Home is where the art is

Maria Sukkar, the Lebanese, London-based patron of the contemporary Middle Eastern art scene and collector, talks to Miriam Dunn about the art coming out of her homeland, the online platforms raising the profile of emerging artists and how her personal collection has evolved over the years

Being able to resume our much-loved and sorely missed activities following the easing of lockdown rules has certainly been an emotional experience for many of us, perhaps also prompting some to acknowledge that we took our freer, pre-Covid life for granted.

Maria Sukkar, who together with her husband Malek is a London-based patron of the contemporary Middle Eastern art scene and avid collector, certainly felt a wave of elation when arriving in the UAE earlier this year for Art Dubai – the first show she’d attended in person since the pandemic turned our lives upside down. “I was offered a sneak preview of the show and it was so emotional, I actually had goosebumps,” she admitted. “Walking in brought back so many happy memories and seeing all that wonderful art cleverly laid out in long corridors - honestly I felt like a kid in a candy store!”

Standout pieces for Maria at the fair included a work by the Emirati artist Hassan Sharif on show at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde’s space, titled ‘Towel No.3’, which was created from scrap materials to symbolise identities lost to industrialisation. She was also taken with the exhibits created by the Iraqi-Armenian sculptress Ankina Zakarian. “Her works show human forms with exaggerated bodily features transmitting hope and optimism in times of pandemic,” she noted.

With the Middle Eastern and Northern Africa Acquisitions Committee (MENAAC) at Tate

While the absence of physical art shows and fairs over the past year has been a source of great disappointment, some artists, especially emerging or lesser-known talents, have benefited from the increased focus during the pandemic on digital platforms, as Maria acknowledged. “Online platforms and social media, in particular, have undoubtedly democratised some aspects of the process when it comes to buying and selling art, which is definitely a positive trend,” she said. “I’ve discovered so many young talents online and enjoyed acquiring some of their prints and paintings.”

Maria also believes that the internet has given a valuable voice to the young artists from the Middle East who have powerful messages they’re desperate to share. These include emerging talents living in or from Lebanon, Maria’s country of birth, where a triple whammy of economic crisis, Covid-19 and the horrific explosion at the Beirut Port in August 2020, has left the country on the brink of ruin.  

“When the uprising began in Lebanon in October 2019, a large number of artists were at the forefront of the protests, expressing their love for their country, their distress at the situation and their anger at the politicians through various forms of representation, including calligraphic street art,” she said. “Even when lockdowns due to Covid brought their protests to a halt, they were still able to share their art online which was pivotal in maintaining momentum.”

The Crying Cedars (2019) by Ghazi Baker

Online art auctions have also played a vital role in supporting those suffering in Lebanon following the August 4 explosion, enabling artists, collectors and others from the diaspora to get involved. The call to help was huge and the generosity overwhelming, as Maria explained, with several leading auction houses and online platforms, including ArtScoops, holding fundraising sales. 

Given that Maria and Malek are avid collectors of contemporary Middle Eastern art, I’m curious to hear more about what’s on their walls. Maria admits with a smile that she has done plenty of analysing of their collection herself and arrived at some intriguing conclusions.

She explained that while the couple’s collection is existentialist at heart, it also reveals their differing tastes. “For example, Malek tends to gravitate towards big sculptures that are visceral, powerful pieces, while I’m drawn to poetic abstract art,” she said. “However, we’ve noticed an unplanned common denominator in that the pieces all explore themes related to the human condition, be it love, sex, pain, death or frailty, slotting into a common narrative like two sides of the same coin, which is really satisfying.”

She explained that her approach to collecting has evolved over the years, aligned with increased knowledge, changing tastes and maturity. “I would describe much of what we bought early on as colourful and quirky art by unknown artists, but it represented who we were then,” she said with a smile. “Like many collectors, we built on that, educating ourselves and exploring the story behind a work.”

With Pablo Del Val, artistic director of Art Dubai 2021

As a seasoned collector, she was more than happy to share a few tips with those of us just starting out. “Art that elicits a visceral response in you should be your starting point, so buy with your heart and eyes not with your ears,” she said. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot or be the work of a famous artist – rather, you have to love what you’re about to acquire.”

Asked about the art and artists she has her eye on right now, Maria cites the Lebanese artist Stephanie Saadé, shown at Marfa’ Projects in Beirut, whose work she describes as “simultaneously poetic and somewhat metaphorical”, alongside broader work coming out of Lebanon inspired by the unrest there. “I was born and raised in Beirut, witnessing the civil war and being forced to leave more than once, so themes of migration, displacement, belonging and identity are very close to my heart,” she said. “When I see works exploring those concepts, I react instantly to them. Marwan Rechmaoui’s thought-provoking depictions of Beirut and beyond, Fouad Elkoury’s powerful photos of destruction and Mona Hatoum’s work in which domestic objects are symbolically transformed are just a few examples that spring to mind.”

Maria believes that London provides an ideal and effective platform for Middle Eastern art, with the city’s cosmopolitan art scene sensitive and receptive to the complex and multi-layered issues faced by the region. “We know that diversity adds richness to the cultural landscape, bringing key issues to the fore, such as inclusivity and tolerance,” she said. “It might be a cliché, but it’s also a fact to be celebrated that as a universal language, art can transcend divisions and differences, allowing people to forge fruitful connections and fantastic friendships.” 

Maria Sukkar is co-chair and founding member of the Middle East and North Africa Acquisitions Committee (MENAAC) at the Tate and a member of the Middle Eastern Acquisition Committee (CaMMEA) at the British Museum. She is also a Trustee of the St Jude’s Cancer Center for Children in Beirut.

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