Hassan Hajjaj is probably the only artist to ever blow off Louis Vuitton’s invitation to collaborate. And it’s not because he doesn’t respect the label. In fact, it’s because he likes it a little too much. To understand why, we’ve got to take it back to the late 80s when Hajjaj, an immigrant from Larache, a tiny fishing village in Morocco, opened an affordable streetwear shop in London. He remembers those early years of hustling, “At that time, all these big brands weren’t designing for me and my friends. They were designing for rich people. But we also wanted to be part of that world. We wanted to have money and be able to wear this clothing.” So he started picking up knockoffs in flea market stalls, cutting off the logos, and stitching them onto clean white tees and the backs of acid-washed jean jackets.

Hajjaj soon became a fixture on the British club scene, promoting underground parties and assisting on photo shoots into the 90s. Entirely self-taught, he stumbled into his own artistic practice after helping an English photographer on a fashion shoot in Morocco where he observed that his country was being exploited as just a flat exotic backdrop against which leggy European models would pose. He knew it was more than that. “I wanted to do something to present my own people who stand between the traditional and the modern. I wanted to represent my own friends,” he decided. So entirely self-taught, he began to shoot photographs his way.

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Can you buy art based on an algorithm for financial investment? “Sure, just like you can buy a car,” jokes Myrna Ayad, director of Art Dubai. “But that takes so much fun and enlightenment out of the process. Buying art can be financially beneficial, but I would much rather subscribe to buying art being beneficial for your mind and passion, in addition to its aesthetic pleasure.”

Although there has been a thriving creative scene in the region for decades, the roots of the commercial art market were planted with the opening of Christie’s Middle East and Art Dubai in 2006. It has rapidly flourished and art from the region is now being shown and sold in cities worldwide – and women are at the forefront. “We had many women pioneers in the region’s art scene and that continues today – women dominate,” Ayad says. Some of the early starters include Janine Rubeiz, who founded artistic platform Dar El Fan in Beirut in 1967. Princess Wijdan Ali opened Jordan’s National Gallery of Fine Arts in 1979 with works from her own collection, and Sheikha Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan established a namesake foundation in Abu Dhabi.

While the perception of a collector is someone with a vast number of works at their disposal, Salma Shaheem, the head of Middle Eastern markets at the Fine Art Group, argues, “A valuable collection can start with as little as five or six very rare, museum quality pieces.” Even if this level of investment is not a reality, a collection can begin with just one standout work on paper by a favorite artist, a piece you return to with every morning coffee, as though lingering in conversation with the work. Four female collectors from the region are proving that collecting is not a staid hobby focused on financial returns, but rather a full-time pursuit incorporating philanthropy, patronage, and community.

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“I want to show that women have been suppressed. Sewing helps me to articulate this problem.” Ghada Amer discusses embroidery, mainstream beauty and creating ceramics with her unfamiliar left hand.

Images of suggestively-posed white women looted from men’s porn magazines are the starting point for Ghada Amer’s embroidery paintings on canvas. Needle and thread, traditionally considered women’s craft, reclaims the two-dimensional from the male-dominated history of painting.

Amer and I first spoke in a Dubai hotel lobby two years ago, just before her show Earth. Love. Fire. opened at Leila Heller’s 15,000 square foot Alserkal Avenue showplace, marking a return to the Arab world after more than two decades. Our voices were drowned out by drab brown birds gossiping in the pink bougainvillea beyond our table. Although the Heller exhibition did hint at Amer’s erotic figures (and marked the first viewing of a new medium for the artist’s ceramics, which were the product of a residency at New York’s Greenwich House Pottery) there was a degree of self-censorship at play. There were topics demanding discussion that would not be printed by any regional publication. We agreed to meet again.

Amer and I reconnected in the US as she prepared for an untitled solo show at Cheim & Read in New York, set to open 5 April, presenting a new body of paintings and ceramic sculptures that feel like a shrewdly-honed continuation. Amer shares a cluttered studio with Reza Farkhondeh, who she met while still a student at the Villa Arson in Nice, France and with whom she often collaborates. They are in the midst of renovating a new space in Harlem. Our conversation begins where we left off, dissecting the unexpected sense of freedom Amer experiences whenever she experiments with ceramics.

DL: You are right-handed and yet often force yourself to sculpt with your left. Why? 

Ghada Amer: I began the left-handed sculptures when I started making ceramics in 2014. I was almost like a young child, suddenly realizing I have a left hand. I was noticing what the left hand could form. It was like surrealism, to see what it made on its own.

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Image Credit: Ghada Amer, Girl with Garden Carnation (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, NY

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Curiously, 2017 was both the year of the naked dress and the year that the modest movement took flight. On one side, Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid flaunted their ultra-sheer fishtail gowns and on the other, former Vogue Arabia cover star Halima Aden took the fashion world by storm as the breakout model at the forefront of modest dress. The latter movement generates billions of dollars in annual revenue both in Muslim countries and beyond. Those who supported the naked dresses called women’s decisions to bare all empowering and even a feminist statement. No one mentioned dressing to attracted, repel, or subdue men.

Read More…Vogue Arabia Feb 2018

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