insight - Dalya Islam

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Occupation - Sotheby's Deputy Director of the Middle East Department.

With a personal passion for Islamic art, Dalya Islam of Sotheby's auction house is shining a spotlight on contemporary artists who are keeping the tradition of Arabic calligraphy alive.


Working at Sotheby’s, the oldest international auction house in the world, for the past seven years, Dalya Islam has seen many ancient and historic treasures as deputy director of the Middle East Department. Yet, her interest lies in the contemporary incarnations, particularly the representation and unique interpretation of calligraphy by modern artists, drawing their influences from over a millennium of Arabic script.


Sotheby’s latest sale, scheduled for December 16 in Doha, is devoted to calligraphy and the written word, much to Dalya’s delight. A graduate in Islamic art from Edinburgh University, Dalya has always had a special interest in this field. “I’m half-Saudi, half-English, so I’ve grown up having a fascination with this culture, because I’m always comparing one to the other. So that’s what really led me into studying Islamic history in the first place.”


Through her studies she realised that “art is a manifestation of what is going on politically, economically, and socially at any point in history. That’s how I began studying Islamic art. And then I came to Sotheby’s Islamic Art Department and we decided to do contemporary Middle Eastern sales.”


Building on calligraphy’s rich and epic past, Dalya noticed how modern artists were paying homage to their heritage by adding Arabic writing to their works. “I was always conscious of the fact that calligraphy was getting a raw deal, in that it’s still a hugely collectible sector of the arts market, and very highly valued by Middle Eastern collectors, but still not receiving the attention it deserves, as it’s not necessarily considered to be contemporary. And I think that’s really a shame.”


While this form of writing might seem old-fashioned in the eyes of some, Dalya points out, “Calligraphy isn’t necessarily about the medium of the written word, per se, but it’s driven by the concept behind it. That’s entirely what early Qur'anic calligraphy was about… The early Kufic leaves from the 8th century were extremely stylised and difficult to read because the authors didn’t really want you to read it; they wanted you to actually consider the higher power, the fact that it’s come from God and what does that mean and what does that represent. The fact that you can’t get your head around God means that you couldn’t be able to read his message, so it is really driven by the concept.”


This concept is still driving the calligraphic art of today, in a variety of new and fresh mediums, attracting new types of buyers. “You don’t need to speak Arabic or Persian to appreciate a painting’s qualities, the technique, the appearance, the beauty of it, and also the power of it,” notes Dalya. “In some cases, there is – of course – the meaning of the word, the message itself. This could tie in with poetry or faith, which adds another dimension, but I don’t think it takes away from the piece if you don’t understand it.”


As a result, Middle Eastern collectors and bidders from abroad are showing a renewed interest in Arabic calligraphy, so Sotheby's Dalya Islam and her team were able to put together a landmark auction of calligraphies – the first of its kind by an international auction house – labouring for months to bring together a worthy collection of pieces from the region. “We had a series of sales in Doha last year, but this is the first time we’ve ever done a sale like this, involving calligraphy,” says Dalya.


A recent Sotheby's auction of contemporary Arab and Iranian art, held in October 2010, was a huge success, achieving a top estimate of US$5 million, while Sotheby's Islamic art sale, also in October, achieved a record high of US$40.3 million. “Same with every sale, you have to start looking for materials and putting feelers out six months before, talking with people, negotiating with people, and those conversations are ongoing for months, right up until you press ‘go’ on the catalogue,” Dalya explains.


Gathering together artists of many nationalities – 21 from Iran, seven from the Gulf including Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, and 38 from other countries around the globe, Dalya says: “Many of these artists have sold before in sales, and others I know from my travels in the region. We use our own eyes, our knowledge of the market, and our knowledge of our clients to ensure we’re presenting the most interesting works by these calligraphers.”


She adds, “We wanted to show the wide range of material that’s out there – there’s a neon piece forming a word, an aluminium installation, a huge sculpture, and we have paintings, both monumental and manageable sizes, as well as photographs that include the words, and we have graffiti pieces. What we’re trying to show is that the word and calligraphy are not obsolete; it’s still very relevant.”


The estimated price tags at Sotheby's auctions suit a variety of budgets, too. Some starting at US$4,000, all the way up to Ali Omar Ermes’ 1993 piece The Fourth Ode, an acrylic on paper mounted on canvas, with an estimate of US$250,000 to US$350,000.


Meanwhile, as a specialist in Islamic art, Dalya concluded that “Doha seemed a great place to do this, and it’s the right time…I don’t want calligraphy to be by-passed and there’s a lot of people who want it; there’s a demand for this.” From the intricately styled dots and sweeping brush strokes, to the sublimely simple designs with long, smooth lines, Arabic calligraphy is vivid and visual – conveying a thousand words, sharing a message, conveying a concept, and sometimes depicting an image within the words themselves. “Definitely, there’s something for everyone, whether your taste is minimalist or opulent. There are calligraphers out there depending on whatever side of the coin you land on,” says Dalya.


“For instance, there’s a wonderful painting by Sadequain, an artist who was born and raised in Pakistan, and rebelled against the tradition of calligraphy. Originally the craft was passed down from teacher to student, for generations; yet he broke away from that and came up with something entirely new. His work was really mind-blowing for the Pakistanis around him, as he didn’t just write the words, he described the concept with the calligraphy, too.”


One of Sadequain's pieces, called Surah Al-Rahman, which was valued at US$60,000 to US$80,000 by Sotheby's prior to the Doha sale, depicts a verse from the Qur'an and “rather than just writing in the beautiful style of the Ottoman period, he actually painted the words, separating the verse by a ‘high wall’ constructed from the words themselves,” explains Dalya. “It's completely extraordinary, pictorially and calligraphically. Sadequain did something completely different, and it’s amazing. And in Pakistan, Arabic is not the spoken language at all. But, ironically, he’s been emulated over and over and over by his Pakistani peers, and that’s exactly what he didn’t want to happen!”


Heralding a new era, harking back to the heyday when calligraphy, and those who practised the craft, flourished in Istanbul under the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Doha auction even put an Ottoman piece on the block – The Ninety-Nine Names of God, dated 1276 AH/1859 AD, and carrying an estimate of US$50,000 to US$70,000. “Originally, the Ottoman calligraphers were considered the pinnacle of this art form, but since then, through new developments, we’ve seen calligraphers changing the face of calligraphy. Whether driven by faith, spirituality, suffering, conceptual, or artistic vision.”


Dalya says that, for her, this is what it’s all about. “This is one of the reasons I really wanted to do the sale; I don’t want people to forget what there is on our doorstep – there are some fantastic calligraphers making some really relevant art. I hope it will encourage people to continue to practise, and continue to invest in Islamic culture.”


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