It was big news when William Lawrie stepped down from Christies to found a contemporary art gallery with Art Dubai’s Asmaa Al-Shabibi in 2010. Lawrie had put together the first nine Christie’s auctions in Dubai, essentially establishing a new market, so it is not surprising that, from the outset, Lawrie Shabibi had an ambitious programme, working with a wide range of artists including safe bets like Nabil Nahas alongside younger talents who demonstrated clear technical virtuosity, like Shahpour Pouyan and Nadia Kaabi-Linke. Lawrie Shabibi’s initial mission statement to ‘engage the public with art that imparts a cultural and political discourse together with a powerful aesthetic’ has remained true. Frequently commissioning curators to prepare exhibitions, write catalogue texts and moderate artist talks, participating in art fairs as far afield as Dallas Contemporary and Art Basel Hong Kong and supporting their artists with applications to biennials and sourcing funding for major projects, Lawrie Shabibi does it all.
Lawrie’s background is in Islamic Art, a field he is intensely passionate and knowledgeable about. Next month he leads a course on the subject organised by Art Experts +, the last session will discuss the legacy of the Islamic in western architecture and contemporary art. Lawrie makes connections between artworks produced across several millennia, and a natural consequence of this is that Lawrie Shabibi represents contemporary artists who share a deep-rooted appreciation of history and often the presence of arabesque patterning. This can appear in strikingly diverse modes, most noticeably in Asad Fauwell’s collaged paintings or Farhad Ahrania’s micro-mosaics but also in Nahas’ starfish or Pouyan’s Hoof series, Sheikha Al Mazrou’s organic, timeless sculptural forms or Nathaniel Rackowe’s geometric light installations.
Through presentations of artists such as Mona Saudi and the late Maliheh Afnan at the gallery and at Art Dubai Modern, there has been a clear pursuit in discovering forgotten regional greats from the 20th century. Thus the stage is set for a new type of exhibition: of artworks from under-exposed regional collections, to give a platform to artists who have sold at auction but have generated little scholarship or appreciation. Once such example is Lawrie Shabibi’s current exhibition, Early works by Massoud Arabshahi from the Azari Collection.
Lawrie struck up a friendship with Darius Azari, an LA photographer and nightclub founder, the heir to his parents significant holding of Iranian art collected between 1959-1964. Amounting to 300 works, the collection is comparable only to the Abby Weed Grey Collection at New York University and indeed with its depth of focus during such a critical time it is unique. During the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ a new generation of avant-garde artists emerged who shared a neo-traditionalist style, a modern aesthetic rooted in tradition. Artists such as Charles Hossein Zenderoudi and Parviz Tanavoli became defined as the Saqqa-khane group and they particularly interested Eric and Sheila Azari (Eric was a Russian/Iranian physicist from Tehran, Sheila an art historian originally from the deep South; they met while studying at Berkley in the 1950s) because of the relationship their works had with the ancient architecture and tribal iconographies visible at archeological sites across Iran.
Buying mainly works on paper from these artists who were still experimental students, the Azari’s were back in California by 1964 and hosting extravagant ‘Ishar’ salons in their Bel Air home. Their attempt to market the work to an American audience didn’t succeed and a catalogue of events such as the couple separating and Sheila’s premature death in 1998 meant that the works have sat silently for fifty years. A legal dispute over ownership has recently been resolved and Lawrie Shabibi is now advising on the future of the collection. “It has the potential to offer a unique snapshot of Iran,” Lawrie enthuses. “The possibilities are endless: academic exhibitions, more popular shows, presentations of the ancient Islamic art collection…its themes are didactic and urgent, showing the power of what art can do”.
The works in the exhibition are completely mesmerizing. The young Arabshahi has been caught in a moment of pure experimentation, at times an Iranian Pollock, at others closer to Basquiat, while maintaining a connection to his Persian roots. For the most part in excellent condition, they are executed with a range of cheap materials like metallic and industrial paint that in places spark off the picture plane like a firework. In their commissioned essays writers Ari Akkermans and Mahnaz Fancy identify cosmic undertones inspired by metaphysics and anthropomorphism as well as Iran’s pre-Islamic art and architecture. Fancy explains: “resembling primitive cave drawings as much as contemporary graffiti…they appear to radiate a mysterious and mystical wisdom that transcends time.”
The exhibition is an excellent example of why it is just as important to rediscover art of the recent past as it is to commission something new, a balance Lawrie Shabibi have always appreciated and placed at the core of their programming.
*All images courtesy of Lawrie Shabibi and The Azari Collection.