Meet 5 Middle Eastern Collectors Shaping the Emirati Art Scene, From a Presidential Advisor to a Retired Pharmaceutical Magnate

These collectors have been quietly driving the burgeoning art scene in the Gulf.

An artwork by Saudi artist Rashed Al Shashai shown at Jeddah-based Hafez Gallery at Abu Dhabi Art 2021. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art.

Over the past decade, a dedicated cohort of long-time UAE residents and Emirati collectors have been driving the Gulf’s burgeoning art scene and solidifying the Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art market. These collectors—many of whom reside in the UAE away from their native countries—are committed to putting their purchasing power behind artists from their home countries of Iran, Syria, Palestine, and the UAE, and encouraging the development of the wider Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) art scene.

In recent years, the UAE’s art scene has become the hub for arts and culture in the Middle East, thanks to vast public and private initiatives to build institutions and a vibrant homegrown arts ecosystem. The UAE, like its art scene, is still young but rapidly developing thanks to a handful of players. The country will celebrate its 50th anniversary next week. 

At the 13th edition of Abu Dhabi Art, which ended on November 21, the fair announced the formation of Friends of Abu Dhabi Art. The initiative, created to “facilitate new models of public cultural philanthropy and help support the dynamic art eco-system in the UAE through Abu Dhabi Art” exemplifies the nature of the region’s community—and often—collector-driven art scene.

The movers and shakers of this regional scene are notoriously modest about their contributions and often prefer to remain behind the scenes. Below we reveal who some of the most important collectors are, what they are buying, and their passion for uplifting and expanding the Middle Eastern art scene.

Mohammed Afkhami

Mohammed Afkhami.

Nationality: British-Iranian

Age: 47

Occupation: Founder and managing partner of Dubai-based commodities firm MA Partners DMCC and Magenta Capital Services, and vice chairman of the real estate investment firm London Strategic Land.

What’s in the Collection: Afkhami’s collection comprises around 600 works, the majority of which (around 480 works) represent Iranian modern and contemporary art spanning the mediums of painting, works on paper, sculpture, video, neon, tapestry, and more. The remaining works constitute international contemporary art, some antiquities, and Islamic art.

His collection includes work by around 140 artists—around a dozen of which Afkhami says constitute their own their own vertical collections. These artists, all of Iranian heritage, include Parviz Tanavoli, Monir Farmanfarmaian, Shirin Neshat, YZ Kami, Shirazeh Houshiary, Hossein Zenderoudi and Farhad Moshiri.

Distinguishing Factor: Afkhami is one of the biggest collectors of modern and contemporary Iranian art. The aim of the collection is to bring Iranian art to a public and international setting. Over the past four years, works from his collection have been shown in three dedicated museum shows, including at the Agha Khan Museum in Toronto, the Museum of Fine Art in Houston, and Asia Society in New York.

Where He shops: Alserkal Avenue in Dubai, regional art fairs, including Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art, and international fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze.

Recent Purchases: At the recent edition of Abu Dhabi Art, he purchased three works by Emirati Farah Al Qassimi, Lebanese Tagreed Darghouth, and Franco-Algerian Zineb Sedira (who will represent France at the 2022 Venice Biennale) for prices ranging between $8,000–$30,000.

Fun Fact: Afkhami is launching a virtual museum at Art Dubai 2022 (running March 10–12) to bring his current museum show “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet” to a virtual setting.

Zaki Nusseibeih

Zaki Nusseibeh.

Nationality Emirati

Occupation: Cultural advisor to the president of the UAE and the chancellor of UAE University. Nusseibeh has been active in the UAE government since its formation in 1971.

Age 75

What’s in the Collection: His expansive art collection includes over 400 works of modern and contemporary art in mediums spanning prints, lithographs, major paintings, and sculpture. It includes a breadth of work from local emerging Emirati artists such as Rawdha Al Ketbi to mid-career artists like Egyptian Huda Lutfi to the pioneering late conceptual works of Emirati Hassan Sharif, as well as established Arab modernists like Syrian Louay Kayali, Lebanese Paul Guiragossian, Algerian Baya Mahieddine, and the trailblazing late Lebanese painter and poet, Etel Adnan.

Distinguishing Factor: Nusseibeh’s vision for his collection is to include work from the MENASA region (the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) that both reflects the cultural histories of the region and its more contemporary movements, as well as his own personal tastes.

Where He shops: At auction, directly from galleries and artists, and at Abu Dhabi Art and Art Dubai. Nusseibeh also occasionally buys from international fairs, such as ArtInternational Istanbul in Turkey when his daughter, current fair director of Abu Dhabi Art, was its director. Frieze London is another place he sometimes shops since he also has a home in London.

Fun Fact: Nusseibeh has one of the most extensive libraries in the region, featuring thousands of books spread across three homes and in each of the seven languages he speaks fluently.

Farhad Farjam

Farhad Farjam.

Nationality: Iranian

Occupation: A businessman who worked in the pharmaceutical business for three decades where he represented several major multinational pharmaceutical companies in Iran. Another part of his group was involved in real estate development. He is now retired from both enterprises and invests in start-ups. 

What’s in the Collection: Amassed over 40 years, the collection includes over 7,000 pieces spanning antiquities, historical manuscripts, calligraphy and modern and contemporary works. Farjam regards his collecting habits as “inherent and genetic” as both his grandfathers were collectors, stating how “as a child I was interested in collecting beautiful things.”

Middle Eastern artists in his collection include Hussein Madi, Fateh Moudarres, YZ Kami, Afra Al-Dhaheri, and Farhad Moshiri, among others. International modern and contemporary artists represented include Paul Klee, Yayoi Kusama, Alberto Giacometti, Georg Baselitz, Anslem Kiefer, Tony Cragg, Sam Francis, Bharti Kher, and Auguste Rodin.

Distinguishing Factor: The Farjam Foundation, headquartered in the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), is the only collection in private hands worldwide that includes artworks from the beginning of Islam until now, representing art from nearly all Islamic countries as well as encompassing a section dedicated to western modern and contemporary art.

The foundation’s vision is to serve artists and art enthusiasts for the next decade and beyond through artists’ residencies, exhibitions, lectures, workshops, educational programs, and internships. In the future, Farjam envisions the foundation and his collection to become a private museum.

Where He Shops: Auctions, regional and international art fairs and galleries.

Fun Fact: Farjam opened a private museum called The Farjam Collection in 2009 in the DIFC coinciding with the third edition of Art Dubai. In 2013 it became the Farjam Foundation dedicating itself to more philanthropic and community driven projects.

HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan

Sheikh Zayed.

His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan bin Khalifa Al Nahyan.

Nationality: Emirati,

Source of Wealth: Grandson of HH Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of UAE.

Age: 33

What’s in the Collection: Sheikh Zayed’s collection is widely diverse, featuring works in various mediums, including paintings, photography, sculptures, collages, textiles and videos by artists from the UAE and the MENASA region as well as India and Iran.

He has a particular passion for emerging artists or those whom, he said, “have yet to be given their due.” Artists included in his collection are Ahmed Mater, Amir Hossein Zanjani,  Dia Al Azzawi, Etel Adnan, Kader Attia, Manal Al Dowayan, Mohammed Kazem, Moataz Nasser, and Shafic Aboud, among many others.

Distinguishing Factor: His vision is to build a personal collection of artworks from the UAE, greater Middle East and internationally that includes historical works of art until the present. In 2015 he established UAE Unlimited to support emerging artists, curators, poets, and writers in the UAE through various initiatives and exhibitions. 

Where He shops: Regional and international fairs and biennales. Abu Dhabi Art and Art Dubai are a must. He also buys from Frieze London, FIAC, and Art Basel Miami Beach. Sheikh Zayed loves visiting the Sharjah Biennial and the Venice Biennale. Galleries he buys from especially include Beirut-based Agial, Athr in Jeddah, Galerie Continua, Dubai-based galleries Gallery Isabelle Van der Eynde, Green Art Gallery, Lawrie Shabibi, the Third Line Gallery, and 1×1 Gallery, among others in the UAE and abroad. He also buys from major auction houses, including Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Bonham’s. 

Fairouz Villian

Fairouz Villian and her husband, Jean Paul Villain.

Fairouz Villian and her husband, Jean Paul Villain.

Nationality: Syrian-French 

Age: 67

Source of Wealth: Her husband, Jean-Paul Villian, is director of the strategy and planning department at Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA), where he has worked since 1982.

What’s in the Collection: An Abu Dhabi-based collector and art patron, Villian’s collection features modern Arab art with a particular focus on important works by Syrian artists—her country of birth—including modernists Louay Kayyali and Fateh Moudarres. She and her husband, Jean Paul Villain have been collecting art for over 30 years. 

The couple began collecting in France by acquiring European artists but have since focused predominantly on Middle Eastern artists when Villain moved to the UAE to join her husband in the 1980s. In recent years they have made acquisitions of key contemporary Middle Eastern artists from the UAE, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon and also from Turkey and Pakistan. Emirati artists in her collection include the late conceptualist Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, Najat Makki, Sheikha Al Mazrou, and Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim (who will represent the UAE at next year’s Venice Biennale). From Lebanon, she has works by Ayman Baalbaki and Hussein Madi, among others. 

Distinguishing Factor: One of her great passions is to support Syrian artists—particularly those living in exile in France—by buying their work. She is president of Friends of the Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi Art Association, a founding member of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s Patrons Circle, and sits on the patron committee of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. At the moment she is focused on collecting more art to build her collection with the aim of one day creating a foundation. In 2012, she was awarded the title of “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” by Frederic Mitterand, the French culture minister under president Nicolas Sarkozy, for her “significant contributions” to the arts.

Where They Shop: Mostly at art fairs, especially at Art Dubai and Abu Dhabi Art and also from Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams. She and her husband bought five works from this year’s Abu Dhabi Art: two sculptures by Egyptian Adam Henein, Lebanese Paris-based Chaouki Choukini, Emirati Sarah Almehairi and Lebanese Fatima El-Hajj.

Fun Fact: Villian is currently following her passion for collecting work by young Emirati artists.

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