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Iraqi Artists Shine at Bonhams Auction of Iraqi Modernism

Shakir Hassan Al Said (Iraq, 1925-2004), Cubist Cockerel, oil on board, framed, 53 x 56cm (20 7/8 x 22 1/16in). Estimate: £25,000 - 35,000/US$ 38,000 - 53,000. Sold for £194,500 (US$ 289,571) inc. premium, setting a new world record at auction for the artist. Iraqi. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Shakir Hassan Al Said (Iraq, 1925-2004), Cubist Cockerel, oil on board, framed, 53 x 56cm (20 7/8 x 22 1/16in). Estimate: £25,000 – 35,000/US$ 38,000 – 53,000. Sold for £194,500 (US$ 289,571) inc. premium, setting  a new world record at auction for the artist. Iraqi. Image courtesy of Bonhams

ART AUCTION

Bonhams world’s first auction of  Iraqi modernism puts Iraqi artists in the spotlight

BY KAZAD

Jewad Selim (Iraq, 1919-1961), ‘Lamea’ oil on canvas, framed, executed in 1949, 61 x 46cm (24 x 18 1/8in). Estimated at £60,000-100,000/ US$ 90,000 – 150,000. Sold for £176,500 (US$ 262,773) inc. premium . Image courtesy of Bonhams

LONDON– A Century of Iraqi Modernism, a comprehensive sale showcasing  major Iraqi artists and artistic movements of the 20th century took place Tuesday at Bonhams New Bond Street. The auction was held alongside  Bonhams annual spring Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art auction. An effort of Bonhams Islamic and Indian Art department, the auction of works by major Iraqi artists was the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

A Century of Iraqi Modernism auction set several new world records and made a total of £1,237, 250, the highest for any group of Iraqi paintings offered in any auction. Most of the artists in the art sale saw new auction records established for their work. The sale of Iraqi art was followed by a sale of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art and the two sales made a combined total of £2,473.050.

Cubist Cockerel (1955) by Shakir Hassan Al-Said (1925-2004), was one of the major highlight of the auction of works by major Iraqi artists. The painting borrows from Arabic culture to make poignant statement about human existence. Estimated at £25,000-35,000/ $ 38,000-53,000, the oil on board painting sold for  £194,500 ($ 289,571) inc. premium, setting a new world record at auction for the artist.

The cockerel holds a significant place in Arabic culture, and is a recurring motif theme for ancient pottery, metalwork and embroidery. The cockerel is the traditional symbol of sustenance and nourishment in Arabic culture. It is also the bird which wakes the Islamic world for morning prayer, signaling the coming of the day. Executed in a rich Expressionist palette according to the visual language of the European cubists, this most traditional of Iraqi motifs is brought firmly into the present with new interpretations.

A student of history and culture, Shakir Hassan Al-Said holds an important place in Iraq’s art history. A student of Jewad Selim, Hassan Al-Said joined with his teacher to form the first modern art movement in Iraq in 1951. Known as The Baghdad Group of Modern Art, the movement strove to reconcile the impressive visual legacy of Iraq’s past with the contemporary narrative of modern Iraq, assimilating Mesopotamian iconography and Islamo-Arabic motifs with modern imagery.

Jewad Selim’s portrait of the celebrated Iraqi poet and academic, Lamea Abbas Amara, made great auction price at the auction. Selim (1919-1961) captured Abbas Amara in this glowing portrait years before she became a celebrated poet. While a student at Baghdad’s Fine Art Institute,   Abbas Amara sat for Selim after class four times a week for a month. When Selim, who was Head of the Sculpture Department at Baghdad’s Fine Art Institute, completed the portrait, he refused to sign it.   When Abbas Amara asked Selim if he would sign it, the artist replied that he would not since he had no intention of ever selling the painting. It remained in Selim’s collection until his death in 1961.

Estimated at £60,000-100,000/$ 90,000 – 150,000, Jewad Selim’s portrait of the celebrated Iraqi poet and academic, Lamea Abbas Amara sold for £176,500 (US$ 262,773) inc. premium. The sale established a new auction world record for a portrait by the artist. The history of the Poet is one reason the piece attracted collectors. Lamea Abbas Amara, the subject of the portrait, was not just a student of Selim at the Baghdad’s Fine Art Institute, she also rose to became an eminent poet. In Iraq, she popularized free verse and became the country’s foremost champion of gender equality and social justice.

The history of the painter also added to the value of the painting. Selim was an accomplished sculptor and painter. Born in Ankara in modern-day Turkey in 1919, Selim, in his early life was sent to Europe on government scholarships. First he studied sculpture in the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris (1938-1939), Academia di Belle Arti in Rome (1939-1940), and London (1946-1949). During the war he became acquainted with several Polish officers who were painters, two of whom had studied with Pierre Bonnard.

After studying in Europe, Selim returned to Iraq and was appointed Head of the Sculpture Department at Baghdad’s Fine Art Institute, a position he retained until his death. It was while at the institute that he painted the portrait of Abbas Amara. The portrait shows influences of the artist’s studies in European Art institutions. His color scheme recalls the palette and textural qualities of post-impressionists like Cézanne and Toulouse Lautrec. One of Selim’s most famous work is The Freedom Monument in Tahrir Square, which commemorates the 1958 revolution.

Although this auction features a fraction of works by major Iraqi artists, this is an important auction that brings to the fore history of cultural development in Iraq and Western influences on Iraqi artists and culture.  Dr. Nada Shabout, Professor of Art History and the Director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Studies Initiative at the University of Texas, notes that the ‘small but important collection of works’ in the auction at Bonhams ‘testifies to the creativity and innovation of modern Iraqi artists. The works present examples of historical trajectories that were dominant in setting the rhythms of modern Iraqi art throughout the 20th century.’

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Still Life (1941) by Mohammad ‘Hajji’ Selim (1883-1941), is another piece industry watchers  expeced to do well during the auction. Estimated at £30,000-40,000, the oil on canvas painting shows the influence of Paul Cézanne, a French artists and Post-Impressionist painter who laid the foundations for the artistic tradition of the 20th century. Mohammad ‘Hajji’ Selim’s Still Life composition consists of robust, chromatically varied and distinctly Middle Eastern fruits, including the cantaloupe, watermelon and pomegranate. It sold for £68,500 (US$ 101,982) inc. premium

Although Iraq has been at the center of world news lately because of the destruction of cultural artifacts by the terror group known as ISIS, Nima Sagharchi, Head of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at Bonhams, notes that it is important to remember that Iraq has a rich history and was a major center of creativity. Sagharchi notes:

Iraq has been one of the most creatively fertile areas in the region, and it is important for the international market to recognise the achievements that Iraqi art has made, despite the difficult circumstances the country has faced. It is hoped that our auction, in bringing together some of the most important works from this period, will lead to the emergence of a new perspective on the contemporary cultural history in Iraq.

Bonhams auction of works by Iraqi artists and the price realized is a significant development in the history of art auction. Speaking on the sale, Sagharchi expresses the importance of the auction succinctly: ‘This is an important moment in the history of Iraqi art. The auction brought together some of most significant works of Iraqi art from the past century and the response of collectors has shown that the international market now recognises the value and significance of art from Iraq.’

Beyond providing  new insight about Iraqi artists, the auction of paintings also show how the artists have been influenced by Western artistic traditions. The artworks auctioned exhibited a confluence of Western and Iraqi ideas. They point to a cultural history and the relationship between West and East that came through education and cross fertilization of ideas.

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