Bassam Freiha Art Foundation to open in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District

The Bassam Freiha Art Foundation (BFAF), founded by philanthropist and art collector H.E. Bassam Freiha, debuts on March 4, 2024, as the inaugural private art foundation in Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District. As the sole private institution in the district, BFAF aims to exhibit global private art collections rarely seen by the public, fostering cultural and educational initiatives alongside its exhibition program. H.E. Bassam Freiha envisions the foundation as a flagship space inspiring other collectors to contribute to the region’s cultural scene, reflecting his journey and the power of art to challenge prevailing narratives.

Bassam Freiha Art Foundation, 2024. Designed by Rasha Gebran, Director of Architecture and Design at A.D.D. Consultants. Photography by Muhammed Shameem of Dreambox.

The foundation’s inaugural exhibition, “Echoes of the Orient,” curated by Michaela Watrelot, explores the Western fascination with the East through Orientalist art, juxtaposing works from H.E. Bassam Freiha’s collection with contemporary Arab artists and 19th-century photography. This exhibition aims to catalyse a meaningful dialogue on the Orientalist movement and cultural exchange.

Odalisque (undated), Rudolf Ernst, Oil on canvas, 46 x 55 cm. Bassam Freiha Collection

Additionally, an annexe gallery will host “Reclaiming Visions,” featuring the photographic work of Sama Alshaibi and sculptures by Azza Al Qubaisi, critiquing historical representations of Arab women.

BFAF’s mission aligns with its founder’s vision to support emerging talent, inspire dialogue, and promote art education through diverse programming. Designed by Rasha Gebran, the foundation’s minimalist architecture complements neighbouring cultural landmarks and emphasises accessibility, reflecting its commitment to public engagement with the arts. BFAF invites the public to explore its exhibitions and participate in its inclusive programming, enhancing Abu Dhabi’s cultural landscape.

Rima Nasser interviews Michaela Watrelot, the curator of the Bassam Freiha Art Foundation:

Rima Nasser: What inspired his excellency to establish this foundation? What does it contribute to the Saadiyat District?

Michaela Watrelot: First as a collector his excellency wanted to share his love of art and Orientalist art with the public. He felt that it was important to allow the public to experience these rarely-seen artworks outside of his private home. He was also encouraged by UAE leadership not to exhibit his works in one of his private homes but instead bring the collection to the culture island, making it a vital part of the ecosystem that has been thriving in Abu Dhabi.

We also feel strongly about the philanthropic aspect, it is very important to act as a vessel supporting emerging talent and involving them in the art. To achieve this, we will run a whole array of educational programming. We will have artists-led workshops aimed at children, including children of different abilities. We will have an educational public program which will contain panel discussions with industry experts as well as art history lectures linked to the exhibition, but also exploring the nuances of art collecting and patronage. Our mission is to inspire the next generation of art collectors and patrons.

RN: What kind of exhibitions do you plan to exhibit?

MW: We will be curating two to three exhibitions per year. We will always create a secluded space to feature the highlights from Mr. Freiha’s collection. He has about 40 pieces of Orientalist works in his private collection which we will rotate and exhibit different pieces throughout the year. In the spirit of collaboration, we will invite other private collectors to join us in this endeavour and open their collections curated to the public within our exhibition halls.

RN: What kind of collectors will you be featuring?

MW: We will be featuring local, regional and international collections. We will have a vast array of mediums and genres, we would like to feature modern and contemporary regional art, but also international art. We hope to have a vibrant exhibition program moving forward.

RN: How will this contribute to the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the other cultural spaces?

MW: We aim to have a collaborative aspect of our institution. We have consulted leading cultural experts, and their insights have shaped the formation of this project. And we would like to continue these conversations and hope for collaborative partnerships in the future. As a private Art Foundation, of course, it’s our mandate to showcase the importance of private collectors in shaping the cultural ecosystem and supporting and nurturing talents. So, giving this voice to private collectors, bringing collections and pieces that often remain hidden behind closed doors, and allowing the public to see them is something that is part of our mission.

RN: What events do you have planned?

MW: We will open our public program with a panel discussion on the 7th of March where we invited four female Emirati artists to join us in conversation about the importance of the female perspective and the women’s voice in the art world. They will open the platform ahead of International Women’s Day. On the 21st of March, we are hosting Saleh Barakat who is going to give a lecture on the similarities and differences between Orientalist and Arab artists from the region.

Moving forward we will have regular panel discussions and Art History lectures. We will look into the dynamics of the art market: exploring the primary secondary markets and the different aspects of art collecting. We will host these workshops but also activate the outdoor space. We will host concerts and poetry readings, creating an active living cultural space where the public joins us and has a good time.

RN: Can you talk to us about the architecture and its relation to the collection?

Abaya (2021), Azza Al Qubaisi, Mild steel, 100 x 100 x 180 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Leila Heller Gallery

MW: The building itself was designed by Rasha Gebran from ADD Consultants. She was inspired by the personality of this generous man whose vision founded this place. The architecture itself is concluded by straight lines and minimalist glass finishes which allude to the future and the progress of the region. In conversation with the architecture, we have the more organic shapes of Azza Al Qubaisi and John Clement’s sculptures. These steel pieces by Al Qubaisi represent the jeers to the desert. She uses rusted iron because it is more fragile and the colours represent the scent of the desert. She also uses date leaves as decoration, another symbol of the United Emirates. What is important in her work is the representation of the nature of heritage and history, in conversation with the progress and modernity, which is symbolised by the building.

RN: Which other artists do you have on view right now?

MW: We also have the photographic works by Iraqi Palestinian artist Sama Alshaibi, who is a photography professor at the University of Texas. She researches 19th-century orientalist photography and then creates her pieces which have many layers of meaning. Through self-portraits, and elaborate sculptural vessels that she puts on her shoulders and her head she attempts to reclaim the narrative by denouncing the misrepresentations of the Middle East and the female body.


About H.E. Bassam Freiha

Beirut-born philanthropist and collector H.E. Bassam Said Freiha (b.1939) focuses on the Orientalist movement in his collection, featuring works by renowned artists such as Rudolphe Ernst, Léon Comerre, and Fabio Fabbi. In 1976, Freiha co-founded London’s Mathaf Gallery, the city’s first dedicated to Orientalist art. His early acquisitions include pieces by Henry Livy and Eugene Girardet. Son of Said Freiha, a pioneering journalist, he became Managing Director of Dar Assayad at 21 after graduating from the American University of Beirut. Beyond business, he serves as a diplomatic envoy and supports humanitarian causes through The Said and Hassiba Freiha & Sons Foundation.

Location: Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Cultural District

Date: March 4, 2024

Caption featured image: Bassam Freiha Art Foundation, 2024. Designed by Rasha Gebran, Director of Architecture and Design at A.D.D. Consultants. Photography by Muhammed Shameem of Dreambox.

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