Bonhams to hold groundbreaking sale of Iraqi Modernism

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Auctioneer Bonhams is to hold a comprehensive sale showcasing the major Iraqi artists and artistic movements of the 20th century. It will be the first auction of its kind anywhere in the world.

The sale, titled ‘A Century of Iraqi Modernism’, will run alongside the annual spring Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art auction on 21 April at Bonhams New Bond Street.

Dr Nada Shabout, professor of Art History and the director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Studies Initiative at the University of Texas, said 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.”

A particular highlight of the collection is a portrait of the celebrated Iraqi poet and academic, Lamea Abbas Amara, by Jewad Selim (1919-1961), which is estimated at £60,000-100,000.

Lamea reflects the influence of European art on Selim’s work, recalling the palette and textural qualities of post-impressionists like Cézanne and Toulouse Lautrec. In his early life, Selim was sent to Europe on government scholarships, first to the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and then to the Academia di Belli Arte in Rome, and during the war he became acquainted with several Polish officers who were painters, two of whom had studied with Pierre Bonnard.

Another highlight is Cubist Cockerel (1955) by Shakir Hassan Al-Said (1925-2004), a student of Jewad Selim who, together with his teacher, formed the first modern art movement in Iraq in 1951: The Baghdad Group of Modern Art. The movement was defined be the attempt 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.

A third highlight is Still Life (1941) by Mohammad ‘Hajji’ Selim (1883-1941), the father of Jewad Selim. The work, estimated at £30,000-40,000, shows the influence of Cézanne, and the composition consists of robust, chromatically varied and distinctly Middle Eastern fruits: the cantaloupe, watermelon and pomegranate.

Nima Sagharchi, Head of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at Bonhams, said: “Iraq has been one of the most creatively fertile areas in the region, and it is important for the international market to recognize 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.”