A portrait work by the late Syrian painter Marwan is surrounded by a steady stream of visitors to Beirut and Hamburg-based Sfeir-Semler Gallery’s booth in the Galleries section. Four aquarelles on paper by the artist sold in the region of €35,000 to 40,000 at Sfeir-Semler’s booth. “Art Basel is a barometer for the art world,” said the gallery’s founder Andrée Sfeir-Semler. “I was especially pleased with the number of institutions and museums that visited the fair and our booth; and to see MARWAN get the attention that he deserves and some of his works join prestigious collections.” The artist has garnered much international attention since his death in 2016—many will remember the room of monumental Marwan paintings, completed between the mid-1960s and his passing in the central pavilion at Christine Macel’s Viva Arte Viva exhibition at the 57th Venice Biennale.
A stalwart participant at Art Basel since 2007, first with a booth in the Statements section, and then returning every year in the main galleries section (Sfeir-Semler also participated in the fair from 1990-2002 with her Hamburg gallery), this year saw Sfeir-Semler exhibit works by Etel Adnan, Yto Barrada, MARWAN, Rabih Mroué, Walid Raad, Khalil Rabah, Marwan Rechmaoui, Wael Shawky, Rayyane Tabet and Akram Zaatari. “The Middle-Eastern region has been going through a very challenging phase in the last few years, and this obviously affects the art sector in this part of the world; but also, many artists have reached a certain level of maturity in their careers which means their work is no longer observed and presented as being specifically linked to the region, but is rather presented against an international backdrop,” said the gallery’s founder Andrée Sfeir-Semler. The gallery also sold several Walid Raad’s work sold for around 70,000 USD.
Fouad Elkoury_Azarieh, Beirut_1991_Ink jet print on Baryta paper, 62.5x50cm.
Lebanon’s tumultuous past and haunting present are captured in the work of photographer Fouad Elkhoury, the exhibiting artist at The Third Line’s booth in the Feature section. At the forefront of photographic practices in Lebanon and the wider Middle East, in 1982 Elkhoury covered the Israeli invasion of Beirut. His works at Basel presented poignant and beauty renderings of a country seemingly always on the brink of chaos. “Sales and the response in general to the work were very strong,” said the gallery’s founder Sunny Rahbar. “We were very happy with the reception of Fouad's works, as they are some of his most Iconic earlier works.” The Third Line was the only gallery participating from the GCC this year. “We felt very proud to be part of the fair and to be able to represent not only Fouad but to represent the UAE.”
While representation from the region was small this year, some of the Middle East’s biggest names shined at international blue-chip gallery booths. New York’s 303 Gallery showed the works of Iranian-American artist Tala Madani selling two of her Mother Figure (2018) works for $75,000 each. New York and Hong Kong-based Lehmann Maupin sold a Shirazeh Houshiary canvas work to a collector based in China for £125,000 and an Untitled (2018) installation work by Kader Attia to a European collector for €125,000. Another work by Shirazeh Houshiary entitled Portal (2018) sold at Lisson Gallery for £125,000.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan at Mor Charpentier in Art Basel 2018.
In the Unlimited section Moroccan artist Yto Barrada’s Identification for Beginners (2017), presented by Pace Gallery, revealed a playful and poetic examination of a trip Barrada’s mother took to the US in the summer of 1966. At the time a 23-year-old student from Morocco, she was selected as one of 50 ‘Young African Leaders’ to go on a State-Department tour of the US. The work, comprising sculpture and a 16mm stop-motion animation, explores this staged encounter between North America and Africa and the decade of racial turbulence, promise and heartache that would ensue.
Large vibrantly coloured mixed media reliefs evoking ancient Mesopotamian art created by American artist Michael Rakowitz revealed a powerful narrative about the artifacts stolen from the National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad, in the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion as well as their continual destruction by ISIS. Presented by Barbara Wein in collaboration with Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Rakowitz’s life-size murals are reconstructions of mural reliefs formerly located at the Northwest Palace of Nimrud, destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Another poignant work was Mumbai-based Sudarshan Shetty’s Shoonya Ghar (Empty is this House) (2015), a film set in an abandoned stone quarry that reflects on the themes of death, dance, play, birth, violence and love through enchanting local traditions of storytelling. Shetty exhibited earlier this year at Leila Heller Gallery in Dubai.
“I think of Basel as the most important global art fair in that it sets the pace for rising artists and exhibiting the finest available works from the most well regarded artists of the past century,” said collector Mohammed Afkhami. “Whilst the representation from the Middle East is very small, there were pockets of Mideast galleries including The Third line, Sfeir-Semler and a few of the western galleries including Gagosian, Perrotin, Ropac and Barbara Gladstone that were making certain works of their Iranian artists available such as Farhad Moshiri, YZ Kami and Shirin Neshat.
This is probably a fair representation considering the total size of the art market, but my focus at this fair is to build on my non-Middle Eastern collection.” Afkhami purchased an Ed Ruscha from Gagosian Gallery and a Sir Richard Long work from Lisson Gallery. “I take fewer risks in western art and prefer going for more blue chip established artists compared to my approach on the Mideast region where I am willing to buy unknown artists.”
Unlimited, Pace Gallery, Yto Barrada, approx 21x14cm.
Mor Charpentier, currently Paris’s edgiest gallerist duo, presented a video installation by British-Lebanese artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan in the Statements sector. The work concentrated on the Golan Heights and the way families communicate across the Syrian-Israeli border. Hamdan was awarded the 2018 Baloise Art Prize alongside Suki Seokyeong Kang, bestowed annually upon two emerging artists exhibited in the Statements sector at Art Basel in Switzerland. Now in its twentieth year, the prize presented each artist with $30,000.
"This was our first participation in Art Basel so it was essential to go with an artist representative of the gallery’s ethos who could leave a mark in people’s memory amidst all the outstanding work one finds at the fair,” said the gallery’s Alex Mor and Philippe Charpentier. “In many ways, Lawrence’s work epitomizes who we are, so it felt very natural to take this big step in the gallery’s history with him. Being British-Lebanese, Lawrence has a fluid identity, he moves comfortably between contexts and he is fearless when it comes to tackling the complexities of the regions he chooses to focus on.”
Fouad Elkoury, Grand Theatre, Beirut 1982, Ink jet print on Baryta paper, 50x75cm.
At the nearby LISTE, an art fair for emerging and contemporary art that celebrated its 23rd year this edition, a few more Middle Eastern regulars on the art fair circuit could be found. These included Dubai’s Green Art Gallery, which was the first gallery in Dubai alongside Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde to show at Art Basel in 2012, presented works at LISTE by Maryam Hosieni and Hera Buyuktasciyan. “It was a very good fair,” said the gallery’s Yasmin Atassi. “We had superb interest in both Maryam and Hera and sold their work to new collectors form Europe and the US.” Cairo’s Gypsum Gallery, which participated in Art Basel’s Feature section in 2017, sold two new works by Setareh Shahbazi to a photography museum in the Netherlands for €2900 each.
The gallery also sold two newspaper cutouts by Taha Belal to a Greek private collector for $5500, and two collages for $2600 to a French collector. “In total we sold 16 works by the three artists mostly to private collectors (European and Middle Eastern), and working on a few others,” said the gallery’s founder and director Aleya Hamza. “LISTE offers a rare combination of being serious and informal, remaining a hospitable environment for galleries and audience. Because it focuses on progressive practices and younger galleries, the draws collectors and curators that are specifically interested in this type of work, so the conversations tend to be meaningful and productive.”
Unlimited, Barbara Wien, Michael Rakowitz, 21x14cm.
“Meaningful” seems to be the adjective to use for this group of Middle Easterners at Basel this year. While the same fanfare may not have been witnessed for the region as in previous years, what is clearly is of note is what Sfeir-Semler called a “maturing” of the scene. Many of these artists have graduated to a level where they are not seen within the context of where they are from. While many still have strong ties to their country of origin, most live abroad. Still the histories, political struggles, religious and identity issues as well as the haunting scenes of everyday life continue to define their work shedding light on the richness of the Middle East for an outside audience. Artbasel.com