Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Mohammed Afkhami

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

You have a diverse background that spans both finance and art. Could you tell us about the transition from a career in finance to becoming actively involved in the art world? What inspired this shift?

To give some background, my career in finance has spanned over 25 years and remains my active profession to this day and really has endowed me with the possibility of becoming more active in the arts by providing the means to collect art, fund artist related programmes, contribute to newly created museum acquisition committees, publish art books, sponsor museum shows and digitise art archives.
Personally, this transition has been a life-long one, having come from a family that not only collected art but which was entrenched in the academic universe surrounding the family’s collection that covered primarily Islamic art and antiquities and was built up by my late grandfather, Senator Mohammad Ali Massoudi, and my mother, Maryam Massoudi. Growing up, I have only fond memories of our house being filled with art scholars and works from this period. My own journey started when I veered towards Modern and Contemporary Middle East art on a trip to Tehran in 2005, where I was introduced to the beauty of Iranian Contemporary art from this period. I bought my first two works from Mah Gallery and over the next few years I combined efforts with my mother and started amassing a collection with the intent to create a leading archive of Iranian art spanning from 1950 to the present day. We have strived for this goal ever since by being supportive of artists and various art related initiatives that help elevate the profile of these very talented artists.

You have held senior positions in finance, including with Standard Bank, O’Connor & Associates, and UBS Warburg. How has your financial expertise influenced your approach to collecting and supporting art?

I would say the biggest influence of finance has been to generate the means to collect and support artist initiatives. In addition, having a career in finance has instilled a discipline to make a sustainable plan when undertaking a five- or 10-year commitment to support various artist projects as well as continuing to collect. For example, there will no doubt be opportunities to support curatorial shows, publish new books and potentially contribute towards an acquisition of an artist by a museum. These events require sufficient financial allocation, such that when they arise in the future, one can provision to be supportive. I think a career in finance helps you have discipline and the foresight to plan.

As the co-chairman of the Guggenheim Middle East & North Africa (MENA) Acquisition Committee and a founder member of the British Museum MENA Acquisition Committee, you play a key role in shaping the acquisitions of these institutions. What drives your interest in building their collections?

These global institutions have succeeded in the test of time, while individual collectors largely have not. It is imperative to be supportive as these museums rely heavily on private patronage and, given my goal is to elevate art from the Middle East, I can think of no better platform than to support these institutions as they create permanent collections that will no doubt outlast any individual. In addition, the footfall they achieve in terms of visitor numbers is in the millions, so this achieves tremendous exposure, which I believe is a critical part of achieving long- term recognition, relevance and sustainability for Middle Eastern artists, especially those in Iran who have limited access to funding.

You are a patron of the Agha Khan Museum, a member of the David Rockefeller Council
at the MOMA in New York, and an advisory board member of Art Dubai. How do these roles contribute to the cultural exchange and enrichment between the Middle East and the rest of the world?

We live in a world that is increasingly polarised and history has taught us that in such periods, unexpected and adverse situations may arise. Art has served in the past to create cultural bridges and better common understanding, which allows for the meeting of minds. Personally, I am proud of my Iranian roots and feel that there is a disconnect between global perceptions of Iran and what the country has to offer humanity through its rich history and cultural heritage. I believe art can foster a softening of hard fixed views and the Agha Khan Museum, MOMA New York and Art Dubai all serve as excellent global platforms to showcase Iran’s deep-rooted contribution to global culture and civilisation.

The Mohammed Afkhami Foundation, of which you are chairman, supports various cultural and educational initiatives. Can you share some of the foundation’s key objectives and achievements in the realm of art and culture?

The primary purpose of the foundation is to promote Modern and Contemporary art from the Middle East with a focus on Iran. We have achieved this by pursuing a multi focused effort through a few initiatives including backing Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians, a show that displayed Contemporary artists from Iran and its diaspora at the Agha Khan Museum (2017), the Houston Museum of Fine Art (2017) and the Asia Society in New York (2021-22). In addition, we have published a major retrospective of the collection with Phaidon Press called Honar, which was released in 2017 as well as supported numerous other publications.

On the digital front, in spring 2023, we launched the iii (www.iii.art) , which is a free virtual museum to showcase Iranian art from the collection and create a cultural bridge to the rest of the world. Phase one revealed about 15% of the collection and will be evergreen and launch more of the collection as well as future collaborations with other individual collectors and museums. In addition, the Mohammed Afkhami Foundation website will go live in early 2024, which will allow students and the public to have free access to the collection as an academic archive. As the world continues to go online, we feel it is important to maintain an active presence in this arena.

With your background in finance and your involvement in art, how do you see the intersection of these two worlds contributing to the UAE’s evolving art and cultural landscape?

The UAE has been my home since 2001, and I am deeply grateful to the leadership of the country who have created such a tolerant hub for people of all ethnicities and religions. In addition, they have built an unbeatable infrastructure that has allowed both the finance sector and art scene amongst others to thrive. This has been achieved through a brilliant vision that combined the right balance of state support while encouraging individual capitalism. Today, the UAE is unquestionably the finance hub of the Gulf region by continuing to attract the leading financial institutions and key finance executives to the country. In tandem, the government has invested heavily to create the Abu Dhabi Louvre, and will, over the course of this decade, open the Zayed Museum and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which will cement the UAE as a leading global destination for arts and culture. Combine this with capital coming into the country and individual art patronage will explode, making the UAE a hotbed for the arts. In the private sector you have many interesting initiatives, but two distinct success stories are the Jameel Arts Centre, funded by the Jameel Family with its exceptional space and superb programming, and the Alserkal Avenue, where an organic local cultural scene spanning art galleries, film, fashion and gastronomy has emerged under the helm of art philanthropist AbdulMonem Al Serkal. I have no doubt that these trailblazers will set the example for other inspiring projects over the coming years.

You obtained your BA in economics with a concentration in finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. How has your education in finance shaped your perspective on art and cultural investments?

On a high level, I don’t think my background in finance has shaped my perspective on art
and cultural investment other than to realise its importance to any growing society and making a city or country more attractive. The UAE has been exemplary as more and more cultural investment takes place at both the state and private sector level, making the country more inviting and culturally rich to those contemplating making the UAE their home, which clearly has a quantifiable dividend to the development and long-term success of the country.

You currently sit on the international advisory board of the Huntsman Programme. How do you view the importance of international collaboration and education in the fields of art, finance and culture?

I think it is very important to promote this intersection of finance, art and culture, and the Huntsman Board allows me to influence the next generation of leaders who will have to take the baton of patronage from my generation to the next. History has shown that the most successful societies indoctrinated the support of the arts through financial philanthropy and the future will be no different in terms of fostering the same mindset.
Art often transcends boundaries and has the power to provoke thought and inspire change.

Can you share instances where art, through your involvement, has sparked meaningful dialogues or contributed to cultural understanding and unity?

There have been numerous personal instances where I have seen how art shapes opinion. This has been in formal settings where there have been seminars to discuss culture to more intimate settings, where I have made presentations to students at universities and where the questions posed have shown newfound interest in the Middle East away from the politics of the region. To give one personal illustration that was particularly poignant to me, when we displayed Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians at the Asia Society in New York in April 2022, I watched a school group of 10-year-olds interact with the art works. I heard one boy, who was clearly from New York, turn around to his teacher and say that he wanted to visit Iran as he thought the works were “so cool”. I was touched by his reaction, and it made me feel that this is what makes this cultural effort all worthwhile.

Looking to the future, what are your aspirations and goals for your continued involvement in the art world and its connection to finance and cultural institutions in the UAE and beyond?

My aspiration is to indefinitely serve as an informal cultural ambassador for the regional arts scene, continue to be a voice for Iranian artists striving to showcase their artworks globally and financially support where possible sustainable initiatives that continue to nurture and promote Middle Eastern art. Our region is very dear to me, and I feel that the arts is a unifying force that builds bridges and so I will do all that I can to help support this important area.


About Mohammed Afkhami

Mohammed Afkhami is founder and managing partner of Magenta Capital Services, which acts as an advisor in capital placement to private equity, real estate and infrastructure firms on capital placement in the gulf region, Brunei and Malaysia. He is also founder and managing partner of ma partners DMCC and vice chairman of London Strategic Land. As a prominent figure in the art world, he co-chairs the Guggenheim Museum Middle East and North African Art Acquisition Committee, serves on the advisory board of Art Dubai, and is a founder member of the British Museum MENA acquisition committee. Additionally, he has showcased his Iranian art collection in exhibitions internationally and published books on Iranian art. Afkhami is the founder and chairman of the Mohammed Afkhami Foundation, which supports scholarships for middle eastern students and finances publications and art shows related to the Middle East art scene.

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