CAIRO: Egyptian artist Adam Henein died last year, leaving behind some of the country’s best-known monuments, the restoration of the Great Sphinx, as well as the feted Aswan International Sculpture Symposium, devoted to nurturing younger Egyptian sculptors.
But when curator Mona Khazindar met him in Cairo in 2016, Henein wanted to show her something different: his charcoal drawings, warm and intimate in scale. He asked her if she would do a book on them, and Khazindar agreed. But life and other projects got in the way, and when Henein died, the book project was still in doubt.
Khazindar, by that point, had left the Institut du Monde Arabe, and started working at the Saudi Ministry of Culture. Now, for the kingdom’s Misk Art Institute, she is editing a new series of books aimed at rectifying the paucity of scholarship on Arab artists called The Art Library: Discovering Arab Artists.
The first two volumes are on the seminal Saudi painter Abdulrahman Al Soliman and Henein, where his charcoal drawings will be shown for the first time.
Returning to Henein was, says Khazindar, “a promise I had to fulfil”.
The Art Library series will comprise three pairs of books per year, in English and Arabic: one on a Saudi artist and two on Arab artists. Modern art, such as by the heavyweights Al Soliman and Henein, will be a focus, as well as photography, contemporary art, calligraphy and other types of art practice.
“When I was at the Institut du Monde Arabe, we frequently saw that artists lacked documentation or archives. I became more and more convinced that it was necessary to document the artists and their work before it was too late,” says Khazindar, who became the first female director general at the Paris museum in 2011.
Through images, meticulous research, and commissioned essays, the open-ended series aims to answer that call. The Art Library is also being strategic in its approach. Each book will have two main essays, one written by an international critic and the other by a critic from the artist’s country or the Arab region. Misk are hoping that the international critic will help raise awareness about the artists beyond the region. And as for the Arab critic, they are hoping these books will have a knock-on effect.
“We don’t have lots of art critics in the Arab world because there is little tradition of public art discourse,” says Khazindar. “So the idea is to give opportunities, and little by little make a change.”
Iranian-British art specialist Roxane Zand and Iraqi writer Farouk Yousif wrote on Al Soliman, one of the pioneering Saudi artists who joined the famous Darat al Funun Al Saudia (Saudi School of Art), founded in 1979. There, he painted Cubist-inspired works, replete with voluminous forms, and later shifted into more abstract, more loosely painted and architectural canvases.
Appropriately for the start of this series, both Henein and Al Soliman contributed to the development of the art scene of their respective countries. Al Soliman wrote one of the few books on Saudi art history, The March of Saudi Art in 2000, and Henein donated his private art collection to Egyptto become a public museum.
Henein also has a long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Jeddah foundation Al Mansouria, run by Princess Jawaher bint Majid Al Saud, supported his work, and in 2005 they published a monograph on his work, also edited by Khazindar.
For Khazindar, the Art Library is necessary not only for understanding Arab culture but the region’s past.
“These artists documented history – the social and political upheavals of the time,” says Khazindar. “I am thinking of Egypt and the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, which different artists documented in their paintings, or political events, such as the 1967 War or the First Intifada. And they studied abroad, they came back, and they created their own identity. All this evolution and movement is necessary to document and how to understand where we are.”
The lack of documentation around Arab artists is compounded by the language divide, where the information that does exist is mostly in Arabic.
The Arab Library is one of a number of new initiatives seeking to overcome this separation between Arab culture and that of the West.
In 2010, NYU Abu Dhabi launched the Library of Arabic Literature, which commissions translations of important Arabic works into English, again in a standardised library format.
The 2018 volume Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents similarly issued English translations of key Arabic-language texts in Arab modern art history.
Misk contributed funding to the Modern Art book, which was done in association with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. As the art landscape in Saudi grows, Misk’s role is emerging as one of educational and artist support initiatives. For the launch of the library, Misk are hosting an exhibition of the work of Al Soliman and Henein, as well as the outcomes of the inaugural Masaha residency, a four-month mentorship programme for artists and curators in Riyadh.