Aileen Agopian Lectures on Contemporary Middle Eastern Art


Agopian 3-26By Hagop Vartivarian

NEW YORK — Considering the times we are living through, an unusually interesting evening lecture took place on March 8 dedicated to contemporary art in the Middle East, especially Arab, Persian and Islamic art. It had greater significance because it took place in the heart of Manhattan, at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

The hall originally allocated for the lecture on March 8 turned out to be too small for the audience and therefore, prior to the start time of 7 p.m., the program was transferred to a larger hall.

Dr. Anny Bakalian welcomed the guests and introduced the lecturer. The latter has more than 20 years of experience in the world of international art, having worked at great art shows and auction houses, especially at the White Cube Gallery of London, where she lived while a student, and Phillips in New York. In 2011 she joined the auction firm Sotheby’s as a senior specialist of contemporary international art, and of Middle Eastern and North African contemporary art in particular. She became vice president of the firm’s contemporary art division. In 2015 she opened her own firm, Agopian, dedicated to world art.

Agopian took an interesting and successful path in her profession. Her first collaboration was with the artist Mona Hatoum, a Lebanese of Palestinian background who innovated by drawing her works with parts of her own body instead of with brushes and pencils. Agopian always worked to encourage female artists, and had as her social focus the promotion of equality and reciprocal respect as part of the social mentality of the peoples of the Middle East. She succeeded in equally valuing and evaluating males and females as artists. Consequently, Hatum’s works received international recognition.

Agopian’s great love and dedication to her work comes from her parents, and in particular, from her mother, Vicki Shoghag Hovanessian, who has more than half a century of experience in Chicago, Yerevan and New York in organizing art exhibitions, and promoting contemporary art. Agopian was surrounded by art from childhood. It was with her mother’s encouragement that in 1995 in London, she recognized the value of the works of Damien Hirst, then relatively unknown, and that led to her future specialization.

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She became recognized as a promoter of works of art and a specialist in international art in New York and London, and, simultaneously, and perhaps more interestingly, in the Middle East, especially in Kuwait, Beirut and Doha (Qatar). Sotheby’s wanted to expand its auction markets. Agopian focused on this, and unexpectedly found a very great reception. Very soon the Al-Thani royal family of Qatar at the Doha art exhibition and the Sharjah Biennial made purchases worth millions of dollars of choice European, and, in particular, French Impressionist art works, sometimes breaking all prior records of such sales. In this way, Agopian opened up a new market beginning in 2006 for international contemporary art in the Middle East.

It was a novelty for the Arab Gulf countries when the world-class art museums of the Louvre in Paris and the Guggenheim in New York signed agreements with various Arab museums. This introduced the Arab people to the classics of contemporary art and brought a new level of quality to culture in those countries. Various exhibitions began to be organized in countries from the United Arab Emirates all the way to Morocco. Through these exhibitions, the opportunity was also created to introduce the works of Indian, Persian and even Armenian artists. Dubai became the center of this world of art. Imagine that the Persian artist Farhad Moshiri’s work called “Light” already had begun to be valued at one million dollars in the art market, and the Egyptian artist Mahmoud Sa’id’s work created in 1929 at $2.55 million.

And what can be said, when in February 2015, the royal family of Qatar paid almost $300 million for Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian painting of two women, “Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?)” breaking all previous international records. The previous record was the sale in 2011 of Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” at auction for $250 million. This followed with Jeff Koons’ works for $20 million, Warhol and Giacometti works for $100 million, and finally, a Picasso for $150 million. The list goes on. During a short period of time painters of 25 countries (in particular, from the Americas, large countries of Asia and classical European), dealers of art works and purchasers began to widely participate in the art world of Doha, and this helped create the great success of the Sotheby’s auction which Aileen organized there in 2013. The great exhibition halls of the West opened their branches there, and the unique place which Beirut enjoyed before the Lebanese civil war now was in the Arabian Gulf. This, unfortunately, took place at Lebanon’s expense, and that of our Armenian artists, like Paul, Asadour, Norigian, Hrayr and Zaven, who were the creators of modern art in the Arab world.

Yet it should be noted that the most expensive canvas sold in this market by Aileen of painters of the Arab world belonged to the Egyptian-Armenian painter Chant Avedisian. It was his work “Icons of the Nile,” which was valued at $1.56 million in 2013 at the Doha Sotheby’s auction.

At the same time, the works of modern Middle Eastern artists began to be shown in New York, with pieces by the 90-year-old Persian Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian appearing at the Guggenheim, while the Egyptian Wael Shawky, and the Lebanese Walid Raad at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Agopian spoke about the cultural awakening in Saudi Arabia, where numerous artists, including women, are appearing. Among them she mentioned Manal Al-Dowayan, who has chiefly been inspired by the daily life and customs of women in her country. When we consider the severe conditions of the kingdom, especially concerning women, this can be considered as a revolution in connection with a movement for the liberation of women. She also mentioned the artist Abdulnasser Gharem, who after serving for twenty years in the Saudi armed forces, dedicated himself to the world of art through his creations.

Despite the battles and war which continue in Iraq, artists there also are participating in this contemporary renaissance of art. Hayv Kahraman is one example. Syria is in a similar position, and has the photographer Hrair Sarkissian who succeeded in showing psychological and historic moments in the torment and turmoil of the daily life of the Syrian people.

She finally focused on the Lebanese artists who without a doubt were the brilliant founders of the cultural life of the Arab world, not only of the fine arts and drawing but also of theater, music, dance and architecture. The 91-year-old artist Etel Adnan, the oldest of the painters, is the standard-bearer for contemporary Arab-American culture. Her works often are exhibited from New York to London. She creates symbolic images of Lebanon’s nature with such faithfulness and with harmony of colors. Of course, there is also Walid Raad, the 48-year-old artist, and the 99-year-old Saloua Raouda Choucair, who in 2013, had her exhibition in London’s Tate Modern.

Art history lecturer Prof. David Joselit of CUNY conducted a brief interview, after which attendees had the opportunity to ask questions, which Aileen confidently answered.

Familiar with the psychology of the customers in her field, and well-versed in the developments of contemporary international art, Agopian was able to hold the attention of her audience through her immediacy.

In that great crowd, we ten Armenians gathered together could only exchange expressions of admiration. We felt proud of the achievements of our new generation in the difficult world of international art.


(Translated from the Armenian)

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