“I saw a gap in London for Middle Eastern and North African artists by which I don’t mean they weren’t being shown or represented, rather that given the strong links between the region and the city, their visibility was limited,” Vassili Tsarenkov, London-based art dealer, collector and co-founder of Sophia Contemporary Gallery explained.
The gallery began with the ethos of exhibiting artists from the Middle East and North Africa. “We’ve since expanded to make our conversation with the West more global whilst, at the same time, exploring how technology functions and mediates artistic practices today,” Tsarenkov added.
He is full of enthusiasm when he speaks of his first encounters with art and his travels, as a young man, across the Middle East.
This passion for art from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is deeply rooted in his family’s history of collecting; the Tsarenkov collection now comprises more than 3000 artworks and includes pieces from the Greco-Roman period through to Islamic metalwork and contemporary Iranian art. It comes as no surprise, then, that just over three years ago, he co-founded Sophia Contemporary Gallery in the heart of Mayfair with fellow Russian Lali Marganiya and their Iranian collaborator, Lili Jassemi.
The gallery’s initial remit was to increase the visibility of MENA artists in London, a city holding a longstanding connection and history of exchange with the Middle East.
Tsarenkov’s studies of Islamic art and contemporary Iranian calligraphy at the Courtauld Institute, London, involved frequent visits to museums and institutions in the Middle East. During his travels, he became acquainted with a great many artists and struck up several lasting friendships.
Sophia started life by showing the work of artists that Tsarenkov knew. Its launch exhibition featured new pieces by the Iranian artist, poet and musician Reza Derakshani, well known for blending abstract and figurative elements, alongside a bold and dynamic use of colour.
A timeline from this inaugural show to the present reveals a diverse exhibition schedule and public programme, which has fostered many conversations between East and West. Featured talents to date include abstract artist Robert Kelly and modernist Alfred Basbous. More recently, the gallery hosted a group show, titled, ‘Im/material: Painting in the Digital Age’, displaying the work of eight international artists, all aged under 40. The project saw Martin Basher, Michael Bell-Smith, Ry David Bradley, Chris Dorland, Matthew Hansel, Anna Ostoya, Josh Reames and Konrad Wyrebek come together to explore the concept of creating art in a digital era.
Collaboration is at the core of Sophia’s operations, from promoting represented artists and working to place their art in important international collections to embarking on dialogue with curators and institutions worldwide.
A bid, too, to bridge a gap in critique has prompted the gallery to produce comprehensive exhibition catalogues. Notable examples of texts by influential critics include Norman Rosenthal’s commentary in the catalogue for the exhibition of works by Derakshani in 2016.
Asked about his ambitions for Sophia, Tsarenkov responded by saying, “We would like the gallery to become more integral to the city’s art scene. We also want to continue with our mandate of showing works by both emerging and established artists, while extending our coverage to include Asia.” Artists of Middle Eastern descent on his radar, he added, include Diana Al-Hadid, Rayyane Tabet and Lawrence Abu Hamdan.
The gallery has launched its 2017-18 programme with a first UK solo exhibition of work by Iranian-American artist, Afruz Amighi, which will be followed by another show of pieces by Derakshani. Further into 2018, Sophia will showcase the art of the LA-based Bulgarian painter, Iva Gueorguieva, whose expansive compositions demonstrate the influence of East European avant-garde.
Having initially set out to raise the profile of MENA art throughout the international art market, Tsarenkov has now broadened Sophia’s remit to include a dialogue that remains focused on the region, but also reflects the global condition of artists, regardless of where they live and work today or are from.
Featured image: Vassili Tsarenkov, Sophia Contemporary Gallery.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Letters From The Past #43, pages 100-103.