It’s May 2015 and the 55th edition of the Venice Biennale. I am at the Arsenale for the opening of Love Me, Love Me Not, an exhibition of Contemporary art from Azerbaijan and its neighboring countries, curated by Dina Nasser-Khadivi. Within the space are works by artists from Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, Russia and Georgia. In an unprecedented group showing of artists from a region often overlooked in contemporary art history, Dina is energetically meeting guests while highlighting the wealth art constitutes both visually and intellectually through the exhibition of artists from different countries. Each work, she underlines, will offer viewers a new perspective on the nations represented. A similar scene took place this past March 2015 in Baku for the opening of Shirin Neshat’s Home of My Eyes exhibition at Yarat Contemporary Art Centre – a show that Dina also curated. The exhibition saw the renowned Iranian artist create works that captured the faces of the Azerbaijani people. It was the first time Neshat had shown in Baku and like Love Me, Love Me Not, it was something that hadn’t been done before.
Love me or love me not is the literal sense that the staging of such cultural innuendos usually brings to a new group of viewers. You either like it or you don’t. But the essence – what you learn – is ultimately the power of such displays. This bringing together of different cultures, nations and people through art has become a specialty of Dina’s and she seeks to incorporate it in everything that she does.
“I always had an interest in art history,” says Dina. “I switched from a business major to an Art History major and then interned at Christie’s during the summer. I always wanted to work for the auction house.” After she graduated from Northeastern University in Boston, she began a summer internship at Christie’s in the Geneva office and then landed her first job at the auction house with François Curiel. She then moved to London where she interned in the department of 19th and 20th century art with Jussi Pylkkanen until she began a job in the Modern and Impressionist department. “Everything from Modern, Impressionist and Orientalist art caught my eye,” she remembers. “Particularly Orientalist – this was the place I could develop the most because of its interest from Middle East collectors. It was a way for me to work in the region that I was from. But it was also of interest to me given that it was different from the main stream Modern and Contemporary art that everyone loved. Orientalist art allowed me to create a niche market that people were interested in.” After London she moved to New York where she worked with Christie’s on developing a sale of Orientalist art. In parallel Dina began working with the team that launched the Christie’s Dubai office that included Michael Jeha and Isabelle de la Bruyère. “And that is where I found my true love: Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern art, with a focus on Iranian works,” she says passionately. “This was a department that had never existed before.”
However, the auction world, as satisfying as it was, didn’t fulfill Dina’s larger goals: the importance of giving back to society. “After seven years in the auction world I wanted to do something that made a difference,” says Dina. “I wanted to create a social impact with what I did. I wanted to do something that could also make a difference – for example, work with revolutionary artists who didn’t have a market. I wanted to help change the perception that Middle Eastern artists had in the international art market.” We speak about Orientalist art, its beauty and also the big numbers that are involved in the sale of works from the genre. While it was certainly nurturing from a historical level – providing a historical basis for further study in the past and present – what it lack was the dynamism that Dina craved. “As big as the numbers were in Orientalist art, I was dealing with deceased artists,” she says. “Once you study it, you know how it works. The contemporary market is a far more interesting market to work on. I was dealing with living arts and making a difference all around. I was also working with a wonderful team at Christie’s Dubai to build a market from scratch.” And built from scratch it was – the Contemporary Middle Eastern art market made auction history when it hosted its first auction in Dubai in May 2006 – just barely 10 years ago. And since then we’ve not only witnessed a steady stream of sales, but the openings of galleries, art fairs, exhibitions, museums and much more establishing a region hitherto looked up largely as one stricken with war and economic and social inequality.
“I became independent in 2007 and stayed on with Christie’s as a consultant because I decided that I wanted to pursue independent projects,” she recalls. “I wanted to pursue non-commercial projects.” Dina goes on to say how she thought it was time to help artists gain access to institutions. Love Me, Love Me Not was a case in point. The exhibition was inspired by Future of a Promise staged at the 2011 Venice Biennale. “It was the only Pan-Arab exhibition and didn’t include Iranians,” says Dina. “It was getting a bit old to always have regional groupings. It was thus nice to try different combinations and that’s why Azerbaijan was a good venture for me as it was a great way to work with Iranian artists and try something different.” The cultural links that were drawn through the artworks in these exhibitions offered new pathways for those interested in art from the Greater Middle East – for ultimately, the region is inextricably and intimately linked.
“Iranian art is my baby!” she exclaims. “Iran is a part of the Middle East but there is always a way to link it to other cultural combinations in the region.” Combinations, borders, nations or what have you, it is precisely the love of playing with different cultures through art that makes Dina’s work cutting edge. Dina is currently working on a book with Farhad Moshiri. The two-volume monograph will be published by Skira and will span 20 years of the renowned Iranian artist’s career. “It will look at his work with a critical eye – something that hasn’t been done since his commercial success,” she says. “I’ve curated the content of the book as if it were an exhibition over 20 years.” She speaks enthusiastically about the book. “I am more and more interested in helping our artists to leave a legacy behind,” says Dina. “I want to help these artists create an archive and something for their future. The idea of preserving our legacy is very important for me. When I say “our” I mean the Middle East as a whole; it means constantly coming up with new ideas – helping artists from the region find new places that they can work in.” We speak briefly about taking some of the Middle Eastern artists she works with to India. Her passion is contagious. “The idea is constantly about exchange,” says Dina. “That’s how you move forward in life. You keep doing different combinations. It opens you up to novelties and that’s where things should go.” The horizon is endless.