The Custodian: Unveiling Arab Art’s Future: Valerie Didier Hess and the Dalloul Collection

RIMA NASSER: VALERIE, WITH YOUR EXTENSIVE EXPERIENCE IN THE ART WORLD AND YOUR BACKGROUND IN ART HISTORY, YOU’VE HAD THE PRIVILEGE OF ENCOUNTERING COUNTLESS MASTERPIECES. HOW DO YOU VIEW THE DALLOUL COLLECTION’S ROLE IN PRESERVING AND PROMOTING ARAB ART, AND WHAT SETS IT APART IN THIS CONTEXT?

VALERIE DIDIER HESS: It is truly unique for several reasons but more particularly for its ‘Pan-Arabic’ dimension – I recall that’s how the late Dr. Ramzi Dalloul used to define it: an art collection showcasing and defining Pan-Arabism. And indeed, it represents 15 countries of the Arab World: Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, UAE and Yemen. What struck me the first time I visited the collection (and since then, I know a lot of works were purchased and added to the collection) is how extraordinary it was to have in one single building such a rich panorama of 20th and 21st century Arab art, how it all made sense being seen together yet at the same time, how each artist has his or her own identity, even how each Arab country has its own identity and how they all dialogue together in such harmony. I was amazed at how powerful each painting, sculpture, drawing or installation was, what it meant, and what it represented, especially given the political, social and economic context of some of those Arab countries represented. There is no doubt that by showcasing its extensive and eclectic collection, the Dalloul Art Foundation is both a haven and a window to the best of Modern and Contemporary Arab art.

RN: AS FORMER DIRECTOR, OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST BASED AT CHRISTIE’S DUBAI (2009-2017), YOU HAVE A UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE ON THE REGION’S ART SCENE. HOW HAVE YOU SEEN THE DALLOUL COLLECTION IMPACT THE MIDDLE EASTERN ART MARKET AND CONTRIBUTE TO A BROADER UNDERSTANDING OF ARAB ART?

VH: Looking back again to my first visit to the Dalloul Art Foundation, I was shocked by the fact that all of these wonderful artists were under-represented in the West, sometimes completely unknown. For my part, I realised – although I was already fully aware of it – that at Christie’s – just like Sotheby’s or Bonhams – and in galleries, only a fragment of the wide span of Modern and Contemporary Arab art was represented.

There are many artists I had barely heard of that Dr. Ramzi Dalloul at the time had already spotted and purchased from – Dr. Ramzi was, and Basel Dalloul is, always a step ahead in terms of being at the forefront of the Modern and Contemporary Art scene, opening up its horizon in uncovering contemporary artists of the Arab diaspora, showing that there is much more than the ‘usual suspects’ that are regularly offered at auction.

I would add that the DAF website, elaborate and user-friendly, with its highly documented biographies for each artist, offers an invaluable online resource for researchers on the subject and provides a deeper understanding – in English – of the broadness of the 20th and 21st-century Arab art scene.

RN: YOUR WORK WITH MAHMOUD SAÏD’S CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ IS COMMENDABLE. CAN YOU SHARE HOW YOUR COLLABORATION WITH DR. RASHWAN AND YOUR ENCOUNTERS WITH SAÏD’S WORK HAVE DEEPENED YOUR APPRECIATION FOR THIS ARTIST AND HIS ROLE IN THE ART HISTORY OF THE REGION?

VH: When I started at Christie’s Dubai back in December 2009, I didn’t know anything about Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art – I shamefully didn’t recognise a single name of the artists that were featured in our auctions, yet very quickly, I learned them, I recognised their styles, and I educated my eye.

In 2010, when Christie’s Dubai dispersed the beautiful collection of Modern Egyptian Art belonging to Sheikh Mohammed Saïd Farsi over two sales during which world record prices were reached for Mahmoud Saïd, Hamed Nada, Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar and other Egyptian artists, I was stunned by the beauty of Mahmoud Saïd’s paintings – Les Chadoufs with its genius composition and extraordinary palette, Les Derviches Tourneurs with its breathtaking mystical light and outstanding rotational movement, or Le Lever Du Soleil À Louxor with its morning light brushing the tranquil feluccas and the fellaha gazing out towards the Nile river – I wanted to know more about Mahmoud Saïd, see more and understand his oeuvre. Esmat Dawastashy’s 1997 monograph on the artist, with its lavish illustrations, provided me with a visual overview of the Alexandrian master’s oeuvre, yet I could vaguely make out the captions but not the texts as the book is published only in Arabic.

At the same time, I was in contact with Dr. Hussam Rashwan with regard to his collection and when I contacted him about the provenance of his paintings – including the Mahmoud Saïd paintings – we spent hours on the phone as he had so many anecdotes about all these artists, so much information that I realised not only each of the works in his collection had a story, but more generally, he was a walking encyclopaedia on Modern Egyptian Art.

All this oral history was absolutely fascinating but it had to be recorded somewhere, in English, to widen the audience who would be able to access it. Given my passion for Mahmoud Saïd and my determination to discover more of his oeuvre, yet torn by the frustration I had to discover the lack of documentation on such a pivotal artist and a pioneer of Modern Arab art, I gave the idea to Dr. Rashwan to do a catalogue raisonné for Mahmoud Saïd’s oeuvre, just like many of the main Impressionist and Modern Western artists have their oeuvre referenced in a catalogue raisonné. In that way, we would illustrate all Saïd’s works and showcase their beauty, but more importantly we would document them, locate them, list them, and by doing so, we would authenticate them. I saw this book as a way to safeguard Saïd’s oeuvre, to promote it to a more global audience, and to ‘clean up’ the market which was already back then in 2010 ‘polluted’ by fake Saïd paintings. I soon realised that publishing books like that was a necessity for Middle Eastern artists in general but the work required is gargantuan and faces many challenges.

RN: IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE SOME KEY PIECES OR ASPECTS WITHIN THE DALLOUL COLLECTION THAT MAKE IT A VALUABLE AND INDISPENSABLE RESOURCE FOR THE PRESERVATION OF ARAB ART?

VH: Generally speaking, the collection includes works by Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Moroccan, Palestinian, Syrian, Tunisian, Saudi, Yemeni, Sudanese, Kuwaiti, Emirati and Bahraini artists – these are unprecedented numbers of different artists all united under the same entity and consequently presenting the richness of each of these country’s cultural modern and contemporary heritage. In that way DAF acts as a reminder of how vast the production of Modern and Contemporary Arab art truly is, and how much it has been completely omitted

from art historical books and courses in the West.
In terms of key pieces at DAF, there are so many to choose from but I think one that stands out is Le Bain Des Chevaux À Rosette (1950) by Mahmoud Saïd – oneof the first masterpieces to enter DAF, which was discovered mainly thanks to the detective work Dr. Rashwan and I were doing for the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné. The vibrant blue, the peacefulness and the blinding light of this painting are absolutely mesmerising, and confirm Saïd’s recognition as a ‘master of colour’.

On a completely different level, the impressive collection of paintings by the contemporary Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki – especially the monumental TheMiddle East (2014) – is mind-blowing and has such a strong presence on the DAF walls, positioning Baalbaki as one of the leading artists of his generation. Most importantly, the unparalleled number of Palestinian artists represented in the DAF collection was a true revelation for me – like all the artists featured in the collection, DAF provides them with a voice with global outreach through its exhibition space, publications and website.

Ayman Baalbaki, The Middle East, 2014 207.5 x 407.5 x 5.5 cm DAF Beirut

RN: ART PRESERVATION OFTEN INVOLVES COLLABORATIONS AND ACADEMIC INITIATIVES. COULD YOU ELABORATE ON HOW YOUR WORK ON MAHMOUD SAÏD’S CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ HAS STRENGTHENED THE ACADEMIC COMMUNITY’S CONNECTION WITH THE DALLOUL COLLECTION AND ITS MISSION?

VH: The Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné would not have been possible without the sponsorship of DAF, and of our other generous sponsors – just like the Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar catalogue raisonné which has literally just been published, and the Aimé Azar English translation and enhanced re-edition presented into two elaborate volumes of 600 pages each (to be published in spring 2024) would have never existed had it not been for the financial support of DAF – just like his father, Basel Dalloul is more than a collector and the director of an art foundation- he understands the importance of documenting, promoting through books, and extending the mission of DAF into sponsoring academic projects.

RN: YOU HAVE EXTENSIVE EXPERIENCE WITH INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS AND AUCTION HOUSES. HOW DO YOU ENVISION THE DALLOUL COLLECTION EVOLVING IN THE FUTURE, AND WHAT ROLE MIGHT IT PLAY IN SHAPING THE NARRATIVE OF ARAB ART GLOBALLY?

VH: The beauty of the DAF collection is that it is not set in stone although it has a solid backbone – it will never be outdated and ‘grow old’ as it constantly renews itself – Christie’s London is selling around 50 works from the DAF collection on 9th November 2023, each of which are key examples by some of the region’s leading artists, offering a unique opportunity for other collectors globally to own one of these works.

This shows how DAF seeks to literally share its collection with the wider art world, but it also allows DAF to filter its collection and sell works for which there are already similar paintings in the collection, in view of providing a fresh budget to purchase new artworks by young contemporary artists, ultimately also giving them a platform to be heard.

RN: THE WORLD OF ART IS DYNAMIC AND EVER-EVOLVING. WHAT CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES DO YOU SEE IN PRESERVING AND PROMOTING ARAB ART, AND HOW DOES THE DALLOUL COLLECTION ALIGN WITH THESE TRENDS?

VH: The challenges are clear: there is so much to do, so little time, so few archives and documents, so many artists to cover but DAF, with its extensive biographies, articles and images made available to the public through its website, provides a good starting point for researchers and academics seeking to write on Modern and Contemporary Arab art, or on a specific artist in the collection.

In addition, following the success of the exhibitions showcasing another major comprehensive collection of Modern and Contemporary Arab art, that of the Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah, DAF should aim to seek opportunities to

display a large selection of works from its collection in Europe and America, perhaps even make a partnership with the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, for example.

Through the Christie’s London sale in November 2023, the sale preview and the press around this outstanding sale of 50 works from the DAF collection will also naturally raise global awareness about DAF itself. Like the Barjeel Art Foundation, DAF has set the trend of being one of the main sponsors of academic work, exhibitions and publications focusing on art from the Arab diaspora.

RN: AS SOMEONE DEEPLY ENGAGED IN THE ART WORLD AND WITH A KEEN EYE FOR MASTERPIECES, CAN YOU SHARE ANY PARTICULAR PIECES OR ARTISTS WITHIN THE DALLOUL COLLECTION THAT HAVE LEFT A LASTING IMPRESSION ON YOU, AND WHY?

Sliman Anis Mansour, Jamal Al Mahamel III (The Carrier of Hardships), 2014. 152 x 98.5 cm DAF Beirut

VH: The painting Jamal Al Mahamel III (The Carrier of Hardships) by Sliman Anis Mansour is such an emblematic painting and given the current geo- political context, it is even more so an icon of Modern Arab art, of its depth, its significance and its outreach.

Also, the tapestry reproduction made by DAF, based on the original Sabra and Shatila Massacre masterpiece by Dia al- Azzawi housed in the Tate Modern, is truly extraordinary.

DAF also holds several masterpieces by Palestinian living artist Samia Halaby, showcasing her very diverse oeuvre, which has successfully been internationally acclaimed – her compositions, her colours, and her concept are truly exceptional.

Another artist, this time Iraqi, who strikes me as being a forerunner of Arab kinetic art, is Mehdi Moutashar – definitively comparable to Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez (1923-2019), whose prices have recently sky-rocketed at auction in the past couple of years and whose works now appear in many prominent contemporary art collections.

Dia al-Azzawi, Sabra and Shatila Massacre, “Tapestry”, 2018. 300 x 750 cm DAF Beirut

RN: DR. BASEL DALLOUL SERVES AS THE CUSTODIAN OF THE DALLOUL ART FOUNDATION. IN YOUR VIEW, HOW HAS HIS LEADERSHIP CONTRIBUTED TO THE PRESERVATION AND PROMOTION OF ARAB ART, AND WHAT DO YOU FORESEE AS THE FUTURE DIRECTION UNDER HIS STEWARDSHIP?

VH: As mentioned earlier, Dr Basel Dalloul has admirably provided continuity for DAF since his father passed away, and has even taken a step further in seeking to trim down the current collection in order to be able to continue enriching it with more contemporary creations, to ensure the collection’s longevity. He perpetuates DAF’s support of contemporary artists – being at Ayman Baalbaki’s side for example, when the latter was selected to represent the Lebanese Pavillion of the Venice Biennial of 2022. He continues the ongoing dialogue with collectors, galleries, auction houses, academics and of course the artists themselves, to keep the collection alive. He has given so much towards the publication of the Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar catalogue raisonné and the Aimé Azar book on Modern Egyptian Painting, and I know I count on his support for my future academic publications to be heard.

RN: LOOKING AHEAD, WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE OF THE DALLOUL COLLECTION AND ITS POTENTIAL IMPACT ON THE ART WORLD, ESPECIALLY WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF PRESERVING ARAB ART?

VH: It would be great to see an exhibition of around 100-150 highlights from the Dalloul Collection exhibited in Paris, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and why not Hong Kong!

 


About Valerie Didier Hess

A history of art graduate from both Cambridge University and The Courtauld Institute, Valerie Didier Hess has been working at Christie’s international auction house for the past 18 years, in London, Dubai and Paris. She currently heads the Impressionist and Modern Art sales at Christie’s Paris, after being Director of business Development, for the Christie’s Dubai office for almost eight years from 2009 to 2017. There she discovered a passion for Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern art, and more specifically Modern Egyptian art. With the esteemed Alexandrian art collector Dr Hussam Rashwan, she co-authored the first catalogue raisonné (a comprehensive book documenting and illustrating the oeuvre of one single artist) on a Middle Eastern artist, that of Egyptian artist Mahmoud Saïd (1897- 1964) (Skira, Milan, 2016), for which the

Dalloul Art Foundation was one of its sponsors. Valerie Didier Hess and Dr Rashwan have just published the second catalogue raisonné of a Middle Eastern artist, the Egyptian artist Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar (Editions Norma, Paris, 2023), once again partly sponsored by DAF. Finally, the Franco-Egyptian duo is currently finalising the English translation and enhanced re-edition of Aimé Azar’s seminal book La Peinture Moderne En Egypte (1961), into two lavish volumes of 600 pages (Editions Norma, Paris, 2024), to be published in spring 2024.

She is therefore also an independent art historian, contributing articles on Modern Egyptian art to various publications, such as ArtBahrain, Contemporary Practices, and most recently to Alexandria: A City and A Legend (Edited by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina) due to come out in 2024.

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