Modern masters

From the 1940s through to the 1980s, stunning modern pieces produced by artists from the Middle Eastern, North African and South Asian regions were overlooked in favour of European and American art. But one Dubai art fair is intent on changing this narrative

Each year, Art Dubai is tasked with the challenge of upholding the traditions that distinguish it as the most significant art fair in the Middle East, while simultaneously inventing fresh ways to remain a site for discovery. In March 2014, the fair’s eighth edition introduced Art Dubai Modern, a new section of galleries that focuses on work from the 1940s to the 1980s, an era that produced seminal artists from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia (MENASA) region who were, and still are, overlooked by mainstream art history in favour of European and American narratives.

“No other international art event of this scale has such a focus on modern art from the Middle East and South Asia,” says Antonia Carver, Fair Director of Art Dubai. “We wanted to show the inspiration or threads of history and influence that exist between the contemporary and the modern, and we realised that Art Dubai could and should take up this mantle.”

“We also felt that there is a particular desire right now to connect more with the modernist periods of the Middle East and South Asia, both regionally and internationally. Major institutions and collectors started to connect with these regions over the past 10-15 years through contemporary art. Some are now working backwards, and looking to show that modern art was also global, that the European and American artists had counterparts in the Arab world, Iran, India and Pakistan.”

One exhibition that pays tribute to Emirati modernist Abdul Qader Al Raes, presented in collaboration with Dubai’s Hunar Gallery. Al Raes has been painting since he was a child, long before artistic practice became popular, or even credible, in the Gulf. His realist style seeks inspiration from desert landscapes: craggy, arid hillsides, sumptuous coastlines and heavy wooden doors opened just enough to offer glimpses into inviting courtyards.

Nabil Nahas
Untitled #2, 1978; Acrylic on canvas (detail) by Nabil Nahas, a Lebanese painter

Asked about the relevance of a modern art focus in a contemporary art fair, Amrita Jhaveri of Jhaveri Contemporary notes, “In the rush for new discoveries, pioneers have often been sidelined. Giving them solo presentations rather than presenting them in mixed booths will shine a spotlight on their work.”

Jhaveri Contemporary presents the work of Anwar Jalal Shemza, a writer, artist, and teacher whose career oscillated between Pakistan and the United Kingdom. Shemza’s contributions to art history as both an artist and commentator are many. He was editor of Ehsas, an art and architecture magazine, and was one of the founders of the modernist group Lahore Art Circle.

Shemza’s practice was initially founded on illustrative figuration; however, moving to London and attending the Slade School of Fine Art transformed the work of the artist, guiding it toward abstraction. He was inspired by modern masters in both South Asia and Europe – most notably by Paul Klee – and consequently delved into explorations of geometry and pattern.

We wanted to show the inspiration or threads of history and influence that exist between the contemporary and the modern, and we realised that Art Dubai could and should take up this mantle

Antonia Carver, Fair Director, Art Dubai

Shemza’s later work integrated Arabic and Persian calligraphy and Islamic motifs into his existing visual vocabulary of abstraction. Jhaveri Contemporary’s stand at Art Dubai Modern highlights works from Shemza’s Square Composition series made in the early 1960s.

Writer Murtaza Vali, Curator of the 2013 Abraaj Group Art Prize at Art Dubai, says, “There is something I have always loved about Anwar Jalal Shemza’s paintings. He seems to be one of the few out of many who have tried to successfully uncover the formal language common to calligraphy and modernist geometric abstraction. He is an important historical figure who deserves greater recognition and demands more research.”

Cairo-based Karim Francis has opted for a duo-stand at Art Dubai Modern, featuring works by Egyptian artists Hamed Abdalla and Adam Henein. Abdalla’s early representational works often portray the toils of everyday people, with dark, heavy brushstrokes silhouetting his subjects. He began incorporating Arabic script into his work and these paintings reveal Abdalla’s zest for experimenting with new materials.

Anwar Shemza
Anwar Shemza, Square Composition 2, 1963; oil on hardboard (detail)

Henein is renowned for his sculpture, though he also painted. Henein had a voracious appetite for his national heritage, which is a dominant trait in his work. His figural compositions merge universal themes with ancient Egyptian iconography through a variety of bronze, wood, granite and clay. Henein is represented at the Karim Francis booth by an array of bronze sculptures from the mid-1950s.

Murtaza Vali aptly summarises the modern movement’s potency when he says, “In recent years, modernism, especially as it played out in Europe and North America, has re-emerged as an important discourse for contemporary artists. Abstraction has become relevant again, but as a history that is firmly past, that can be comfortably cited and excavated for ideas, themes, forms, and materials that may have contemporary relevance.”