"Moving [to London] shows that [modern and contemporary] art from the Middle East has matured to the point where it is ready for an international audience,” explains Hisham Samawi, co-owner of Ayyam Gallery, sitting in their space in London’s New Bond Street, nestled among Mayfair’s historic and established galleries.
Art collectors and cousins Khaled and Hisham Samawi set up Ayyam Gallery, a contemporary art gallery for Middle Eastern artists, in Syria’s capital Damascus in 2006. The pair were struck by the amount of untapped talent in their home country. “When we first started in Syria, there was no contemporary art scene, there was no market, no collector basis supporting it — the infrastructure wasn’t there,” explains Hisham.
Lebanese artist Nadim Karam's exhibition at the Ayyam Gallery in London
Representing 28 artists from Tehran to Beirut, they have since expanded and opened spaces in Dubai, Beirut, London and Jeddah. “I would say we’re the biggest and the most aggressive,” claims Khaled, a retired banker, when asked about the role of his gallery within the burgeoning Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art market. “We take a lot of risks, because we really believe in what we’re doing,” he adds.
Swimming against the tide
“There have always been Middle Eastern art galleries, especially in Lebanon,” says an events coordinator at the Beirut Exhibition Center, but “what distinguished Ayyam was their ability to expand so quickly”. Ayyam’s second gallery opened in Dubai in 2008, four months before the peak of the financial crisis marked by the fall of Lehman Brothers in September of that year. “When everyone was freaking out and reeling in, we opened a new branch in Beirut a few months later,” says Hisham, a part-time DJ who grew up in New York. This year, they expanded to two new cities: London, where they opened in January, and Jeddah, opening in February.
The Samawis were not the only ones attracted by London’s buzzing art market this year. The United Kingdom-based non-profit group Edge of Arabia (EoA) also opened their first gallery space in a warehouse in London’s Battersea area in April. Founded in 2008 as a non-profit community interest company, with independent sponsors and patrons looking to raise awareness and appreciation for Saudi Arabian art, EoA now reach out to artists from all over the Middle East. The gallery has featured the works of renowned Saudi Arabian artists Manal al-Dowayan and the Alem sisters, Raja and Shadia, who represented the kingdom at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Located close to the Royal College of Art and not too far from Chelsea’s renowned art galleries, EoA Testbed, the new London space, is composed of a 325 square meter area for contemporary art and another 930 square meter space for events and experimental shows.
Auction sales in the region are a good indicator of the progression of the Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art market since 2006. The peak came in the spring of 2008, when Christie’s Dubai accrued $16.9 million at their April auction, after what ArtTactic viewed as “two years of rapid growth”. A few months later, in the wake of the global financial crisis, Christie’s October sale achieved only $7 million, a 58 percent drop and 41 percent less than the pre-sale estimate. Since then, the market has grown slowly, without ever reaching its 2008 peak.
Hisham and Khaled Samawi
The impacts of the 2011 Arab world revolutions on the art market are not yet clear. Some collectors are predicting an explosion of art from the post-revolutionary Arab states, but for the Samawi cousins, the revolutions were a difficult time for their gallery. “We survived the Arab Spring,” says Khaled. To ensure the wellbeing of their Syrian artists, the gallery funded their relocation to neighboring countries and continues to support them financially. Their headquarters in Damascus were partly shut down; the staff have relocated to Dubai.
This year, however, auctions of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art at Sotheby’s in Doha and Christie’s in Dubai brought in over $10 million, doubling the value reached in last year’s spring auctions. According to ArtTactic,“this result … could signal a renewed interest and confidence in the market.”
Out of the wild
But what is most telling about the success of the Middle East art market is perhaps the move of galleries to London this year. Why London as the first Western destination? “I think London is the art capital of Europe,” says Khaled. According to Sarah al-Faour, head of strategy and partnership at EoA, “London is a cosmopolitan city, and it will attract people of all nationalities.”
When it comes to Middle Eastern art, Khaled sees a market that has “matured pretty quickly” and is no longer the “wild west” it was ten years ago. “The speculators are now at home, and it’s a very serious market, with serious players, artists and collectors. Unless you do your job properly and show the best art, then nobody’s going to look at you.” Collectors, he argues, can feel safe in the Middle Eastern art world. “You have seven to eight years of price data, exhibition history, reviews and critiques to rely on.”
And the next stop for Ayyam? They are thinking about southeast Asia, where they would be following in the footsteps of the Lebanese-owned Sana Gallery set up in Singapore in 2012 by Assaad Razzouk, a Lebanese clean energy entrepreneur. “Southeast Asia is booming right now. You have a whole middle class hungry for something new,” Hisham says. And yet again, the risks seem rather high. “We don’t know if there will be interest for Middle Eastern art; we need to go there and create it.”