An Interview with our Founder Leyla Fakhr

How do you select work?

Over 25 years of working as a curator, I have seen so much art. It’s not just a job, it’s my life. You develop an intuition for what you know will work, but the selection process isn’t instant. I watch artists grow over a long period of time and see how their practice develops, building a relationship with their work until I can see a real future in what they are producing. Certain artists stay with me that I believe are worth investing in, both financially and aesthetically. For The Collectors’ Editions, I choose work I believe people would want to live with. It is there to be enjoyed, shared and talked about, not locked away in a safe.

Why art from the Middle East and North Africa?

For so long we have been looking at the art world from the UK/USA perspective. It is only in the last ten years that have we seen that viewpoint open up. The Middle East has established itself on the international stage as a serious art world to be explored, exhibited, promoted and invested in. It is a much more commercial scene now; the prices are going up, and artists from the region are exhibiting all over the world. The Collectors’ Editions is the first place to specialise in prints from these artists, to bring them to a different audience.

What was the inspiration behind the latest collection of prints? 

We have launched The Collectors’ Edition with work by three of the strongest contemporary Iranian artists: Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmian, Sahand Hesamiyan and YZ Kami. All three artists explore themes of traditional architecture and geometry in their work, drawing on similar influences, but from very different perspectives. They are each returning to aesthetics of the past to create new, very modern statements, engaging in current ideas and forms. Islamic architecture has intellectual roots in philosophy, maths, science and ideas of infinity, held together by deeply spiritual foundations. As a result, the abstract shapework explored by these three artists has a meditative quality, something very calming and easy to live with. 

What makes Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmian an important artist for you?

Monir has been a major inspiration for me for a long time. I made a documentary of her work in 2012 and put her work forward for acquisition at the Tate (with one piece acquired in 2013). She is a pioneer in a form of art that she created, using a new artistic language. She was the first person to use mirror mosaics and that side of her work is well-known. At the heart of her practice, however, is drawing. This is where she is most direct with her practice, most minimal and concise. It is to the point – every mark counts.

What’s special about the print you have here from her?

I was excited to acquire this print of her 1976 drawing, because it comes from her most fulfilling period. She had returned to live in Tehran from New York, where she had been shaped and influenced by Frank Stella, Barnett Newman and others. She returned to Iran and saw her home country with new eyes. It drew her back to re-examining Islamic architecture and nature, this time with a new appreciation, to be reinterpreted in modernist ways. She understood how minimal lines can create complex shapes and she began to produce these astonishing prints.

Another artist here, Sahand Hesamiyan, is known for his sculptures not his drawings. What made you select his prints?

I’ve been a huge admirer of Sahand’s work for a long time and followed how his career has progressed. He is well-respected in Iran, where he works from a studio in Tehran, but internationally he is under-known.  His sculptures are bold, monumental interpretations of Iranian architecture, and have an interactive element where he encourages viewers to see traditional shapes in new ways. The same feelings translate into his prints. By extracting certain shapes from Persian and Islamic architecture and rendering them 2D, we see new elements in them. It makes you look in a different way. Not every artist can move easily from 3D to 2D work, but he can. His use of gold leaf in the prints, which changes appearance as the light catches it, makes it very much a living piece of art, with similar properties to sculpture. 

YZ Kami’s work is also large-scale. What made you choose his Endless Prayer print?

Kami has always been on my mind as an artist I deeply respect and I’ve followed his work for over 20 years. He is a monumental painter, with canvasses that are three metres high, but his work has a meditative Zen quality, that translates well into prints. His Endless Prayer series brings in a quietness that is very beautiful to live with. The composition refers to the dome shapes in mosques and architecture of the region. This is his first silkscreen print, rather than digital, and the language he uses for the scripts is ancient, pre-Farsi. It feels deep and timeless. I’m really pleased to be representing his work.

It feels like there’s a theme running through these works around seeing things for the first time, with new eyes. Is that a feature for these artists?

All three artists draw on inspiration points from the past, reimagining ancient aesthetics for the modern time. For Monir, this is a very personal perspective, as she returned to a homeland she didn’t recognise. Her own process of reawakening her Iranian identity, of rediscovering her own country, of seeing things as if for the first time, brought a sense of wonder and acute observation to her work. For Sahand, there is another sense of awakening, as he moves from his familiar sculpture work to 2D draughtsmanship. And Kami’s work is also exploring something new, with his employment of silkscreen techniques. I do think each artist’s personal process of discovery translates into the immediacy and truth of these prints. 

Is there a relationship between art and politics in the region

Art always reflects politics, even if it isn’t itself inherently political, and artwork from the Middle East is no exception. Iran had a booming art scene in the 1970s, led by the Empress Farah Pahlavi who was a keen patron of the arts. The Shiraz Art Festival of this time, for instance, was very much an international event designed as a meeting place for Eastern and Western cultures, and museums and galleries in Iran thrived, with substantial international art collections. 

During the 1979 Revolution, this changed: the galleries were shut down, and the focus stopped being internationalist. An underground art scene emerged in the 1990s, in response to censorship and oppression, and gained traction particularly with the overseas diaspora. In the early 2000s, a more liberal President re-enlivened the art scene, with galleries starting to thrive again. The Dubai Art Fair put the Middle East on the map and new art came out of that period.

Does this influence you as a curator?

I don’t seek work that is purposefully political. An artist’s socio-cultural influences are not important to me as a curator. I let the art speak for itself. I think what is interesting to notice, however, is the state of flux that all artists here operate in. I come from a country that is never the same. It is in a constant state of change. This is perhaps why there is a continuing return to the past, a need to hold on to certain solid visual heritage. There is a sense of reclaiming, or finding comfort in, the nostalgia of the past. 

What’s next for The Collectors’ Editions?

Our next artist, Nikzad Nodjoumi, creates very different work to the geometric shapework of our first three artists. Based in New York, Nicky is an incredible colourist, an absolutely beautiful painter, whose paintings have a vibrancy when you are in front of them. There’s a compelling texture to them and a surrealist element to his themes. He captures some of the feelings of discomfort you get when reading something in the news; something about how unsettling and absurd the world can be. I’m really excited to present his print and offer something in contrast to Monir, Kami and Sahand.

And finally – what should collectors choose when they are looking to buy a print?
First and foremost, you have to love the art yourself and find your own connection with the artists’ point of inspiration. It should enrich your life and bring pleasure and meaning. When you really connect with an artwork, it gives you an understanding of something beyond the image itself.