The art of inter-generational acumen

Ahmad Minkara talks to Kamiar Maleki about how a combination of family wisdom and personal innovation paved the way for him to evolve from young collector to successful curator and art fair director

A cursory glance at the list of art collected by Kamiar Maleki and his parents over the decades reveals it to be as varied as, and perhaps reflective of, the countries through which they travelled when fleeing Iran on the cusp of the Revolution there.

That journey took them through France, Germany, USA and Austria before they finally arrived in the UK in the early 1980s. This may well help to explain Maleki’s parents interest in the Young British Artists (YBA) movement, with works by painters such as Chris Ofili, Daminen Hirst and Phillida Barlow featured in his collection.

Stepping back, it’s evident that collecting is in the DNA of Maleki’s family. “My maternal grandfather, Amir Aslan Afshar, collected antiques,” he explained. A career diplomat, Afshar was the Shah’s chief of staff and master of ceremonies of the Royal Court. He was also the son in law of Mohamed Saeed the prime minister under Reza Shah in 1930s. 

Fast forward a generation and the art collected within the family had taken a very different turn, as Maleki explained. “My parents started collecting Flemish, Dutch, and German masters from the 16th to the 18th century,” he said.

It was Eskandar Maleki’s cousin - the renowned Iranian architect Kamran Diba – who convinced them to begin collecting contemporary art. “Kamran was an avid collector of contemporary art himself and felt that my parents should collect more contemporary art ,” Maleki said.

Not knowing much about contemporary art Kamiar’s mother Fatima took art courses at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, where she found herself drawn towards post-war contemporary art such as Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, with a finger-painting by the latter from the 1970s having pride of place in his collection. 

After he left college, Maleki’s parents provided him and his brother, Shahriar, with a small art fund-initiative, although it came with specific rules that proved to be well thought through. 

“We both had to research artists and make a convincing argument for investing in a specific work, regularly presenting our findings to our father,” he explained. “It was a very clever way of getting us to learn more about art, the art market and how to build a collection.” 

Maleki’s first acquisition was from a Japanese photography artist from Museum 52 Gallery in London, with more pieces showing a varied taste, soon following. He ended up buying works from Ged Quinn, Oscar Murillo, Ida Ekblad and Neil Beloufa and now has over 80 pieces in his varied collection.

As both his collection and knowledge grew, curation inevitably beckoned, leading to an inaugural show at the Ronchini Gallery in London in 2015. Titled ‘Hashtag Abstract’, it not only marked Maleki’s inaugural curation, but was also the first show in the world on how to research and buy art on Instagram.  The show was received to critical acclaim, eliciting reviews from the Financial Times, among others, which, in an article titled ‘E-appreciation thru Instagram’ described how “the photo-sharing platform is becoming the forum of choice across the art world”. Gallerist Charles Saatchi bought two pieces after visiting the show, while David Hannah of the BBC was so impressed that he invited Maleki on to his show to talk about art. A second, successful show followed in 2016, titled ‘Desert Octade’ at Custot Gallery in Dubai. “It was this show (Hashtag Abstract) that I believe cemented my career of an art professional,” he said.

In the fall of 2016, Ali Guleri, Chair of Contemporary Istanbul (CI), asked Maleki to become an investor in the art fair. In response, Maleki said he would prefer to take on the more proactive role of fair director at CI. Surrounded by a strong team, he set out with a target to gain CI a top 10 fairs in the world ranking, spending one week a month in Istanbul to focus on reaching his goal. “My aim was to go beyond the commercial fair,” he said. “We achieved this in many ways, from creating the CI Arts Association fund, which was tasked with setting up residencies and art scholarships all over Turkey, to making art accessible to everyone. We also provided a gallery support program, which was replicated throughout the art fairs internationally It was important to me that we should educate people about art without patronizing them.” The stats for the show certainly seem to be in Maleki’s favour, with the art fair – the 12th  edition – attracting over 80,000 visitors and bringing 73 galleries in from more than 25 cities, showcasing 1500 artworks. 

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