The Middle East may not seem the obvious place to seek the rising stars of contemporary art. Yet works from the region has become increasingly sought after by collectors, with the “hottest things” including an Iranian painter in his 30s, a colonel in the Saudi army and a nonagenarian who was friends with Andy Warhol.
In London today, the auction house Sotheby’s unveiled a selection of the key works from Middle Eastern artists that will be auctioned in Doha in October. They will go on under the hammer alongside pieces by globally recognised artists including Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor.
Anna Somers Cocks, founder and general editorial director of The Art Newspaper and an expert in Middle Eastern art, said: “People don’t really associate contemporary art with the Middle East. The movement started between 10 and 15 years ago but it has really grown up.”
Lina Lazaar Jameel, an international contemporary art specialist at Sotheby’s, said the audience for contemporary art from the region had been small “but since 2006 it has been really growing. It’s not just buyers from the Middle East, international interest has been building.”
The market’s international appeal was kickstarted in 2006 when Christie’s held its first Middle Eastern auction in Dubai. The same year there was an influential exhibition at the British Museum called Word into Art, the first time a top-flight Western institution had taken an interest in the art of the region. Subsequently museums and art fairs have flourished in the region.
“The art wasn’t worth much before then, and in sales at the time many struggled to make the minimum threshold of the auction house,” Ms Lazar Jameel said. “We’ve come a long way, but we’re still only near the start. It’s a buyer’s market.”
Among the highlights of the Sotheby’s sale is The Chase by Ali Banisadr, an artist born in Tehran in the midst of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war.
Ms Lazaar Jameel said: “His work is very dynamic; he is the hottest thing; he’s definitely one of the artists to watch. People are fighting for his work.” The piece is estimated to go for as much as $250,000.
Also in the sale is Three Brothers by Monir Farmanfarmaian, born in 1924, who will be the first female Iranian artist to have a major exhibition at the Guggenheim, which is planned for next year.
Known as “that beautiful Persian girl” Farmanfarmaian became part of the group of avant garde artists in the US that included Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and was friends with Warhol.
Among the Lebanese artists highlighted by the show was Nabil Nahas, described as “one of Lebanon’s most important abstract artists” and Aman Baalbaki, whose work “depicts symbols of the endless Middle East conflicts or portray themes of exile and identity”.
Others going up for sale include pieces by Iraqi photographer Jananne Al Ani and Moataz Nasr, dubbed one of the “leading artists in Egypt”.
Ms Somers Cocks pointed to Saudi Arabia as “one of the most exciting and moving contemporary art scenes in the world today”.
She highlighted Abdulnasser Gharem, a colonel in the Saudi army although his work is not in the Sotheby’s sale. One piece sold for $842,500, one of the highest prices for an Arab work at auction, while Ahmed Mater, a 35-year-old practicing doctor has also seen his work become much sought after.
Ms Lazaar Jameel said: “These are very strong pieces of work and very strong artists, that’s why there is so much more interest. At the beginning support is local and the better ones then communicate with a wider audience. Then the more exposure and understand happens.”