The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation: bringing the Bauhaus to Dubai

Katie Boucher
Katie Boucher

One of the first non-profit private museums in Dubai, the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation marks a significant turning point in the city's every-changing art scene. Custodian Deborah Najar dicusses the growing trend for art collection in the city, and her late father's fascinating artistic legacy

To see Jean-Paul Najar’s prodigious collection of abstract artworks housed in their Bahaus-style space in Dubai is to witness a particular moment in contemporary art history: when, in 1970s Paris, two continents with previously paradoxical aesthetics and cultural histories came together in conversation. 500 artworks by American artists including Gordon Matta-Clarke and Linda Francis as well as European artists Christian Bonnefoi and Pierre Dunoyer, that were accrued by the Colombian-Egyptian collector Jean-Paul Najar from the 1960s to today, are now being housed in the space in Dubai’s Al Serkal Avenue – the first time a collection of Western art of this size and calibre has been permanently based here. “[My father] was able to link those two continents,” says Deborah Najar, Jean-Paul’s daughter and now custodian of the collection following his death in 2014, “and now being here in Dubai we’ve linked a third.”

The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, a non-profit private museum, opened in March this year and has already had 13,000 people through its doors. “There was a real thirst for more non-profits in the region,” says Najar, an economist who spent a decade in finance, followed by a decade in luxury retail and a then stint at the auction house Bonhams before taking the reins of the Foundation. “And more specifically a destination to see Western art and maybe a particular vision of a collector.”

The art scene is exploding in Dubai, and 2016 is its coming of age

Deborah Najar, Custodian of the Jean-Paul Najar Foundation

Najar has lived in Dubai for 12 years, and despite being in discussion with a number of European destinations, felt the city was the right place to base the Foundation. “Dubai has got the spotlight on it,” she says. “The art scene is just exploding here – 2016 is really its coming of age – and the whole world comes through Dubai so it really seemed like a great moment to do it.”

As well as hosting several exhibitions a year – one on Jean-Paul’s vision and legacy and another on the work of New York-based artist Judy Rifka have already taken place – the Foundation considers its brimming education programme one of its pillars, and every visitor receives a guided tour of the collection.

“We see complete neophytes,” says Najar, “and if you give them a good explanation they’re going to end up having an “aha” moment. Whereas if they walked in with no explanation they would be a bit lost. We are discussing art with a possible future generation of collectors, which is very exciting.”

Similarly, she adds, more experienced art lovers enjoy seeing the work from a different angle. “At our opening show we had a large number of museum directors that were completely astonished and saying, “we haven’t shown [this work] in such a long time and it’s so extraordinary.” So we’re bringing someone to the forefront whereas maybe other institutions haven’t had the time to do that among their busy exhibition schedule.”

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Custodian Deborah Najar is an economist who spent a decade in finance, followed by a decade in luxury retail before taking the reins of the Foundation

Najar’s was a childhood steeped in art. “The artists were always in the house,” she says. “My father never travelled to the US despite there being a number of American artists in his collection – he would just fly them over to Paris instead – and they would stay for weeks on end and he would commission works and there would be endless conversations and dinners.”

Born in Buenos Aires in 1948, but spending most of his adult life in Paris, Jean-Paul Najar first became interested in abstract art as a young man and had amassed a sizeable collection by the mid 1970s. He was no regular patron, though, and built life-long friendships with the artists whose careers he supported through exhibitions and commissions.

Thousands of letters survive him and form a significant part of the foundation’s archive – something that helps enormously, says Najar, when deciding how to take the collection forward. “He wrote a lot. He was very much a thinker and philosopher so we have hundreds, if not thousands of his sheets of thinking and we’ve been able to use that to guide us in the process.”

The Foundation considers its brimming education programme one of its pillars, and every visitor receives a guided tour of the collection

Najar feels a huge responsibility when adding new artists, something she has recently started to do. “[The collection] is very cerebrally assembled – there are no random acquisitions so we’re really trying to stay in line with the founder’s philosophy and choices.”

In the spirit of Jean-Paul’s patronage, exhibited artists are invited to spend two weeks in Dubai before the show opens, giving talks around the emirates and producing new works. “We really try to give them as much exposition in the country as possible, and I think that’s very rich and very important.”

What would her father think of the foundation she has nurtured and reimagined? “I think he would be very proud,” says Najar. “I wish he were here to see it. In an interview with my father in a film in our archive he says something very beautiful: “I hope I have left my daughter a beautiful object of thinking.” That’s very present in my mind always and in my team’s mind, that we’re here to think and explore and put beautiful things on the wall and to delve into them.”

Christian Bonnefoi: Double Take, an exhibition of work by Christian Bonnefoi is showing at the JPN Foundation until February 17th 2017