ART DEPT: Creating a Niche Gallery

Hadieh Shafie: 20900 Pages (Ketab series), 2011, ink and paper with printed & hand written Farsi Text Eshgh “Love/Passion”, 122 x 122 x 8.9 cm, Private Collection – Bahrain. Courtesy of the artist and Leila Heller Gallery, New York.

Questions ask of several galleries: 

How and why did you get interested in the MENASA region for artists?

When did you start representing artists from these countries?

How do you choose your artists?

Are you interested in a special medium, topic, style, or form of expression?

Do you often travel to discover new work?

(Source: excerpted from, text by Zoltán Somhegyi, link below)

The art world have radically changed in many ways since the establishment of the first commercial galleries, Galleries are still among the most efficient structures in representing fresh, emerging and well-established artists. The world has become “smaller”, and much more “global(ized)”, and, with the help of the Internet. Still, it remains extremely important for artists to be present in as many parts of the world as possible: to be present not only “physically” , but more crucial is to have their works exhibited on the global market. Even though the centers of the art world have shifted significantly in the last two decades, cities that are traditionally considered as centers of art and the art market have remained attractive for artists to be present in. The MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) is obviously booming. therefore I was curious to see how they can be inserted in the Western gallery-world. The following article can be defined as an “interview-montage”: I made individual interviews, asking questions to nine gallerists who are working in Western countries, and represent MENASA artists. Here I am re-editing the original interviews, grouping the answers of the gallerists, according to four topics: I. Origins and interest II. Reception and dissemination III. The collector and the collection IV. Features and future. My conversation partners in this global dialogue were: – Naila Kettaneh Kunigk, Founder and Co-Owner – Galerie Tanit, Munich-Beirut – Thaddaeus Ropac, Gallery Owner – Galerie Thassaeus Ropac, Paris-Salzburg – Janet Rady, Director – Janet Rady Fine Art, London – Yuli Karatsiki, Gallery Manager – Kalfayan Galleries, Athens-Thessaloniki – Kashya Hildebrand, Founder – Kashya Hilderbrand Gallery, Zurich-London – Leila Heller, Owner – Leila Heller Gallery, New York – Rose Issa, Founder – Rose Issa Projects, London – Sabrina Amrani, Gallery Director – Sabrina Amrani Gallery, Madrid – Andrée Sfeir-Semler, Owner – Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut-Hamburg.


Leila Heller Gallery • I opened my first gallery in 1982 in New York’s Upper East Side on Madison Avenue. At that time I was not representing Middle Eastern artists, even though I am of Iranian origin, but rather focused my gallery’s program on exhibiting emerging international artists as well as curating shows of modern and contemporary masters. It was not until a few years after I opened my gallery, when various Iranian artists who were living in the Diaspora such as Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Y.Z. Kami, Nicky Nodjoumi and Massoud Arabshahi, approached me, eager to show in New York, that I exhibited artwork from the region. The focus of my gallery continues to be representing international artists and inviting curators to produce shows incorporating modern and contemporary masters. My interest in art from the region has never solely been because of my heritage; its basis has always rested on the fact that I truly believe that the artwork coming from the MENASA-based artists is strong. I believed they have a lot to offer to the cultural world and hence my deepest interest in what they have to offer to the outside world I choose to engage with MENASA artists and markets because there is immense talent and growing opportunities in the region, which I want to be part of. There is no formula as to how I choose my artists. Primarily, I want the works of the artists that I represent to challenge and move the viewer. Many of the top collectors and curators that I engage with have impeccable taste and are instrumental in introducing me to new emerging talents. My gallery team is also engaged in judging rising talent in the region. Most importantly, I am constantly traveling around the world deversl times every year to ensure having the proper opportunity to discover new art and meet the artists myself. While my gallery focuses on the artists from the Middle East, Turkey and the Central Asian countries, I also represent artists from different parts of the world from America, Europe and going as far as the boarders of Asia; providing an interesting context and cross cultural dialogue within my program, and showing the diversity and complexity of what I show in my space.


Galerie Tanit • Being Lebanese, although I lived in Germany for a long time, it was kind of meant to be for me to get involved in the Lebanese art scene, discovering the works of many artists. Walther, my partner, and I decided 10 years ago that showing some of these artists in a group show could be interesting. The show was entitled “Present Absence”. We exhibited works related to the issues of war and post-war and others in Lebanon. The artists were Fouad El Khoury, Joanna Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige, Lamia Joreige, Gilbert Hage, Jalal Toufic and Akram Zaatari. These artists were relevant in the Lebanese art scene. They were starting to become internationally known and we needed to be showing more or less established artists since the public in Munich was completely unaware of the work being done in this region and it was crucial for us to deliver the best. From the beginning, we were interested in all forms of expression, in any medium or format. We thought that the medium always complemented the work. Later on we showed Nabil Nahas and in 2010 we organized a big show entitled “All about Beirut” in a public industrial place called “Whitebox”. The show was intended to present the Lebanese artistic creations to the Munich public. I travel a lot, and I’m always between my two galleries in Munich and in Beirut, but aside from a few Syrian and Iraqi artists I have never shown artists from different areas from the MENASA region. My focus was always on the Lebanese ones. Our gallery program covers international contemporary art. While we do not specifically target MENASA artists, we do keep our eyes open on the art scenes around the globe. We started looking at Persian artists about ten years ago, at a time when everyone was focusing on the art scene in China. We started seeing works by artists from the Middle East, the most promising amongst them seemed to be coming from Iran. The country has a very rich art heritage and immense culture. Tehran has had a well-reputed Art Academy for more than 100 years. We thought that there must be significant potential for young artists. When we first travelled to Tehran it was to visit the studio of one or two artists, who had just started to show internationally. Once on site, we discovered that there is a vast and well-forged community of promising artists leading a discreet parallel existence away from the public eye. It was all very confidential and underground, information on exhibitions was carried by word of mouth and only a small circle of art connoisseurs were given access. It was such a wonderful discovery, we decided to present some of the artists in Paris and organize a group show titled “Raad o Bargh”. Our selection comprised no less than seventeen artists, most of them living in Iran, some sharing their time between Tehran and another country. We were thrilled that most artists were able to travel to Paris for the installation and the opening. It was a beautiful experience to see the artists working together for this show, supporting each other with the installation of their work. At the selection, media, style or form of expression were secondary criteria, what triggered the decision to show an artist was the identity of their oeuvre. We regularly travel to the region. Just last month, we were in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and took the occasion to visit artist’s studios.


Janet Rady Fine Art • I have been interested in the region since the mid- 1970s when I first visited Iran. I subsequently studied Persian and Islamic Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and went back to live in Iran for a year from 1983-84. I continued to be interested in the region and to engage with art from both Iran and the Arab World. It was the British Museum’s “Word Into Art” exhibition in 2006 which inspired me to start my business representing Middle Eastern artists as at that time there were very few commercial galleries showing art from this region. I was keen to give them a platform in London where they could showcase and sell their work. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join a curator on a trip to Cairo in December 2006 and she introduced me to several galleries and artists, including Khaled Hafez, who was instrumental in helping me build my network of contacts. Its important for me that the artist has a specific message or story in their work. This does not have to be related to the region, it can be purely personal, although invariably their work will be informed by historical or geographical references. I work with artists using all forms of medium although from a practical perspective, I focus on painting, photography and video art. I travel regularly to the MENASA region to visit galleries, art fairs, artists and collectors. I also make a point of going to exhibitions in other countries which feature Middle Eastern art as well as keeping in touch with International art trends, as it is important to understand MENASA art in the context of a broader picture.


Kalfayan Galleries • Greece is at the crossroads between East and West and we wanted this to be reflected in our gallery program as well, which has given us a unique identity. Therefore it was only natural for us to be interested in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and to explore the dynamics of the art scene in that area by providing a forum for an exchange of ideas between East and West. The first exhibition that we organized was in 2007 with a solo presentation of the Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian with his series titled “Unfinished”. At the moment, Sarkissian’s “Execution Squares” series are on view at the TATE Modern in London as part of the museum’s permanent collection. Aside from Sarkissian, we also represent Vartan Avakian, Ala Dehghan, Raed Yassin, as well as artists whose work references the region, such as Greek Aikaterini Gegisian and Yiannis Hadjiaslanis and Greek-Egyptian Farida El-Gazzar. Furthermore, a central part of the gallery’s activities is the organization of gallery shows of artists from the region, such as Tarek Al-Ghousein’s in our Athens space in 2009, and the collaboration with regard to Museum shows both in Greece and abroad. For example, in 2010 we presented a solo show of the Egyptian artist Anna Boghiguian at the Benaki Museum of Islamic Art, in collaboration with the museum. There is no prerequisite in the selection process as far as medium, topic, style or form of expression is concerned. Our gallery roster over the course of the years includes artists of diverse backgrounds and means of artistic expression. Our active and dynamic presence in the MENASA region through our participation at art fairs such as Art Dubai and Art Basel Hong Kong among many others, as well as through our travels on the occasion of museum shows of our gallery artists or to make studio visits, offers us a valuable insight into the art scene of the region. Kashya Hilderbrand Gallery The gallery does not solely focus on MENASA artists, although they are an important contingent of our roster, we also represent a number or international artists. I became interested in this region as a result of my exposure to Art Dubai seven years ago. Given my own Pakistani heritage coupled with the dynamic evolution in the region, I was intrigued to pursue a program that reflected these demographics. My first exposure to the region came from my involvement with Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri. He was one of the first artists that our gallery

Farhad Moshiri: Spooked, 2011, hand embroidery and glaze on canvas on board, 270x270cm. Courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Paris-Salzburg.

represented and as a result of this experience, paved the way for other relationships to evolve. Our program represents a diverse eclectic mix of artists that represent the globalised world we live in. We are very drawn to artists who live in the Diaspora, cultivate their discipline both abroad and domestically and struggle with the tension and anxiety that exists as a result of their own displaced feelings and emotions.


Rose Issa Projects • I am from the region, being half Iranian and half Lebanese. I am interested in how our artists, filmmakers and writers think and create. I am working with artists of the region since 1982. I was in Paris when the Israelis invaded Lebanon. I wanted to give voice to artists, about resistance and occupation. It was the first Arab film festival, and very successful, which proved that there was a demand for it. All mediums: films, paintings, drawings, video interest me. I travel a lot to Iran and the Arab countries.

Sabrina Amrani Gallery • Our interest for Middle Eastern and North African artists is natural due to our origins: I am a French Algerian while Jal Hamad (my partner) is a Spanish Syrian. We started to represent artists from the MENASA region from the very beginning, the first opening show of the gallery was with an Algerian artist, Zoulikha Bouabdellah. Since then, our concern has been to promote and position our MENASA artists in the international contemporary art market. We follow our eyes and hearts. We work with art we love and we need a strong connection with the artists.We are sensitive to conceptual and minimal art, but I think our first interest is for socio-political and cultural subjects, identity, space, architecture… any medium although installations are predominant. We travel as much as we can to discover different art scenes and meet artists. Sfeir-Semler Gallery I was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, so an interest in the region is natural to me. It is home. I started representing artists from the Middle East after meeting Walid Raad through Catherine David. I was really impressed with the work he was doing and things took off from there. We developed a great professional relationship and friendship and he introduced me to other artists and it changed the entire direction of my gallery. When choosing artists I think the story that is being told and the way it is being communicated are the most telling features. I opened a second gallery space in Beirut in 2005 so I maintain a presence in the region and having this connection is important personally.


Conclusion after More Questions  From these answers we see a really fascinating overview: a broad variety of approaches, encouraging reasons for interest in the region’s art, stimulating strategies and very positive hopes for the future of the scene. Many of the gallerists started representing MENASA artists because of personal reasons, or under the influence of a strong impact and inspiration when first encountering the scene. Personal investigation of the region is highly important to the gallerists, therefore they often travel to the MENASA countries to find new artists and trends. They feel that this segment of the art world is still relatively underrepresented, even though it has significant aesthetic and economic potential. When selecting artists, the technique, medium or style is less important, what counts much more is the originality of the work and the authenticity in the manner of expression. As for the reception, most of the galleries had difficulties at the beginning, since the artists were less well known. But after their pioneering work, the audience – both the private collectors and the institutions – responded very well, and the different communities with people originating from the region and living in the Western metropolises welcomed the showing of the works of artists from their home. Still, it seems that the establishment of more forums could be ideal for the dissemination of the artistic values that these works incorporate. Apart from concentrating on the “big names”, the inspiring variety of the scene should be presented in different ways: publications, lectures and educational programs. The participation of artists in fairs and biennials, as well as the placing of their works in renowned private and public collections are all essential. Like my dialogue partners pointed it out, the region’s art scene is heterogeneous and rich, and cannot be simply reduced to some general characteristics. It is exactly this multifaceted variety that can be interpreted as a kind of guarantee of the steadily growing reputation of the scene and of the growing curiosity in its artists. It is not an ephemeral trend, a quick and superficial focus, but a well-based interest, and the growing number of collectors, as well as the impressive museum-projects – some of them still under construction –, mean a strong base for further development of the MENASA region’s inspiring art scene.

About the Writer: Dr. Zoltán Somhegyi (1981) is a Hungarian art historian, teacher and writer and currently based in Izmir, Turkey. As a researcher of art history and aesthetics, he specialized in Eighteenth and Nineteenth century art and art theory, having written his PhD-dissertation on German Romanticism. Apart from being an art historian of classical arts, his other fields of interest are contemporary fine arts and art market trends, with a special focus on the arts of Turkey, the MENASA region and Central Asia. Dr. Somhegyi curates exhibitions and participates in international art projects using his expertise to demonstrate and trasfer the art practices and scene in the countries of regions he cover to the international art arena. He is also an independent consultant of Art Market Budapest – International contemporary art fair. Currently he holds the position of an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Architecture of Izmir University in Izmir, Turkey. He is the author of books, artist catalogues, and more than two hundred articles, critiques, essays and art fair reviews in different international art publications.

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