What is it about art that draws us towards it? And what is it about art that compels us to hang it on our walls? An obvious answer is aesthetics — the human eye naturally veers towards all things beautiful. But the purpose of art is not simply to be easy on the eyes. It can also compel us to reflect, introspect, contemplate and question. The journey we as spectators have with art is a silent one, but not without meaning. And this is adequate reason to collect art. As we enter Sleem Hasan’s residence near World Trade Centre, we cannot help but feel we have entered a private museum. Every wall in this house has a story to tell — stories that emerge from the artworks adorned on them and why the artists chose to paint what they did. Take, for instance, a piece by Sharon Lutchman, a South Africa-born Indian artist, who the global financial entrepreneur met in 1988 at an event in London, where he had been based then. One of her pieces were being auctioned and Hasan made a bid for it at 500 pounds when the hammer went down. Learning more about Lutchman’s works was learning more about Lutchman herself. One of her artworks, Ruby of Dreams, that still hangs in the Hasan residence is a work that might as well have been a premonition, given that the artist was known to paint her dreams. “What actually surprised me — bordering on freaking out — was the content of that painting. There is a little parody on Uncle Sam; she calls it Uncle Jam. And she has numbers 11 and 9 bang at the centre of that painting. The year is 1999, mind you. Post-2001, I asked her what was going on in her mind and she told me, ‘I cannot talk about it.’ Until today, I don’t know what triggered her to do this work.”
Hasan’s eclectic collection is peppered with such anecdotes. For instance, right next to the dining area there is a work by Tunisian artist Mounir Letaief. “What really drew me to the painting was the style,” says Hasan. “When he finishes a painting, he takes a bucket of water and splashes it on to the painting, which smudges. When it dries, it becomes the artist’s final work.”
Hasan and his wife Lamia are avid art collectors. But what stands out is the sheer diversity and range in the collections. This might have something to do with the fact that Hasan, a British citizen of Pakistani origin, spent his formative years in Nigeria, which meant a lot of his early memories were influenced by African culture, art and music. It wasn’t until the age of 18 that he moved to the UK for higher education that more Western influences began to inform his choices in art. “I acquired my first piece of art in 1985 when I was visiting New York on work. I bought a couple of lithographs by contemporary American artist James Rosenquist. Later, when I met my wife Lamia, I discovered that she too had an interest in art. Mine was perhaps more global because of my background and hers was more subcontinental because that’s where she grew up. Together, we created a nice blend.” The couple also see the idea of collecting art from different places they visit as a souvenir. “All different artworks together become memories of our visit to a new country. I call it the sandstorm effect. There is only one way in which you get hit by a sandstorm, you have to stand inside it. You want to know more about Fiji, you have to go there and learn.”
Art, however, is also a way of society talking about itself, and Hasan recognises and celebrates this aspect of art. “What an artist is trying to tell you is more important. Jamil Naqsh, for instance, has an imagery of pigeons flying, which indicates freedom. One remains curious about why artists do what they do. Why did M.F. Husain paint the way he did? Art brings out all that’s good and bad about society,” he says. While Hasan and Lamia have amassed a robust collection, over the years the former remembers selling only one work because “my wife and I couldn’t see eye-to-eye on that one painting”.
In the hallway of the house, there is a painting by Pakistani artist Shahid Jalal. Family connection, says Hasan, is one of the main reasons why the work enjoys a pride of place at home. “We are Mantos from our father’s side, which means we are linked to the late writer Saadat Hasan Manto. He was declared a heretic back then because he was very vocal about social ills in the society. Today, he is a household name. Shahid Jalal, who has painted Baag-E-Jinnah (one of the popular gardens in Lahore) is married to Manto’s daughter. His father and my late father were first cousins. This is why I have a soft spot for his work.”
Ask him if he has ever forged a personal bond with any of the artists whose works adorn his residence, and Hasan points to an astoundingly beautiful artwork on interfaith dialogue, titled The Dialogue, made by Ralph Heimans, a British-Australian artist he met in 2001 in London. When he saw his portfolio for the first time, he commissioned him to do his own painting. “When I saw his portfolio — and I am a layman, mind you — I couldn’t tell the difference between a Rembrandt, Caravaggio and him. That style, which they refer to as chiaroscuro, is an artist’s way of capturing shades of light. In Ralph’s case, that style was just outstanding.”
Upon moving to Dubai, it was proposed that Hasan would represent Heimans in the region. One of the first commissions Heimans worked on was a painting a non-Emirati client wanted on interfaith dialogue, which gave birth to the idea behind The Dialogue, in 2005. “Ralph came up with this image. The setting is Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It is sacrosanct to three Abrahamic faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The image got approved and later he did an oil on canvas work. But when Ralph flew down to hand over the work, the client did a volte-face and we returned his money. While I was not contractually obliged, I decided to acquire the painting. And last year, it acquired a different meaning because of what happened with the historic Abraham Accords.”
In the pre-pandemic days, there was romance associated with art collection, where one could visit spaces where it would be sold, take a careful look and absorb the work in a more tactile way. Covid-19 has changed that. The emergence of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) is a testament to that. But Hasan looks at this new trend from the mathematical prism that he applies to his profession as a financial entrepreneur. “In art, there are different shades of grey. Ditto for the business of art. First, Covid increased the prices of contemporary artists; if an artist is alive, he will authenticate and verify the work for you. Second, NFTs are an interesting asset class that technology has enabled and because it’s non-fungible, it means you cannot convert it from one form to another. It needs to be put on blockchain. Will it replace oil-on-canvas artists? No. Can both co-exist? Absolutely. Could one command a bigger market share? Time will tell. Technology trends are best assessed when they stand the test of time.”
Regionally, however, Hasan feels that as the middle class grows, so will the circle of art collectors. “My kids are now going to a school where they’re taught Van Gogh. When you educate people and create awareness, they develop an interest.”
An age-old debate in the art world is if an evocative piece of work should belong to a public space for mass consumption or someone’s home. Even as he collects art, Hasan is aware that a work like The Dialogue deserves a broader space, especially in the light of Abraham Accords. He says he has even offered it to be placed in a public space. “I feel that painting is not doing justice on my wall,” he says. “It should be in a public space.”
Thus far, Hasan’s yardstick for acquiring artworks has been simple — the eye has to like it and the pocket has to afford it. “Story, style and substance”, in Hasan’s words, are key. “All art needn’t cost multimillion dollars,” he says. “That’s why discovering new artists at affordable price points is important. Once you go into digital asset classes of art, fractional ownership may happen. Which means you don’t have to be writing a million dirham cheque but write a thousand dirham cheque and have small ownership of something you like. This is why technology is important because it democratises investing.”
So does art make for a good investment, after all? “If you buy a stock and it goes up, you sell it. Art can become investment because its value tends to appreciate. Twenty years ago, when I asked Ralph (Heimans) to do my portrait it was based on two factors — I’d liked his work and I could afford it. Today, I may not be able to do that easily,” says Hasan. “My principle is to find hidden gems of tomorrow today.”
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