Sheikha Lulu Al Sabah of Kuwait speaks about her mission to create a truly international art scene in the Gulf region.
'This isn't a career - it's my life'
"With this piece," says Sheikha Lulu Al Sabah, "they misunderstood that my limit was KD17,500 (Dh223,000) and it was originally KD30,000 (Dh382,500). And they put it down." She flips on through her catalogue, passing from a Roya Akhavan kaleidoscope painting to a 1978 Mohammad Rawas bikini girl. "This is a very important piece," she adds. "This is the last time he worked in this style... This is in his private collection. It took a lot of negotiation for me to get this piece." And if anyone's in a position to negotiate, it's the Sheikha.
This week her new art consultancy business, JAMM, will hold Kuwait's first contemporary-art auction. She and her partner Lydia Limerick, the former head of Christie's Middle East, acquired 55 pieces of art from across the Middle East, setting themselves a ceiling of KD17,000 (Dh217,000) per piece. In all but a few cases the sellers were the artists themselves. Celebrities such as Nabil Nahas and Ramin Haerizadeh supplied characteristic works. Emerging artists such as Oussama Baalbaki took the opportunity to showcase their talents.
"I didn't market this as a charity auction because that implies that the works were donated by the artists, which is not the case," Sheikha Lulu says. "But 30 per cent of the proceeds do go to a charity that I personally support which is the Kuwait Society for the Protection of Animals and their Habitat. What I'm supporting is specifically environmental - cleaning the beaches." JAMM's wider goal might be called environmental in a different sense. Sheikha Lulu wants to use the connections she has made as an art writer and Christie's auctioneer to help develop the Middle East's artistic ecosystem. "It's growing with great speed but I think there's a lot of gaps as well," she says. "I'm working to fill in those gaps, and I think there's a demand for many more people like us to do the same." JAMM, she explains, will represent artists, "but not in a competitive way... We work with all the players in the art world".
Part of the Sheikha's goal is to foster links between the eastern and western art worlds. "It has to be an exchange. It's not about exporting the art from here to there," she says. "We can operate across boundaries, so if it's Middle East artists we can do a show for them in London or New York... Or vice versa: bring western artists to the Middle East and expose them in that way." She also wants to see her country's own art scene return to its heights of before the Iran-Iraq war. "Kuwait had quite a vibrant arts scene in the 1960s and 1970s," she says, "and it went pretty stagnant around the 1980s." To help remedy this, she has included a number of Kuwaiti artists in her auction catalogue, venerable figures such as Shurooq Amin and Fadhel al Abbar. "For artists to reach the international stage they need to have local patrons," she says. "That's why I really hope Kuwaitis will support their artists during this auction."
The context seems auspicious however. Increasing dynamism within the Gulf's art market, plus heavy investment by governments in the UAE and Qatar, both give cause for hope. "I'm very optimistic about the contemporary art market in the region," she says. "The goal is to make it mainstream, like western or European art." For Sheikha Lulu, western art isn't only mainstream; it's what she was raised on.
"My mother's from New York, and she is the one who introduced me when I was a kid to this world of art, because she loves it across the board," Sheikha Lulu explains. "I inherited this love from her, this passion from her." A history master's at Birkbeck College in London introduced the Sheikha to the Bloomsbury group - "Vanessa Bell, and Duncan Grant - and I just kept going more towards the arts."
She started contributing to Canvas magazine and Eastern Art Report. "That's how I started flexing my muscle in terms of art writing," she says, "which is extremely difficult, and a skill in itself." At around the same time she began working for the auction house Christie's, and then for Phillips de Pury. "I don't really see it as a career because it's something that I really love to do," she says.
"Because the market here is so small, you know everybody. The important thing is to work together. I don't believe in this whole competition thing, I really don't. Never did." The JAMM auction will take place at the Al Corniche Club in Kuwait today.