SELECTIONS discusses the major highlights and research process with Dr Basel Dalloul, founder and director of the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation in Lebanon, which is home to some of the most important artworks of Modern Arab art.
Modern Arab art represents probably sixty percent of the foundation’s works. We cover it in its entirety, from Morocco to Iraq, and onto Yemen and Sudan, and everything in between.
We have all the major pioneers, the founders of the various modern art schools in the region that began at the turn of the 20th century and throughout the 1930s to the 1960s. As well as most of the pioneers, we most likely have a good sampling of the second and third generation artists and I think anything beyond that is considered contemporary. There are clearly some artists that we have more of a love affair with, but that doesn’t make any of the other artists that we have one or two pieces of any less important.
Our focus is broad and specific at the same time in terms of the modern art side of what we do. That was mostly my father and mother’s doing with a little bit of guiding influence from me from time to time. Most of the pieces that I actually bought for the foundation in the last year were probably modernists. Among these was Jewad Selim’s piece that we bought from Bonhams, which set a record I think for the artist. We also acquired a beautiful Joseph Abboud and Hamed Owais.
We can do quite a bit of sleuthing to determine provenance. Typically, though, very strong pieces come from very strong provenances. They will have been archived in some type of media or with the family. As such, we simply do our homework, and examine the piece to see if anything doesn’t feel right. There are a lot of things that one can do to authenticate a major piece, especially in the Arab world. Modernism took place here during the 1940s to 1960s when people were having shows. Cultural magazines and newspapers as well as cultural centres were photographing these things, so there are extensive archives where one can go and verify the works today.
Very rarely did artists themselves actually keep records of their works. This needs to become more of the norm. Even some of the major academic art historians often get it wrong because of sloppy research. A lot of books have more holes in them than Swiss cheese! When you point this out and say that it doesn’t make any sense, the authors will tell you that there were no references and nobody bothered to do any research, so when there was a hole in the timeline, they made it up. I find this disturbing.
We go anywhere and everywhere an artist may have been or has been and may have left a trace of information that might be interesting to us. We scour everything. Unfortunately, a catalogue raisonné of an Arab artist is a rarity. The only one that I am aware of that is worth calling a catalogue raisonné is the one of Mahmoud Said. He was a lawyer, so he kept meticulous records of everything that he did. Even then it took around five years of research to put that book together. Imagine what it would be like to pull together a catalogue raisonné for an artist who didn’t bother to keep any records. There was one other for Mohammad Kasemi, which was fairly well done.
If you are an expert buying something that is very expensive that you know nothing about, then you should bring someone who understands what it is all about and seek to educate yourself a bit more. We do bother to check all the information and we always include links to the sources in any research that we post so we can further the knowledge of whoever happens to be looking. We try to make it as easy as possible for people to access information. However, as large and rich as our internet digital archives are, they are literally the tip of the iceberg of the amount of research we have in our servers. If researchers want to come and conduct serious research, they file an application to be given access to the archives, which represent more than 40 to 50 terabytes worth of data.
We just finished our first book and we plan on doing several others for some of the artists we work with. We are currently sponsoring two books with our publishing partner. One is a reprint, a new edition of an older, very famous book about Egyptian modernism that we are resurrecting. We are working on a catalogue raisonné of two artists as well. We also have a three-part video presentation coming out very soon about nudes from the Arab world. We are very excited about that.It is great that people are waking up to Arab modernism and becoming interested in it. I have to take my hat off to Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi because he has also done a really good job promoting Arab art, both contemporary and modern. We had a show with the Picasso Museum, where we had pieces from Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian and other artists from the Arab world. Placed face to face with Picasso, the inspiration is obvious. Picasso loved our part of the world and obviously our artists loved him back. People are beginning to make those connections and a lot more institutions are calling us now to do something with us. We did a show with Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath on Beirut and the Golden Sixties: A Manifesto of Fragility. They took quite a few pieces from us. We have the Baya exhibition at Sharjah Art Museum and they borrowed every piece of Baya that we have and Mohammed Chebaa, Visual Consciousness, a retrospective at the Cultural Foundation.
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. I have a lot of contemporary artist friends in the Arab world, from Morocco to Iraq, and I would much rather support and promote them globally than focus on deceased artists. The latter have a great history and legacy, but this generation of artists is going to be the legacy of those coming after them. If we don’t support them in these difficult times, then we’re going to lose the link in the chain, and we wouldn’t want that. There are people that will go after the up-andcoming young artists that are just having their breakthroughs, but my focus and energy is on more mature contemporary artists. A lot of people start up with good intentions and then become their own worst enemies and disappear. You have to be careful when choosing to put a lot of energy behind someone, as you want to make sure that they will keep their end of the bargain just as you need to do yours.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #59