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Dec / Jan 2012
A Radical Specialist

Writer: Nadine Khalil

Not even 30, Sotheby’s art specialist Lina Lazaar Jameel has already made a name for herself by pushing contemporary Arab art to the fore of the global art scene. 


When I started chatting with Lina Lazaar Jameel, I didn’t expect our discussion to begin with maths. “To me, life is about people trying to get as close as possible to a notion of truth,” she tells me in a part English, part French-inflected accent. Though Tunisian, she was born in Riyadh and raised in Geneva before moving to London for university. “Maths seems to be that absolute truth but we don’t even know if the concept of infinity is real, for instance. It’s merely the set of assumptions from which you begin. The same applies to the rules of painting.” 

I nod, but that’s not the end of this thread. “It’s as if artists know the truth, and they create a system of uncertainty around it. If maths says, ‘we’ll go as far as possible to reach the target’, then art says, ‘are you sure this is the target’? Art creates doubt over certainty and Maths, certainty over doubt. They are two takes on the same concept, kind of like parallel visions.” 

This is why she sees her work in the art industry as a natural extension of her studies in statistics at the London School of Economics, less disparate worlds than different lexicons. “Maths is a universal language,” she says. “History of art, however, is more Eurocentric in that our part of the world is often overlooked.”

While non-Western traditions haven’t historically been included in European and American teachings of modern art, it wasn’t just ideology that prompted Lazaar to pursue her interest in contemporary Arab art at Sotheby’s. Her father, Kamel Lazaar, was an investment banker and an avid collector who amassed artworks during trips around the region. She grew up around Arab artists who would visit and discuss their work around the dinner table, many of them modernists from the 1950s and 60s, who were slowly evolving into the cutting-edge.

Her father would have been thrilled if his daughter had decided to study history of art at 18 and was puzzled, though supportive, when she chose statistics instead. “He wondered why I wanted to go into something so painful,” she laughs, adding, “I thought maths was beautiful and would solve the world’s problems.”

However, her first job in a bank wasn’t what she’d hoped. “I was working on a spreadsheet one day,” she says, “and realised that my approach to statistics was much more romantic.” So she left. 

Offered an internship at Sotheby’s, though not interested in selling art, Lazaar accepted. She still isn’t sure why she was picked. “You should’ve seen me at the interview,” she jokes. “I had no idea how I could add value to Sotheby’s at the time.” Still, she was passionate about showing Middle Eastern art to the largest possible audience and realised that the auction house was the best medium. “There was nothing else on the map. Third Line gallery didn’t exist yet in Dubai, Townhouse in Cairo was non-profit and Rose Issa in London was active but working independently.” It was 2006 and she was just 23 years old. 

That year, she helped organise Sotheby’s Art of the Islamic World auction, then singlehandedly curated its first-ever auction of Arab and Iranian Contemporary art the following year. “Both modern and contemporary art are words coined to represent a part of the art world which isn’t ours,” she says, explaining that in Western terms, the period is taken as beginning after World War II, “yet Lebanon witnessed the birth of abstraction with Saloua Raouda Choucair.” The sculptor and painter is credited with holding the region’s first modern art exhibition in Beirut as early as 1947.

Lazaar believes that the label of ‘Arab’ contemporary art should be obsolete. “Why should we care where the artist Ahmed Soudani is from? He made it to the international arena, side by side with the works of Francis Bacon, Yves Klein and Andy Warhol in a 2010 Sotheby’s evening sale, so why would I call his work anything but art? Why should he be pigeonholed with contemporary Arab and Iranian auctions? It’s true that it wouldn’t be the same if we were working in Tunis or Baghdad; we are working in a foreign environment.”

So she is now working on both the level of discourse and location. In addition to the landmark pan-Arab exhibition, ‘The Future of a Promise’, that Lazaar curated at the last Venice Biennale, she has launched Ibraaz, an online publishing forum supported by the Kamel Lazaar Foundation. “This will open the horizon of critical discourse about ethnicity. Unless we have our own platform, we will always be categorised in this way. We need to challenge this and see how best to define ourselves.”

At the level of location, she’s still struggling to set up a contemporary art space in Tunisia, which Zaha Hadid designed nine years ago but which didn’t get an official go ahead. Now she says there’s heavy censorship, with the Nahda party hijacking arts and culture.

Her latest project is spearheaded by Fadi Jameel with Abdul Latif Jameel Community Initiatives. With Jeddah’s municipality, and Sotheby’s as cultural supporter, the goal is to promote what will be the largest outdoor sculpture park in the Arab world. “Jeddah has all these Henry Moore and Joan Miró sculptures from the late 1970s and 1980s. They were scattered throughout the city and along the Corniche. We will be restoring and repositioning them.”

As we reach the end of our discussion, Lazaar tells me that she’s now based between Jeddah and London. Not that this will slow her down. “Believe it or not,” she says “Europe is becoming a sterile environment for the contemporary art scene. I’m hoping to shake things up a bit in Saudi now.” With all she’s achieved so far, that much seems certain.

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