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Inaugural show at Bassam Freiha Art Foundation seeks to ‘reclaim the Orientalist narrative’

ABU DHABI: There has been a boom in cultural offerings in the UAE’s capital which now includes the newly-opened Bassam Freiha Art Foundation, named after the veteran Lebanese patron, that houses a collection of Orientalist artwork as well as a number of Arab works.

The foundation in the Saadiyat Cultural District will offer art education and panel discussions, support emerging talent, and invite private collectors to display their collections.

The district is already home to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and upcoming projects including Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Zayed National Museum and the Natural History Museum.

There has been a boom in cultural offerings in the UAE’s capital which now includes the newly-opened Bassam Freiha Art Foundation, named after the veteran Lebanese patron. (Supplied)

Freiha has collected about 50 Orientalist artworks and previously opened a gallery, called Mathaf, in London in 1976, to showcase some of them. Orientalist art was largely produced by 19th century European artists who portrayed segments of Asian and Middle Eastern societies in a highly stylized and romanticized manner.

“This foundation is the first and only private art foundation in Abu Dhabi,” Michaela Watrelot, director of exhibitions at the BFAF, told Arab News. “Mr. Freiha was building his collection over the past 50 years. He is really captivated by the beauty of Orientalist art and his interest was sparked by museum visits, literature and his personal creativity leading to a deep appreciation for art,” she said.

‘Odalisque’ (undated) by Rudolf Ernst is part of the Bassam Freiha Collection. (Supplied) 

“The idea of bringing his personal collection out to the public was long-lasting and he was looking for the right approach,” Watrelot added. “First, he wanted to open his private home and welcome people to see his collection, but then following the guidance of the UAE leadership, he was actually encouraged to bring the collection to the Saadiyat Cultural Island.”

Opened to the public in early March, the foundation’s inaugural exhibition is called “Echoes of the Orient” and showcases a selection of paintings of harems, lounging odalisques and Arab-inspired architecture created by, among others, French artists Rudolphe Ernst (1854-1932), Leon Comerre (1850-1916) and Paul Leroy (1860-1942).

The exhibition also features works on loan by Arab artists including Lebanon’s Habib Srour (1860-1938), the UAE’s Abdul Qader Al-Rais (born in 1951) and Lebanese painter Cesar Gemayel (1898-1958).

Water Bearer II (2019) by Sama Alshaibi. (Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery)

“The exhibition aims to reclaim the Orientalist narrative by juxtaposing Western portrayals with works on loan by Arab modernists and 19th century Orientalist photography; hoping to catalyze a meaningful West-East dialogue about the Orientalist movement, fostering a deeper understanding of cultural exchange,” said Watrelot.

Black-and-white photographs of women from the region are part of the exhibition. “The inclusion of 19th century Orientalist photographs offers a unique visual journey, transporting visitors back to the era of artist travelers,” according to a statement published by the BFAF.

“These photographs not only complement the painted works but also provide a more grounded, albeit still romanticized and stylized, representation of the East. They act as a visual bridge between the Orientalist fantasies captured on the paintings and the realities as viewed through the lens of Western photographers.”

A standout aspect of the foundation is its modern, pointed architecture, with large glass windows. Surrounded by water, the tranquil venue, designed by architect Rasha Gebran, accommodates a sculpture garden.



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