It may not have the unity of a curated exhibition, but that is exactly the point. The pieces of art that have filled Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue for the past week range from the satirical photographs of Shaweesh, a 26-year-old Saudi who uses digital means to fuse western pop culture with Arab themes, to the abstract acrylic paintings of the 77-year-old Palestinian Samia Halaby, who is one of the most accomplished female Arab artists alive.
There are 79 pieces from almost as many artists and the only link between them is that they have been selected by the art moguls Hisham and Khaled Samawi to go under the hammer tonight at the 17th edition of the Young Collectors Auction (YCA).
Launched in 2008 to offer an entry point for first-time collectors and a platform for young artists, the YCA has become a staple on the regional art calendar. Its twice-yearly events will increase to three next year, and the number of lots continues to grow along with the event’s popularity. If the buzz on the opening night of the week-long preview exhibition is anything to go by, tonight should be a lively sale.
Lots are priced between US$1,000 (Dh3,670) and $15,000, with the majority falling somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000. Although the figures are impressive – sales are reportedly as high as $550,000 – Hisham Samawi says this is not about money.
“The reason we started the YCA is to provide an opportunity for new and young collectors and people who are curious about art, but have always been a bit intimidated by it or don’t quite understand it,” he says. “The art scene now is really starting to pick up and I would say this is a defining time for Middle Eastern art. It would be a shame for people in the region not to experience how great it is.”
Attempting to stimulate serious interest in owning art as something that “adds value to your life” is a primary goal of the YCA. Samawi rightly points out: “The most difficult threshold to cross is buying that first piece.”
So, taking time out from their work managing six galleries in Dubai, Damascus, London, Beirut and Jeddah, Samawi and his cousin visit artists’ studios across the region, pinpointing emerging talent and offering them a step up. The knowledge that the auction’s artists have already passed through the Ayyam filter gives buyers confidence and the momentum of the auction drives interest. As a result, Samawi says, success stories abound.
“Take Farzad Kohan as an example,” he begins. “He is Iranian but based in LA and we showed a couple of one-off pieces in the auctions and he did really well. We ended up signing him; he had a show in DIFC and made the cover of our catalogue last year. He has risen to prominence through the auction.”
There is also Ramin Shirdel, another Iranian, who studied architecture at the Tehran Art University and translated his studies directly to his art, which in this case spells out the Farsi word “solh”, meaning “peace”, through a collection of topographic strips of card on board. Before appearing at the YCA, Shirdel was completely unknown but has now been shown at Christie’s and is gaining international acclaim.
As well as the newcomers, there is a section for modern artists that features some heavyweight names in Arab art such as Fateh Moudarres, Asaad Arabi and Safwan Dahoul. The latter has two pieces at this auction; an archival print and a mixed media on wood panel that has been acquired from a private collector for the auction. “They are very rare and it is exciting to be able to offer these things,” says Samawi.
Then, after the first 10 lots have been sold tonight, Samawi will open the Edge of Arabia Projects section, which offers nine limited-edition prints from artists such as the young and promising Shaweesh to more established names such as Abdelnasser Gharem and Ahmed Mater, who are both creating a stir far from the shores of their native Saudi Arabia.
It is a notable advance in the content of the auction catalogue that when it began, the artists were all from the gallery’s stable and also mostly from Syria, the Samawis’ native country and the place of the first Ayyam, while now half of the artworks are consigned pieces from other galleries, institutions and collectors and the artists are from all over the region.
“We are not in competition,” Samawi states. “At the stage of growth we are in now in the region, everyone is developing together and this is about putting in the infrastructure of a mature market.
“At the end of the day, the whole Middle Eastern art scene would not work without collectors; they give the artists the means to live and so are our lifeblood. This is just about ensuring they have a means to get started.”