Abdul Jabbar Al Yahya’s work titled Artist 2.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
As per reports travelling to Sharjah, the late October Sotheby’s sale of 20th Century Art/Middle East auction raked in £4.8 million/$5.8 million – the highest total since the introduction of the sale as a regular fixture of the London auction calendar in 2016.
The sale was led by a record for any Saudi artist ever to be offered at auction. Born in 1939, Mohammed Al Saleem was one of Saudi Arabia’s preeminent modern artists, founding a multipurpose, not-for-profit institution to provide a creative space for artistic experimentation and exhibitions – the first of its kind in the Kingdom.
He coined his own new style – ‘Horizonism’ or ‘desert style’ – inspired by the gradating skyline of Riyadh from the desert. His untitled work from 1986 soared to £889,000/ $1.1 million - seven times its pre-sale estimate of £100,000-150,000. The artist’s previous record of £75,000 was set at Sotheby’s in 2019. According to Alexandra Roy, the auction head, the work “essentially banishes form and landscape, reimagining the distant dunes of the desert horizon through contained slabs of colour, which emerge as if struggling against one another across the surface of the image.
Its layering and shading suggest a search for subtle accords and variations similar to that with which a composer achieves musical harmony, creating an astonishing sense of energy and dynamism.” Al Saleem’s work often fused modernist abstraction with traditional elements from daily Saudi life. The composition is part of a collection of the pioneering Saudi Modernism school assembled by Shatha Ibrahim Al Tassan. In 2017, Sotheby’s became the first international auction house to offer works by Saudi artists. The current result marks the first time a work by an artist from Saudi Arabia sold for over $1 million at auction.
Mohammed Al Saleem’s composition Untitled (Green Exit).
Also from the same collection, Artist 2 by Abdul Jabbar Al Yahya made a benchmark price of £279,400/$339,848, in the artist’s first appearance at auction. Al Yahya is an art pioneer of Saudi Arabia and focuses is work on the notion of belonging – to oneself, to inner conflicts, to family, to people or to a nation. The auction saw a further record, for Lebanese artist Huguette Caland, as a bold painting from 1980 – dating to the period the artist was living in Paris – sold for £444,500/$540,668.
Its sensual curves hint at the curvature of the female form, bringing together her playful style of abstraction and the pursuit of capturing beauty and desire on canvas. Besides being a painter, Caland was also a sculptor and fashion designer, known for her abstract paintings and body landscapes. Hailing from a political family, her father was the first post-independence president of Lebanon in 1943.
Other highlights included:
• Samia Halaby’s Seventh Cross No. 229 sold for £381,000/$463,429. The work reflects the artist’s fascination with geometry, spatiality and perspective, sparked by the intricate, tessellating patterns inherent in Islamic architecture. Born in Jerusalem, Halaby is recognised as a pioneer of abstract painting. She has also utilised a documentary-style of figurative drawing in more politically oriented works.
Her approach to abstraction has ranged from works exploring visual properties of the geometric still life to free-form paintings in the shape of collaged pieces of canvas that are joined to create larger abstractions.
• Abdel Hadi El-Gazzar’s Rate of Movement, sold for £279,400/$339,848. El-Gazzar was one of the founders of the Egyptian Contemporary Art Group and occupies a unique position among the artists of his generation. Even after his death, his work has not ceased to challenge artists, intellectuals and critics, both in Egypt and abroad.
• Etel Adnan, Untitled (Mount Tamalpais) sold for £215,900/$262,610. In Adnan’s world, mountains are corporeal entities, binding the skies and the earth together. Mount Tamalpais, which she could see from her window in Sausalito, California, reminded her of Beirut, a city in the foothills of mountains.
As a painter, her earliest abstract works were created using a palette knife to apply oil paint onto the canvas – often directly from the tube – in firm swipes across the picture’s surface. The focus of the compositions often being a red square, she was interested in the “immediate beauty of colour”. In the 1960s, she began integrating Arabic calligraphy into her artworks. Inspired by Japanese leporellos (folded leaflets), Adnan also painted landscapes on foldable screens.
• Fahrelnissa Zeid’s Ischia sold for £355,600/$432,534. The painting carries an intimate dedication written in March 1981 on the back of the canvas, which is a message to her namesake granddaughter the year she was born. Zeid was a Turkish artist best known for her large-scale abstract paintings with kaleidoscopic patterns as well as her drawings, lithographs and sculptures. She was one of the first women to go to art school in Istanbul.
• Abdulhalim Radwi’s Untitled (Market Scene) sold for £203,200/$247,162. The 1967 work deftly captures the vibrancy and dynamism of popular life in Saudi Arabia. References to Saudi Arabia’s desert life, folklore and traditional architecture characterise Radwi’s art, one of the Kingdom’s most respected artists. He was director of Jeddah’s Centre for Fine Arts from 1968 to 1974.
• Hamed Nada’s Almared Alarabi (The Arabian Giant) sold for £190,500/$231,715. Deeply influenced by the dichotomy of Egyptian life, Nada adjoins two divergent identities via his paintings: Egyptian folklore and reality.
He is one of the most prominent painters of Egypt’s modern period, and touched on symbolism, superstition and daily life through stylised figuration. Nada was influenced by his religious upbringing and experience of living in the Sayyida Zeinab district of Cairo.
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