hewar Art Gallery in Riyadh in 2006.  

“From a young age I was influenced by my father’s passion for championing the arts. I would say I’ve always been a collector from afar, walking around as a kid admiring — and picking favorites out of — the artworks my father (had) around the house,” Al-Tassan tells Arab News. She began collecting for herself in 2005, “carrying forward the love and appreciation of art.” 

The collection contains several major works by Saudi modernists, including pieces by Mounirah Mosly, Mohammed Al-Saleem, Abdul Jabbar Al-Yahya, Taha Al-Sabban, and Abdulrahman Al-Soliman, as well as pieces by significant Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian, Tunisian and Lebanese artists.  

“(This is) the most extensive collection of Saudi Modern art ever to appear at auction,” says Ashkan Baghestani, Sotheby’s contemporary art specialist. “As with most art movements, this did not happen in isolation and half of the collection is made up of artists from (elsewhere in) the region who had an equally important influence, together showcasing a wealth of artistic dialogue.” 

The auction comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is rapidly transforming its arts and cultural scene.  

“Supporting the arts will always be an endeavor I’m glad to be a part of, and my collecting passion still remains geared towards modern art,” Al-Tassan says. “Seeing the cultural growth in recent years, I feel that parting ways with these foundational artworks will help grow awareness of Middle Eastern art, and perhaps allow the next person to start their collecting journey on the right foot.” 

Here, we examine some of the highlights from the works on offer. 

Mohammed Al-Saleem 

‘Untitled’  

Al-Saleem was born in 1939 and became one of the leading artists of his generation, contributing greatly to the evolution of the Saudi art scene. His work often fused modernist abstraction with traditional elements from daily Saudi life. This 1986 work, according to Alexandra Roy, the auction head, “essentially banishes form and landscape, reimagining the distant dunes of the desert horizon through contained slabs of color, which emerge as if struggling against one another across the surface of the image. Its layering and shading suggest a search for subtle accords and variations similar to that with which a composer achieves musical harmony, creating an astonishing sense of energy and dynamism. The artist effectively reconciles two ostensibly opposing styles of abstraction and figuration whilst balancing delicately on the edge of both.” 

Mounirah Mosly 

‘Untitled’  

The Makkah-born artist, Roy explains, “celebrates nature, color and the Arabian Peninsula’s historical culture through (experiments) with material and texture: she has worked with natural dyes (made by herself), copper, plant fibers, papyrus and paper, often employing them in collage. In this way, the artist pays homage to her heritage and travels.” Born in 1954, Mosly was one of the Kingdom’s first established female artists. In this piece from 2001, Roy says, “Mosly uses the technique of handwoven carpets. Through what is regarded as a traditionally female craft, this work can be interpreted as a meditation upon the sensations, emotions and aspirations of the Arab woman in this particular time and space.”  

She continues: “The carpet hangs from a wooden window frame, which the artist would source from northern Saudi Arabia.”  

Abduljabbar Al-Yahya 

‘Artist 2’  

1985, oil on canvas (estimate £150,000-200,000) 

Al-Yahya, a former journalist, focuses on abstract depictions of nature and humanity in his work, with a strong focus on Saudi landscapes. This poignant work was painted in 1985. As Roy explains, “The dangling, elongated limbs — typical to Al Yahya’s figures — and slack head recall Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated ‘The Death of Marat’ … In spite of the intentional facelessness — a common feature of Al Yahya’s oeuvre, which renders caricatures of popular life with a distinctive flatness — the work is imbued with a sense of sobriety.”  

Taha Al-Sabban 

‘Untitled’ 

Born in Makkah in 1948, Al-Sabban lived in Lebanon, Italy and the UK before returning to Saudi Arabia with a strong individual artistry, one that married contemporary styles with the rich heritage and natural landscape of his homeland. Jeddah, where he also lived, inspired him to depict nature, especially — as in this colorful abstract work from 1999 — the sea. The artist, Roy says, “captures the nature of the ocean through a cool, deep palette and vertical energy, as if the forms are rising, swaying from the seafloor. At this time, it became increasingly important to uphold a sense of national identity and contemporary painting allowed Al-Sabban to visually contemplate his heritage and resurrect a local memory.” As the artist himself explained in 2019, as per Sotheby’s catalogue, “all the artworks that I produce are linked to a place.” 

Hussein Bikar  

‘A Drinking Fountain in Nubia’ 

This piece comes from the Egyptian artist’s “Nubia” series. Bikar sought to return Egyptian art to its national roots, rejecting its Europeanization. He was greatly impacted by the displacement of the Nubian population following the construction of the Aswan High Dam. He saw the evacuation of Nubia as leading to the destruction of its cultural and architectural heritage. 

“Bikar’s works are often characterized by a sculptural quality that captures the modernist aesthetic without neglecting meaning, and (pays) homage to the art of the earlier Islamic period,” Roy says. “(This) work demonstrates Bikar’s sensitive handling of color and form; the landscape is flooded with the warmth of the sun, perhaps setting or rising, casting blue shadows that imbue the painting with an architectonic quality.”  

Shafic Abboud  

‘Composition’ 

 

Born in 1926 in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Abboud showcased his connection to the landscape, light and natural abundance of his homeland throughout his work. This stunning piece, Roy explains, was “conceived at a catalyst moment in Abboud’s career, it captures a new lease of painterly spirit; earthy hues of yellow … created by animated strokes produce a patchwork effect, that invigorates the canvas with an almost autonomous life.” Abboud himself described his paintings as if they were alive; in a statement for his 2001 retrospective for Galerie Claude Lemand in Paris, he wrote, “The work is completed when it has its skin, its real skin. What I am putting right now are the layers underneath, and then it will gradually create itself.” 

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