x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Next year, London-based charity Magic of Persia celebrates its 10th anniversary of supporting Persian artists. We catch up with its founder Shirley Elghanian and find out why the UAE has been crucial to its success.

Magic of Persia founder Shirley Elghanian with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, who is the keynote speaker for the London-based charity's events in the UE. Courtesy Magic of Persia
Magic of Persia founder Shirley Elghanian with Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, who is the keynote speaker for the London-based charity's events in the UE. Courtesy Magic of Persia

An intricate combination of collage and text, Siah Armajani’s Bridge is Lot 34 in Magic of Persia’s forthcoming art auction. With a starting price of £15,000 (Dh88,000), it reflects the prestige of its Iranian-American creator, whose architectural and sculptural work is featured everywhere from the Guggenheim to the British Museum. Armajani’s piece is also neat shorthand for Magic of Persia’s enterprise, a charity which has, for almost 10 years, promoted Iranian art and culture around the world.

“It’s all about opening lines of communication, building bridges,” says its founder Shirley Elghanian. “Armajani’s work beautifully exemplifies this.”

The bridge metaphor doesn’t end there. The auction – held today to raise funds to pay for art scholarships, residencies and grants as well as assisting three humanitarian causes – actually goes under the name Bridge of Persia. It’s an impressive undertaking: contemporary artists from both Iran and the worldwide Iranian diaspora – as well as internationally recognised non-Iranian artists – have donated their work. And there are some big names alongside Armajani, including Saatchi Collection painter Ahmad Morshedloo, Leila Pazooki – dubbed “the Iranian Tracey Emin” – and The Huffington Post’s “Artist of the Decade”, Shirin Neshat.

And yet this auction, this charity and this commitment to Iranian art might never have happened without the drive of Elghanian or the involvement of the UAE.

“My intention was actually to help my children,” she says. “My daughter was one year old when the revolution happened in 1979, and my son was born in England 10 years later. I saw that unless there was something they could sink their teeth into, they would lose connection with their roots.

“There were very few charities that promoted Persian art and culture outside Iran. With all the wonderful things Iranian culture has to offer, it was a great opportunity. So I went for it.”

First, she called in a favour from an old school friend. And not any old school friend but Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, who currently heads the UAE Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Social Development.

“I’ve known him since we were in boarding school in 1970s London,” says Elghanian. “He’s a very dear friend and his generous support has always made us most welcome. I always had the feeling when we did events there that it was my home away from home – not only because of the closeness in culture but due to the proximity to Iran, as well.”

A patron since its conception, Sheikh Nahyan is the keynote speaker for Magic of Persia events in the UAE – at last year’s fund-raising auction at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, he noted that “our love for Persian art is inevitably a love for Persia itself – the spirit, the intelligence, the talent, the beauty of the people”.

And there is the sense that Sheikh Nahyan has fully bought into Magic of Persia’s belief that art can be an essential form of international communication, a way, via cultural dialogue, for us to dream of a more progressive, understanding world.

“Absolutely,” agrees Elghanian. “The cross-cultural exchange that takes place through our artist residencies and our contemporary art prize gives the opportunity for emerging Iranian artists to meet people from around the world. The relationships that are forged have a really beneficial impact.”

Best of all, the quality of work in Magic of Persia’s concurrent contemporary art prize (MOP CAP), which celebrates the next generation of Iranian visual artists, is a snapshot of a vibrant art scene.

“This year we had 700 applicants,” beams Elghanian. “And the more we have focused on the educational aspect of the prize – each winner receives a three-month residency at The Delfina Foundation and is assigned a curator and mentor – the more we have noticed that the submissions have become stronger.”

Whittling the entries down from 700 was no mean task, but the shortlist was announced at Art Dubai in March with an accompanying exhibition at Emirates Financial Towers. The winner is announced at Bridge of Persia today, with all seven finalists’ works displayed at the Royal College of Art in London for a week. With artists from Germany, the UK, Canada and Iran, it’s certainly a global prize.

“Our mission is to build bridges of appreciation and understanding between Iran and the rest of the world,” nods Elghanian.

• Bridge of Persia is at the Royal College of Art, London today. The MOP CAP exhibition continues at the same venue until October 19. Visit www.magicofpersia.com

artslife@thenational.ae