From the artworks in his desert home, to the art scene in the region, Dr. Zaki Nusseibeh talks collection and the growth of Emirati art

Deciding which artwork to ask Dr. Zaki Nusseibeh about first is tricky. His home in Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, is replete with aesthetic riches. The collector notices our eyes, and lens, fixed on Paul Guiragossian’s Le Centre du Monde. “He loved colours — reds and blues. This one is in dark colours. I prefer this. It’s one of his favourite themes, motherhood,” he says. Beside it hangs one of Moshiri’s jar paintings. “‘She put her head on my shoulder crying, saying I love you no more,’” he recites. “It’s ambiguous, I mean, why? This is the great thing about art, you can read what you want to read.”

In the corner stands Kofte Kitab Kebab, a 2015 work by Slavs and Tatars. “The artists focus on translating Central Asian texts,” Nusseibeh explains. “They choose the books carefully, usually some of your own. They add others to make a seekh ketab, setting up some kind of communication between them.”

The collector shouldn’t mind a few of his books being impaled by the collective — he has over 40,000 left. Sheikh Zayed’s translator while he ruled the U.A.E., and now cultural advisor to the president, among a host of other roles, Nusseibeh spoke to Selections about his passions.

Anya Stafford: When did you realise that you were a collector?
Dr. Zaki Nusseibeh: I always loved art, paintings, culture. At home we had Orientalist art around us in Jerusalem — beautiful buildings. I really started collecting art seriously after I came to Abu Dhabi in 1967.

AS: What’s your focus now?
ZN: I buy an artwork that I know can fit somewhere and I focus on the MENASA region. What is really exciting is what we have always known, but the rest of the world is discovering — that the Gulf region has some exciting art.

 Paul Guiragossian, Le Centre Du Monde, 1978 Farhad Moshiri, Her Head on My Shoulder, Seif Wanly, Untitled, oil on panel, 1955, photo: Hugh McElveen

Paul Guiragossian, Le Centre Du Monde, 1978
Farhad Moshiri, Her Head on My Shoulder, Seif Wanly, Untitled, oil on panel, 1955, photo: Hugh McElveen

AS: How has collecting changed since you began?
ZN: It’s developing very rapidly. I think the art movement was slow to take up in this region and then a number of things happened. The big projects started in Abu Dhabi — the Louvre, the Guggenheim. The world’s art community became interested in this region.
Simultaneously, we had the development of a very active art scene in Dubai, and Sharjah has had the biennial and the Emirates Fine Arts Society for a number of years. Then came the big auction houses, with art from the region becoming very popular. Artists like Farhad Moshiri and Parviz Tanavoli became known internationally. We have many more Emiratis now involved in art. We still lack art schools and a critical tradition, where you can have some serious analysis of what is happening. All of these will develop with the market.

AS: Many involved in the Emirati art scene say that the history of Gulf art has long existed, and it’s actually the dialogue around it that’s being created now.
ZN: Absolutely. Abdul Qader Al Rais I remember back in the ’80s, bringing his work to an exhibition at the Alliance Francaise. The Sharifs, Hassan and Hussein, and the group around them, have been around for some time. The understanding and the appreciation of their work has brought added light to what they do, and to what they can do.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One-on-One Issue #35, pages 52-55.