Industry Insiders Talk Curating And Collecting Ahead Of Abu Dhabi Art

Art Abu Dhabi, Collectors, Curators
Richard Hall
As the eighth Abu Dhabi Art Fair kicks off this week, five insiders reflect on the evolution of the Middle East’s art scene over the past decade, the women who have helped pioneer it, and the special bond between collector and advisor

THE CURATOR COLLECTOR AND GALLERIST

Maisa Al-Qassimi, 37, Emirati, Collector

Katia de Rham, 33, Swiss-Iranian, Director at Leila Heller Gallery

Emirati art collector Maisa Al-Qassimi (left) and gallery director Katia de Rham; all clothes stylist’s own

Striking a pose on Leila Heller Gallery’s staircase, it’s hard to believe this is the first time the collector and curator Maisa Al-Qassimi, and gallery director Katia de Rham, have met. 

“We seem to think in the same way,” says Katia, as they share thoughts on the bond between collector and gallerist and the women who have pioneered the region’s growing art scene. Among the latter are Maisa’s cousin, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, revered for her groundbreaking work at the Sharjah Art Foundation, and Farah Pahlavi, who started the most valuable collection of Western art outside Europe and the US. But also Leila Heller herself, the New York-based gallerist who both Maisa, a long-term client, and Katia, a recent employee, praise for both her artistic vision and pristine style, never a hair out of place. 

“When Leila hosts a dinner, she will wear something amazing that is really a reflection of her personality,” says Maisa. Such personality, infusing the ethos of the gallery, elevates collecting above mere commercial transaction. Maisa has been a client of the gallery for the past seven years but it started as a friendship; moving in similar circles, they knew each other from social events. 

“A lot of the galleries I collect from are owned by my friends. Leila was a friend years before I started buying from her. That’s how I like the relationship. It’s a Middle Eastern trait, we don’t like to be hassled.”

“There’s a very different way of dealing with Middle Eastern collectors,” says Katia, “The culture is humble. They don’t like to be put on the spot, you need to build trust.” Spending time with the collector to get to know their tastes is crucial: “I’ll take them out for lunch, and visit exhibitions to see how they react to other artworks. It’s about building that special bond. Often I’ll be in an art fair and see a work I think might appeal to a collector and will take a picture and send it to them,” Katia explains.

Maisa agrees, “Whenever I’m in New York, I’ll pick up the phone to Leila and say I’m coming by the gallery for tea. I’ll never say I’m coming to see what artists you have. But I might end up seeing something I like.”  Above all, for both women, the real thrill is in supporting emerging artists, watching their careers grow. “I’ve bought artists years ago who are now in major museums,” says Maisa.

“I love that feeling of being there from the beginning. I don’t just collect to have stuff on my wall, I collect to support the artists” 

Maisa’s own collection includes the Malian photographer Seydou Keïta, the Iranian Hadieh Shafie and Indian artist Zarina Hashmi. She bought her first piece at the age of 15, a watercolour by a student at the Dubai International Art Centre, and works on paper, along with photography, remain a particular passion. Her approach remains organic. “I buy things I love. If I see something I really like, I’ll buy it even if I don’t know the artist or the gallery. And I won’t check the markets or anything before I buy.” Katia agrees that, unlike many male collectors, she has “rarely heard a female collector asking if a piece would be a good investment.”

Ten years ago, both agree, growing up in the Gulf and aspiring to a career in the art world within the region would hardly have been feasible; there were simply not the galleries to support it, so moving to Europe or America was the inevitable choice for many. Now, however, entities such as Art Dubai and Christie’s have been in the region for 10 years, and galleries within Dubai itself have grown from a handful to over 50, complemented by a wave of universities in the UAE offering master’s degrees in arts and museum studies, like the NYU and The Sorbonne. 

“I remember working on the first Abu Dhabi Art Fair in 2008 where there is also a growing scene, and museums are taking shape like the Louvre and Guggenheim,” says Katia, pointing to the growth of museums and art education in Qatar and further afield, adding “awareness in Saudi Arabia is really starting to take off; we’re seeing more and more galleries opening in particular in the last three years, there are more contemporary artists emerging.”


THE FASHION DESIGNER AND GALLERY OWNER

Asmaa al-Shabibi, 42, British-Iraqi, Director of Lawrie Shabibi Gallery

Nissreen Darawish Salaam, 38, Palestinian-Canadian, Co-Founder of Army of One 

From left: Nissreen Darawish Salaam wears dress, Dhs2,685, Mother of Pearl at BySymphony. Shoes, her own. Asmaa Al-Shabibi, wears her own top; and skirt, Dhs826, Clover Canyon at S*uce

Asmaa Al-Shabibi and Nissreen Darawish Salaam appear more like old friends than art dealer and client. They talk quickly, laughing frequently, reminiscing about the artists Asmaa has introduced to Nissreen, those whose work they particularly love, and the artworks Nissreen has bought without her husband’s knowledge. “Luckily, she has excellent taste,” says Asmaa.

The pair met in 2008 when Asmaa was managing director of Art Dubai, before she launched Lawrie Shabibi with Will Lawrie in 2011, one of the first to move into the industrial units of Alserkal Avenue, now Dubai’s thriving gallery hub. Nissreen started collecting in earnest when she moved to Dubai from Jordan nine years ago. “It was a learning experience, it opened my eyes. I didn’t know much so I got to know people like Asmaa who had a lot of knowledge,” says Nissreen, “I’m a creative person so being around art and artists feels natural. My collection inspires me, it’s visual stimulation for my designs. You see what other people see in different ways. It opens your eyes.” Her fashion label, Army By One, works with artists on campaigns, including a shoot at Lawrie Shabibi against the backdrop of Nathaniel Rackowe’s neon light works. 

The first piece Nissreen bought from Asmaa was by Palestinian artist Laila Shawa when Asmaa was working independently as a dealer before starting the gallery. Since then Nissreen and her husband’s buying has escalated, their tastes broadening, buying pieces by artists such as the Palestinian Larissa Sansour, Lara Beladi (Egyptian-Lebanese) and Maliheh Afnan (a Palestinian-born artist) to name a few.

“Asmaa tells me what’s new, who she thinks I might like, introduces me to the artists.” Identifying collectors’ tastes and sharing new discoveries is, for Asmaa, is one of the great thrills of being an art dealer; she will often send a photo via WhatsApp when she sees something on her travels. 

For Nissreen, collecting art is about owning pieces that encapsulate an emotion,

“I feel like good art reflects the feelings and emotions the artist felt creating it. It has to connect with you. If I don’t feel a connection with a work, I won’t buy it” 

Art is now part of her home, her children will grow up surrounded by it. “It’s not an investment tool for me. Whereas,” she adds with a smile, “my husband will say, ‘so, do you think it will go up in value?’”

Asmaa likes dealing with female collectors: “Their approach is so different, it’s very instinctive. And there’s less bargaining, less hassle!”

Small sartorial details, says Asmaa, give away clues as to taste, “A woman came into the gallery the other day. She was quite trendy, very elegant. Will was showing her some other works and I was gesturing to him to show her the Farhad Ahrarnia. He did and she loved them, I could see she had a design mentality.”

The UAE art scene has, observes Asmaa, transformed since she first met Nissreen amid its initial boom. It is now a more “real” market, more diverse, “There’s a lot more competition and collectors are more discerning and knowledgeable. It’s not so much people coming in and saying ‘I want five of those’. There are far more international collectors coming through, art world professionals and curators are taking the UAE seriously.”


THE CONTEMPORARIES

Katia Nounou, 30, British born Iranian-Iraqi, Head of Sotheby’s Dubai office

Alia Al-Senussi, 33, British-American-Libyan, Patron and Consultant

Dana Farouki, 36, Palestinian-American, Collector

From left: Dana Farouki wears dress, Carven, Dhs2,080 at S*uce; shoes, her own. Alia Al-Senussi wears top, Roland Mouret, Dhs1,640; trousers, Dhs1,150, Zayan the label at S*uce; shoes, her own. Katia Nounou wears jumpsuit, Tibi, Dhs3,135 at Bysymphony; shoes, her own 

“You could make a whole Venn diagram of the reasons we’re friends and ways we work together” says Alia Al-Senussi.

“Most people in the art world are purely professional friends, whereas we were friends pre-work,” adds Dana. “I think it’s knowing that there’s someone there who will support you. If I introduce a collector to Katia or Alia, I know they will take really good care of them.”

Such trust within this peculiar, captivating world, thinks Alia, is key:

“The art world is notoriously opaque, but that doesn’t mean due diligence isn’t possible. I think of it like starting at a new school, it’s sometimes hard to make that first friend, but when you do it all just comes together from there”

The trio’s friendships, careers and collecting passions are so entwined it’s hard to tell where one stops and another begins. In fact, like many immersed in the art world, the work-life divide is non-existent, not that they’d have it any other way. 

Alia, who now holds various board and committee positions which promote young patronage of the arts in the UK, US and the Middle East, met Dana on her first day at Brown University. Dana inspired Alia to join this world through her passion for art history. This enthusiasm was in turn passed on to Katia in 2005 when, as a student, she met Alia, then a director at the Albion Gallery.

Looking back, says Katia, Alia was the person who inspired her to join the art world. Now, they collaborate frequently on events, travel to art fairs together and occasionally Katia helps Alia with buying and selling through Sotheby’s. Aside from their knowledge of and love for art, all three are skilled connectors. Their lives and careers have grown in tandem with the region’s art scene, benefitting from the opportunities an emerging market can offer to the forward thinking and determined. 

“Katia does a fantastic job as an art market cheerleader and liaison for Sotheby’s, while Dana is the ultimate patron and philanthropist and each of them understand that we are all in this together” says Alia.

Katia joined Sotheby’s in 2008 and witnessed, in 2010-2011, the hype for Middle Eastern art, with artists such as Mahmoud Said, Sohrab Sepehri and Ali Banisadr making record prices. 

“We then noticed a slight dip in the market, but we are seeing it slowly come back in 2016 with incredible new record prices for Mahmoud Said in the recent Bonhams sale and Mahmoud Mokhtar in Sotheby’s recent 20th century Middle Eastern art sales this year.”

There is, says Katia, “much more I want to do in the way of education and events, to bring people together and encourage them to learn about the art of the region. I think an auction house is well placed to do that.”

Dana grew up in Washington DC where her mother founded a non-profit space dedicated to Arab culture in the 1980s, though “their efforts were premature as the audience remained small.”

As a collector, she has close relationships with “both more mature gallerists who have watched me grow up over the last decade and have taught me so much, but also with gallerists who are of the same generation and have done a lot to build the scene and nurture the community.  There is an especially close-knit group when it comes to the region, as I think we feel like we are all working towards a shared goal.”

Dana’s very contemporary, avant-garde taste in art, thinks Katia, is reflected in her sense of style, whereas she sees Alia’s taste as “more ethnic and that comes across in her fashion choices.” Katia’s own taste in fashion as more casual, a little safer, favouring LA brands such as Free People, and she too has started to build a small collection of Middle Eastern contemporary art with her Lebanese husband, buying artists such as Nabil Nahas, Raja Aissa, Hamit Görele and Hadieh Shafieh. 

Alia, meanwhile, has a more experiential approach:

“I tend to gravitate to works that mean something to me about a certain place or time – a shared moment with an artist, or those near and dear to me”

Participating in the growth of the Middle East as a serious player on the global art scene, through every boom and wobble, is perhaps the greatest shared experience of all for these three women. As Alias’ favourite saying goes, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” 


Photography: Ajith Narendra and Richard Hall. Shot on location at Leila Heller Gallery and Lawrie Shabibi Gallery, both at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai. Styling: Samah Elmeri.

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, on shelves now. 

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Art Abu Dhabi, Collectors, Curators
Richard Hall