Shafik Gabr’s Woodley Park home is filled with paintings once written off as paternal, even racist, images of the Middle East as seen through the eyes of 19th-century European artists — a world of daring snake charmers, menacing harem guards and exotic women.
But Gabr, a restless Egyptian industrialist who keeps three iPhones and a BlackBerry stacked on a desk in front of him, sees something else. He regards Orientalist painters such as Charles Wilda, Johann Discart, John Frederick Lewis and Jean-Leon Geromeas intrepid early globalists who put themselves at risk to document a new world opened by Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition from 1798 to 1801. They have compelled him to launch an initiative to improve East-West understanding.
“I have been inspired by these painters,” said Gabr, chairman of the ARTOC Group for Investment and Development, a conglomerate with interests in energy, real estate, consumer products and media. “These people traveled under very difficult circumstances with no knowledge of what to expect. They didn’t travel to conquer or find oil. They traveled to discover and to understand.”
Gabr, 6o, listed by Forbes as one of Africa’s 20 richest men (net worth, $720 million), has amassed perhaps the world’s leading private Orientalist collection, most of which he keeps in his principal home, a palatial villa in the Mokattam Hills above Cairo.
But Gabr’s story is more than one of another rich guy excited by the paintings he has collected. It is about the intersection of art, politics and national identity. Orientalism, condemned by literary critic Edward Said in his landmark 1978 book as an erotically charged European obsession with a brown and black “other,” is now viewed by Gabr and other wealthy Middle East collectors as a valuable, if imperfect, set of dispatches from a past that is worth saving.
Art historian Emily M. Weeks, an expert on 19th-century British visual culture, said Gabr and others who collect Orientalist works are engaged in “a reappropriation” of regional identity. They are also part of what she calls an “instaculture,” powered by oil riches, that have led to the new $800 million branch of the Guggenheim under construction on an island off Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, and a Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
“They want to take it back and have it for themselves,” said Weeks, who is working on a book about Lewis, the British painter who traveled to Cairo in 1841 and remained there for 10 years, doing nearly 600 watercolors and drawings. “I think they see in this art a kind of nostalgia for a world that is fast disappearing.”
She said the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, energized the genre’s revival. “After 9/11, there was a real interest around the world in how the Middle East was portrayed,” Weeks said. “People began to look at this art not as exclusively derogatory but more complicated, a view of how people saw the Middle East then.”
It means that Orientalist paintings, once a commercial backwater, are now among the hottest properties in the international art market. The French Orientalist Gerome’s “The Negro Master of the Hounds,” which sold for $50,000 in 1980, commanded $1.6 million in 2011 at a Christie’s auction. Lewis’s “The Mid-Day Meal, Cairo” drew $4.4 million in 2005.
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