« There is a huge interest at the moment in work coming out of the continent which on first view is seen as geographically specific. However, if one really observes the artists and their output one realises that the visual narrative rather conveys a universal message. »
– Roubi L’Roubi
Founder of the Foundation Gallery – London (@fgcontemporary), Roubi L’Roubi has in recent years combined the role of collector with his new role of curator of African contemporary art. He curated in 2018 the exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery of Sudanese artists entitled ‘Forests and Spirits: Figurative Art from the Khartoum School’. In early 2019, he curated Bonham’s ‘Creative Currents of the Nile’ exhibition for its Spring sale. He is now presenting works by Egyptian and Sudanese artists in the forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s in October for Modern and Contemporary African Art.
Ana Welter : Roubi – I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your interest in Sudanese and African art and the journey it has taken you on to date. In particular:
How has your transition from collector to curator happened? Well, I’ve always been keen on contemporary art in general and in particular African art. Over the years I have amassed knowledge around the continent so when the opportunity presented itself to curate a show at the Saatchi Gallery in 2018, I was thrilled. What I really wanted to do was to share my knowledge of the region and especially the Sudan from the perspective of an observer rather than a particular academic perspective. I have now followed that through with the establishment of the Foundation Gallery with a focus on modern and contemporary African art.
What is so distinctive about African Contemporary art? There is a huge interest at the moment in work coming out of the continent which on first view is seen as geographically specific. However, if one really observes the artists and their output one realises that the visual narrative rather conveys a universal message. This is what international collectors connect with, whether the theme is figurative or abstract.
What was the inspiration behind the Forest and Spirits: Figurative Art from the Khartoum School exhibition held at the Saatchi Gallery last autumn? In the works of the three artists; Ibrahim El-Salahi, Kamala Ishaq and Salah Elmur, I observed a certain thread which all of the artists have referred to, which is the theme of the tree. Each artist uses the tree differently – Ibrahim’s work was a sculpture called the Meditation Tree. Kamala used the tree in her work depicting the Zar exorcism ceremony in the world of spirits and growth. Salah uses the tree as a reference point to a locality in the Sudan, the Sunut forest in the capital of Sudan – Khartoum.
Forests and Spirits was a landmark exhibition. What has been the reaction to the Saatchi Gallery exhibition? The Saatchi Gallery was a fantastic space to introduce this art to a more wide-ranging audience who would not necessarily come across African art. For me this was very exciting. For these Sudanese artists specifically it has been a tremendous recognition for the quality and authenticity of their work.
Art of the Sudan – how would you describe it? Over the more recent history of the country – from the last 250 years up until the 1960s – Islamic culture dictated what was permissible artistically. Calligraphy and abstraction were acceptable forms of art while figurative was not. Looking back to the ancient times, figurative was very much part of the ancient kingdoms of Kush. More recently all these disciplines have morphed into what we see and now recognise as Sudanese contemporary. This is evident in the work of Ibrahim El Salahi and Mohamed Otaybi, where calligraphy elements are used as building blocks in the image. This uniqueness in style positions Sudanese art right at the heart of the discourse in international contemporary art.
Following on from the Saatchi exhibition, you went on in Spring 2019 to curate the Bonhams’ ‘Creative Currents of the Nile’ which included Ethiopian artists. What was the defining feature of that exhibition? The Nile connects many African countries physically and culturally. The Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia are three such countries. In the auction, the Ethiopian works included a rare painting by the modernist master Skunder Boghossian as well as works by the younger artists Dawit Abebe and Ephrem Solomon. Works presented by Sudanese artists included some by El-Salahi as well as the ceramicist Siddig El Nigoumi and the painters Ahmed Shibrain and Hussein Shariffe – all pioneers of the Khartoum School. The international interest in the sale was very notable.
Tell me more about the Foundation Gallery London? The Foundation Gallery London facilitates entry to the international art market by collaborating with art institutions such as museums, auction houses and art foundations. Looking at the current art scene I thought there was a real need to set up an organisation which would act as platform to introduce established and emerging contemporary artists to the art market in London, New York and Paris. This also allows us to work with living artists and artist’s estates who miss out on the representation through the established channels.
The interest generated by the Saatchi show has meant that the Foundation Gallery has had a fantastic first year acting as a platform to showcase for collectors, both established and emerging artists of the region.
What are you currently working on for the autumn with the approaching Frieze season in London? This October we are presenting work by Egyptian and Sudanese artists in the forthcoming auction at Sotheby’s on 15 October for Modern and Contemporary African Art. This will include significant artists from the region. From Sudan, there will be pieces by the late painter and filmmaker Hussein Shariffe and the master painter Mohamed Otaybi. The work of Shariffe is more abstract whereas Otaybi’s work is a merging of figurative with calligraphy. From Egypt, the sale includes Fathi Afifi whose work concentrates on industrialisation and the relationship of the factory and the worker. At the other end of the spectrum, the work of Khaled Hafez depicts the ancient gods of Egypt morphing into today’s superheroes. In their different ways, these works are all a triumph of the imagination in representation.
Going forwards, what is your expectation for African art?
My expectation for African art is that it will consolidate its place in general as part of the offering of international contemporary art. This is already the case in many respects, but it will inevitably increase as these artists gain in international recognition.
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