RIMA NASSER: “HIDDEN TREASURES” SUGGESTS THERE ARE ICONIC WORKS WITHIN THE DALLOUL ART FOUNDATION’S COLLECTION WAITING TO BE DISCOVERED. COULD YOU SHARE SOME INSIGHTS INTO THESE ICONIC PIECES AND THEIR SIGNIFICANCE WITHIN THE COLLECTION?
WAFA ROZ: The DAF collection comprises a rich and diverse selectin of Modern and Contemporary art from the Arab world. There are many treasured artworks within the existing collection in addition to newly acquired ones. Dr. Basel Dalloul has added several artworks to the collection that may be considered ‘hidden treasures.’ Many include iconic artworks that have not yet been promoted to the local public.
There are several factors that contribute to the worth of an artwork, making it part of a ‘treasure’. Such treasures would be artworks that have historical or cultural significance – pieces that reflect or creatively expose elements of the region’s cultural heritage. In many cases, the artist’s reputation, and the scope of recognition of their work can greatly impact the value of their art. The ownership history of an artwork, and its documentation, technically known as ‘provenance’, can significantly impact its value. Moreover, proof of the authenticity of an artwork can elevate its worth. In other cases, artists that break new ground in terms of style, technique, or theme produce iconic artworks. Such pieces introduce innovative ideas that challenge the status quo both within the art world and outside of it. They become an artistic statement.
DAF houses many iconic artworks. For example, one of the most recent pieces acquired by DAF is truly a hidden treasure. It is Jewad Selim’s oil on canvas painting Good and Evil, an Abstraction, 1951. Renowned modernist Iraqi architects Nizar Jawdat and his wife Ellen Jawdat owned this piece for 70 years before it was auctioned during Bonhams live auction, in 2021. The fact that the painting had been in the hands of the Jawdat family for a long period of time, before it appeared at the auction, marked a significant re-emergence of a major oil painting by Jewad Selim. Dr. Basel Dalloul acquired Good and Evil, an Abstraction, 1951 painting for a hefty 838,750 GBP, equivalent to 1,016,899 USD, today.
Dalloul acquired the work in January 2023, during the Maroc, Terre d’Exception auction held by the Compagnie Marocaine des Oeuvres et Objets D’Art (CMOOA) auction house in Casablanca. Sensuelle, 1968 depicts a reduced graphical representation of the female’s vulva, symbolic of fecundity and fertility. It is executed with hammered copper, set in bas-relief on stretched lambskin, mounted on wood. The malleable copper, a sacred metal to Belkahia, allowed him to break away from rigid geometric shapes creating curvilinear forms imbued with unlimited vigour. Placing the vulva’s oval shape at the centre of the artwork’s square composition adds to its iconic feature. Belkahia is among the pioneers who developed a new visual vocabulary of iconography, symbolism, and technique, experimenting with traditional Moroccan materials like copper, lambskin, henna, saffron and other natural dyes. Belkahia’s research also drew attention to the claim that, “It is only through our past that we can accede to modernity. I know of no ahistorical modernity.”
It is important to note that in some cases, through research and investigation, we discover added value to pre-existing artworks in our collection. An intriguing example is Marwan Kassab Bachi’s body of work, entitled 99 Heads (Ibn Arabi), 1997-1998, comprising 99 etchings on cardboard paper, each measuring 47.5x35cm. This body of work was inspired by the Islamic Qur’an (Surat al Hashr) that mentions God’s 99 names or attributes, and Ibn Arabi’s Sufi doctrine. Ibn Arabi took monotheism to a higher level. He explained that God is not only the one and most important of beings, God is equivalent to ‘being’ (al- Wujud). Hence God is represented in everything we encounter in our daily life.
In Marwan’s etchings, we realise that each of the 99 ‘heads’ is symbolic of a place, a landscape, an inhabited space, a facial expression, or a human countenance. Marwan depicts the 99 attributes of God in 99 topographical facial representations resonating with the philosophy of absolute oneness, an ‘all in one’ body of work.
RN: THE TERM “HIDDEN TREASURES” OFTEN IMPLIES A SENSE OF DISCOVERY. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT A SPECIFIC ICONIC WORK THAT HAS A PARTICULARLY INTERESTING HISTORY OR STORY ASSOCIATED WITH IT?
WR: Good and Evil, an Abstraction, 1951, by modernist Jewad Selim was a jewelled discovery for DAF, and the art world as a whole. Aside from its provenance, and long-awaited appearance on the art market, its symbolic nature, and modern attributes make it the hidden treasure that it is.
First, the painting was originally a representation of a design for a tile mural to be executed on the entrance of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society’s headquarters in Baghdad. Architects Nizar and Ellen Jawdat designed the headquarters and commissioned Selim to design and execute a mural. Unfortunately, Jewad Selim died before he was able to execute the mural, and the iconic painting is all that remains. Selim created modern abstract designs that integrated various mythological Mesopotamian figures, and seven distinct crescent-like shapes in a minimalist style, scattered across the canvas.
The painting reflects Selim’s theoretical and philosophical outlook. Father of Iraqi modernism and co-founder of the Baghdad Group of Modern Art, Selim’s modernist theory was based on Istilham al-turath, namely drawing inspiration from ancient or age-old local art traditions and integrating them with modern artistic practices.
After arriving safe to DAF’s premises in Beirut, in December 2021, the painting was set to go on its first cultural exchange mission. It was loaned to IMA Tourcoing, alongside 12 other artworks from the DAF collection to feature at the Picasso et les avant-gardes Arabes exhibition that showed from April to July 2022, at Institut Du Monde Arabe (IMA), in Tourcoing, France. Jewad Selim’s Good and Evil, an Abstraction, 1951 is a tale of Iraq’s modernity and modernism encapsulated in Iraq’s architecture, fine- art, and complex, sophisticated society during the 1950s.
RN: IN ADDITION TO ICONIC WORKS, I UNDERSTAND THAT THE FOUNDATION HAS BEEN ACTIVELY ACQUIRING NEW PIECES. COULD YOU SHARE SOME DETAILS ABOUT RECENT ACQUISITIONS THAT HAVE ADDED TO THE RICHNESS OF THE COLLECTION?
WR: The MENA region encompasses different countries, cultures, religions, and ethnic groups, all of which contribute to the richness and dynamism of Arab art. DAF continues to showcase such diversity. More particularly, we aim to collect art created by artists from different generations, both to complement DAF’s vast collection of modern art, and to expand its collection of contemporary art. We know that capturing the zeitgeist of our contemporary period is as important as digging into the historical complexities of our past. Recently, DAF has added more than 100 new acquisitions, from Modern and Contemporary artworks to its collection.
Essentially, DAF comprises a vast collection of modern art that belongs to a generation of artists who were born between 1900-1940. These artists witnessed multiple revolutionary and political movements, shifted borders and contested boundaries, as well as political upheavals and transitions in their respective countries. DAF has matched its Modern art collection with several exceptional and iconic works. Besides Sensuelle, 1968, by Farid Belkahia, whom I mentioned earlier, we acquired the geometrical abstract painting Rupture, Tanger, 1972, by Moroccan artist, Bachir Demnati, another member of the Casablanca School in addition, we also added the seminal work, Nomadic Signs, Abstract Composition, 1979, by Moroccan nomadic expressionist and modernist painter, Mohammad Kacimi, to the collection. Nomadic Signs, Abstract Composition, 1979, is a minimised replica of a mural painted by Kacimi on the walls of a house in Asilah, a village in northern Morocco, during its annual Cultural Moussem.
Moreover, some of the most eye-catching paintings added to DAF’s Contemporary art collection are four paintings by the group Die Famous, including: The Birthday Manuel (Imbililah), 2022, Cellar Door, 2022, Charlie, 2022, and The Coverts, 2023. Die Famous is an ongoing collaboration between American painter Morrison Pierce, and Lebanese/Finnish painter Yasmina Nysten. Their collaboration addresses contemporary socio-economic realities, as well as topics such as protests and subcultural trends in Lebanon and America. For instance, in Charlie, 2022, the painting depicts a group of protestors, during the 2019-2020 Lebanese uprising, trying to break into a shop window. Nysten and Pierce draw inspiration from various art movements, including Pop Art and the progressive painters of the 1980s and 1990s on the East Coast of the United States.
Other additions to DAF’s collection are Ripples in a Pond, 2022, a photographic print in ink jet on acetate, by Yasmina Hilal, and Sherihan 1987, by renowned Lebanese photographer Fouad El Khoury, known for his historical photographs of Lebanon’s civil war.
Our new acquisitions of Contemporary art aim to encourage artists who are pushing the boundaries of traditional art forms, especially in embroidery and tapestry. Such artists incorporate innovative techniques, themes, and styles while still drawing on their cultural heritage. In that manner, Dr. Basel Dalloul has been exploring traditional and contemporary embroidery and tapestry art from different regions within the Arab world. These works often feature intricate patterns and designs, such as Staged, 2020, by Kuwaiti artist Amani Al-Thuwaini. This artwork is an exquisite piece made up of four wooden panels with embroidered linen fabric. Inspired by the Islamic miniature, Staged, 2020, is a figurative depiction of a Kuwaiti wedding, featuring silhouettes of places and people. On the panels, the narrative is broken down into four sequences to depict the rituals behind a wedding in Kuwait – from the bride’s attire to the female, runway style, dance floor. Addressing racial and class discrimination, Al-Thuwaini cynically chooses to embroider the underprivileged helpers and valet drivers in gold silk, contoured with shiny translucent bugle beads, while embroidering the affluent invitees’ dresses with dark grey cotton threads. When, in reality, it is the other way around. Al-Thuwaini sheds light on ’the other’, while stating, “I emphasise how local traditions are often challenged by the craving for opulence.”
Another ‘iconic’ and recently acquired work at DAF, is Untitled, N.D. This wool tapestry was created in the 1950s, by the children of the Ramses Wissa Wassef Art Centre (RWWAC), located near the pyramids of Giza, in Egypt. It was founded in the early 1950s by the late Egyptian architect Ramses Wissa Wassef as a school for weaving, and has evolved into an art centre, and farmhouse. Untitled, N.D, is a vivid representation of Wassef’s profound respect for the art of weaving, masterfully utilising Egyptian cotton and local sheep wool.
Harnessing the ancient dyeing techniques of the region, Wassef reintroduced natural dyes, such as indigo from the Nile banks, crimson red from madder plant roots, yellow from reseda luteola flowers, and beige from pecan leaves. This artwork not only embodies the beauty of form and individualistic expression but also celebrates the rich tapestry of Egypt’s heritage and traditions. Such work is symbolic of DAF’s objectives, namely educating and supporting the young generation in the Arab world.
RN: WHAT CRITERIA GUIDE THE FOUNDATION’S DECISIONS WHEN IT COMES TO ACQUIRING NEW ARTWORKS? ARE THERE SPECIFIC ARTISTS OR MOVEMENTS THAT YOU PRIORITISE IN YOUR ACQUISITIONS?
WR: When it comes to new acquisitions, we purchase artworks that fulfil one or multiple leitmotifs that the foundation is interested in. These concepts could be directed towards the work of a particular artist, movement, or topic.
Fundamentally, the artworks should be authentic with documented evidence of provenance. Once that has been established, one of our main objectives in acquiring new pieces is to complement our vast Modern art collection. In an interview with Selections, in July of last year, Dr. Basel Dalloul explained that, at DAF “we cover Modern art in its entirety, from Morocco to Iraq, onto Yemen and Sudan, and everything in between.” Modern art comprises almost 60% of DAF’s collection. In specifying his direction in future targeted acquisitions, Dr. Basel explained: “I have a few more acquisitions to make for Modern art, to fill gaps in the collection that my late parents were not able to fill. The only time you’ll find me buying a piece of Modern Arab art is if it is an exceptional, iconic piece.” Many of the iconic art pieces that I mentioned earlier speak to that strategy of matching our vast collection of Modern art with iconic and exceptional works.
Another objective for DAF to acquire a new artwork is to venture into new mediums such as metal works, and photography. Considering artworks executed with innovative mediums is certainly one of the criterion in DAF’s new direction in expanding its collection. Creative metalworks are a medium that is especially pushing boundaries of traditional norms. Dr. Basel Dalloul has always been a fan of bold, large-scale metalworks, specifically ones that act as a forceful social and political commentary of the times. Abdul Rahman Katanani’s striking red Vulva, 2022, is a clear example of that. It was executed with crude oil barrel metal sheets. DAF has recently added this work, and many other metalworks, into its Contemporary art collection. Another remarkable example is Attajamhur, 2022, by Moroccan artist Moustapha Akrim. It is a bas-relief calligraphic work, masterfully crafted using massive chunks of steel rivets connecting the letters, that come to resemble a steam engine in motion. The artwork conveys social concerns such as unemployment, poor education, and the absence of basic freedoms while emphasising the necessity for development and any direction that moves forward.
An expression of materiality and articulation of tension, Paper Sculpture, 2022, by Emirati artist Shaikha Al Mazrou, embodies her distinct approach to sculpting, highlighting the interplay between colours, form, and content. She masterfully manipulates materials in her sculptures, delving into their essence and challenging their boundaries, making even metals appear paper- like. Through her keen understanding
of materials, and physical space, Al Mazrou creates pieces that reflect tension, and geometric abstraction. Suggesting a harmonious balance of folds and rigidity, Paper Sculpture, 2022, resonates with underlying narratives that reflect on societal norms and constructs. The piece portrays a balance between strength and vulnerability, while prompting viewers to question their beliefs and perceptions.
Lastly, I cannot skip the new kitschy and creative metalworks by Lebanese artist Katya Traboulsi, recently added to DAF’s collection. Helo Ya Rawak, 2023 and Bonjour, 2023, both replicate and celebrate brightly coloured calligraphy and intricate designs – the evil eye, the cedar tree, or art on trucks in Lebanon.
Certainly, as I demonstrated earlier, some newly acquired Contemporary artworks also encourage potential mid-career artists such as Moustapha Akrimi and Al-Thuwaini. In fact, one of the leitmotifs that usually drive art acquisition is artworks that may hold personal or emotional significance for the collector, that then become both personally and intellectually prized possessions.
We also intend to investigate new topics, and target works that address them. Focal issues include those related to minority groups and underscored ethnic groups. Environmental issues are becoming more prominent in the work of Arab artists, reflecting global concerns about ecological sustainability. Arab female artists, specifically in the Gulf and KSA, are addressing themes related to gender equality, feminism, and the roles of women in society. They are challenging traditional gender norms and pushing for greater inclusion and representation, although this is a topic historically addressed by Egyptian female artists, whose works are cherished in our Modern art collection. Finally, we wish to investigate art from the Arabian Peninsula, and add to our modest collection of art from Sudan and Yemen.
RN: ICONIC WORKS OFTEN PLAY A PIVOTAL ROLE IN DEFINING AN ART COLLECTION. HOW DO THESE PIECES REFLECT THE FOUNDATION’S MISSION AND VALUES, AND WHAT DO THEY CONTRIBUTE TO THE BROADER ART LANDSCAPE?
WR: Our mission at DAF is to educate and raise awareness around the diversity and richness of art from the MENA region. Through art, we aim to archive and preserve the Arab region’s history and cultural heritage. Iconic artworks in particular can serve as captivating pieces that brilliantly encapsulate a movement, a heritage, a social problem, or a controversial issue. They act as powerful symbols, and educational tools. They can be attractive catalysts for engagement, which in turn can help the foundation achieve its objectives within the art world and the broader community.
Our region includes diverse cultures, ethnic groups, religions, languages, and traditions. While there are common threads that tie these elements together, it is important to note that there is no single monolithic ‘Arab culture’. Instead, the Arab world is characterised by a rich tapestry of distinct cultures, influenced by factors such as geography, history, religion, and local traditions. Iconic works are an ideal medium to highlight this – using hidden treasures to bring forth hidden narratives. There are several iconic works at DAF that are representative of this diversity, including North African Amazigh or Berber communities, Egyptian, Coptic, Levantine, Iraqi, Gulf
Arabian, and Bedouin cultures too. Some works address pressing social or political issues which align with DAF’s mission to encourage dialogue. Moreover, iconic artworks can exemplify the highest standards of creativity, skill, and innovation, underscoring the foundation’s commitment to supporting artistic excellence.
RN: CAN YOU DISCUSS HOW THE FOUNDATION’S COLLECTION HAS EVOLVED OVER TIME, AND HOW THESE ICONIC WORKS AND NEW ACQUISITIONS FIT INTO THE OVERALL NARRATIVE OF THE COLLECTION?
WR: The collection was first accumulated by the late Dr. Ramzi Dalloul and his wife Saeda Husseini. They started acquiring art as early as the 1970s. It was a period imbued with a quest for national identity, statehood building, and sentiments for pan-Arabism. As such, a vast selection of the collection included politically charged works. A huge part of the collection was reserved for Palestinian art, which was poorly promoted back then. Palestinian art was merely coined as propaganda art produced during the peak of the PLO in the 1970s, specifically Palestinian art and posters produced in Lebanon during that period. The rich collection of Palestinian art at DAF demonstrates the diverse and creative styles experimented with, and wide range of topics addressed by Palestinian artists across different generations.
Most of the artworks collected early on belonged to artists from the Levant (Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan), and surely Iraq, Egypt, and North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria). Dr. Ramzi Dalloul, with the help of his son, Dr. Basel Dalloul, amassed an art collection that spanned from 1908 to the 2020s. The collection was a comprehensive narrative of the region’s political, social, and artistic history. Myriad topics related to the region, and themes linked to universal concerns, are addressed within these works. However, few pieces were collected from Sudan, Yemen, and the Arabian Peninsula for the latter was still an emerging art market. In 2016, Dr. Basel Dalloul decided to institutionalise the collection, and began laying the groundwork for DAF, with its official establishment in 2017. Coming from a data management background, he immediately implemented a comprehensive digital data management system. This transitioned DAF from merely storing valuable artworks to documenting and securing an inventory of the collection, detailing the acquisition details of every object. The information accumulated provided a bird’s-eye view of the collection, allowing a more refined direction for future sales and acquisitions. By 2020, the DAF website had been launched, showcasing our research and statistical documentation to the world. With an underlying objective to grow the DAF collection in a holistic manner, our mission became processing the pieces we have in a quantitative and qualitative manner. As such we collected data about the geographical, generational, and thematic aspects of the artworks, and used it to enrich and help direct DAF’s mission.
Today we have diversified the collection and added to its richness by acquiring art from Sudan, the UAE, KSA, Qatar, and Bahrain. Furthermore, the art originally collected focused on conventional mediums such as painting, prints, works on paper, ceramics, as well as sculptures made of marble and wood. I believe that we have to align with contemporary trends and collect new art forms that will help us keep up with the international market and excel in it. As DAF’s collection grew, it began encompassing novel mediums and art forms, as well as a wider variety of artists. Today, the collection contains installation art, light art, embroidery, and metal works among other forms.
Besides the rich array of Modern art, the DAF collection, today, amasses a colourful selection of bold and striking contemporary objects. We expanded into artworks that express new movements and art styles within the MENA region itself, as well as themes that address ongoing social, and cultural issues. In addition, our collection carefully tries to mirror new political debates, and follows burgeoning art markets such as those we see developing in Gulf states. We intend to investigate and study the history of art of a newly emerging art market such as that of KSA. This approach naturally guides the collection.
RN: WITH “HIDDEN TREASURES,” ARE THERE PLANS TO SHOWCASE THESE ICONIC PIECES AND NEW ACQUISITIONS THROUGH EXHIBITIONS OR SPECIAL EVENTS TO ALLOW THE PUBLIC TO APPRECIATE THEM?
WR: Certainly, we have already started refurbishing our gallery spaces. We intend to showcase a wide selection, including iconic Modern artworks, and certainly newly acquired Contemporary pieces. We feel that the time has come to emphasise novel trends and new pressing topics in the region. There are also different curatorial approaches that we want to experiment with. In the first and second quarters of 2024, we plan to organise a series of talks presented by promising creative minds, and seasoned scholars from the region. These topics will be announced in the near future.
RN: AS THE HEAD OF RESEARCH, COULD YOU ELABORATE ON
YOUR ROLE IN IDENTIFYING AND RESEARCHING THESE ICONIC PIECES AND NEW ADDITIONS TO THE COLLECTION?
WR: First, with a team of researchers, I carefully observe the work, studying its formal and technical characteristics. Then, we analyse the artwork within its social and geopolitical context. I conduct research on the artist, their country of origin, and the historical and political background of the period when the artwork was created. Moreover, I investigate the artist’s position in the art market as well and attempt to understand their practice in general. The Research Department ensures that as much information as possible is covered on each work we acquire. Besides our rich library, lately we have contributed to the publication of three catalogue raisonnés (Mohamed Kacimi, Mahmoud Said, and Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar) that help us detect the authenticity of a work. The artist behind the piece, the work’s significance within the artist’s oeuvre, and its place within the broader art historical narrative are all crucial to our research. Documentation of provenance, quality, condition, authenticity, context, and aesthetic form are all key.
Categorising any artwork as ‘iconic’ involves a meticulous investigation on many fronts. Within that framework, I place potential pieces according to the collection’s purpose, and intended audience. I also monitor primary and secondary art markets, including exhibitions, art fairs, biennales and auction houses. Simultaneously, I conduct research on valuation and art price indices. All this research goes to assisting us in identifying and labelling an artwork as iconic.
RN: HOW DOES THE FOUNDATION BALANCE THE PRESERVATION AND PROMOTION OF THESE HIDDEN TREASURES WITH ITS MISSION TO ENGAGE WITH THE ART COMMUNITY AND THE PUBLIC?
WR: We have a dedicated team and a skilled collection manager who oversees the conservation and preservation of the artworks we house. Under the direction of that team, we confidently showcase and promote our iconic artworks in- house. Our premises are well equipped with proper environmental conditions and safety measures. This standard is consistently maintained in our in-house exhibitions. However, when considering a loan request, we only grant loans to art institutions that abide by our proper handling and insurance requirements.
RN: WHAT MESSAGE OR IMPRESSION WOULD YOU LIKE VIEWERS AND ART ENTHUSIASTS TO TAKE AWAY WHEN THEY EXPLORE THESE HIDDEN TREASURES AND RECENT ACQUISITIONS IN THE DALLOUL ART FOUNDATION’S COLLECTION?
WR: I would like the viewers to be thrilled with the recent prolific and rich production of Contemporary art in the region. I would also want them to appreciate the history of art and art movements in the region. I believe that artists from the MENA and the Arabian Peninsula are a repository of knowledge and creativity. We still have a lot of work to do; little has been written on the Arab region’s art history compared to the literature available on Western art history. For that reason, we have worked on expanding our library of books, monographs, catalogues, catalogues raisonnées, and magazines on art from the region. DAF showcases as many artworks as possible from our rich collection, with the intention of educating and exposing our local and regional audience to Arab art, through direct, in-person engagement.
RN: DO YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR PIECE IN THESE HIDDEN GEMS THAT YOU FIND IMPACTFUL WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF THEIR GEOGRAPHICAL REGION?
WR: Yes, I would choose two works to characterise as hidden gems that speak of the region. The first work would be: There’s A Vicious War Launched in the Area of Frequencies, 2023, by Qatari artist Jumanah Abbas and the second, Just Paper – Group XV, 2022, by Saudi Arabian artist Manal Al Dowayan.
Jumanah Abbas’s artwork delves into the intricate interplay of sonic spaces, especially within the West Bank, highlighting the unseen cell phone tower frequencies and transmission signals, set up by the Israeli occupation, that control information and communication infrastructures in the Palestinian territories. Drawing from her architectural and curatorial background, Abbas employs a radical cartographic approach to unveil the ‘invisible’ apparatus – whose dire consequences are very tangible – that shapes urban environments living under occupation or in any police state.
Abbas’s work struck me as an exacting depiction of the intensified use of surveillance by the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, that not only invades and annexes land but also invades and annexes thoughts. Such socio- psychological tactics generate a state of constant anxiety. Many of us already feel observed by our phones, as opposed to only observing content on our phones. These information wars, I believe, will define the trajectory of wars to come.
In Just Paper – Group XV, 2022, Manal Al Dowayan delves into the portrayal of women in religious texts authored by men, symbolising the delicate yet enduring nature of their prescribed roles through porcelain reproductions. The artwork underscores the fragility of these narratives while simultaneously questioning the space women occupy between their private realms and a public sphere often deemed to belong to men.