20 minutes with: prolific art collector Mohammed Afkhami

As the founder of Dubai-based investment giant Magenta Capital Partners, Mohammed Afkhami knows the art of dealing. And as a voracious collector, he also knows the art market. Now, the highlights of his collection of 600 pieces form the basis of a new exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York.

“Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians — The Mohammed Afkhami Collection” features 23 artists – all of Iranian descent – whose work “explores topics such as gender identity, war and peace, politics and religion, and spirituality “. according to a museum statement. Eleven of the artists still live in Tehran; the others are spread across North America and Europe.

Afkhami, 46, takes their art personally. Born in Switzerland, he lived in Tehran until the 1979 revolution, when his family returned to Europe. “My maternal grandfather had a collection of Islamic art of 20,000 pieces, one of the largest in the world,” he says. Penta. “After the revolution, a large part was nationalized. ”

Today, thanks to his own collection, Afkhami has become a leading champion of Iranian art. The content of the show, which took place in Toronto and Houston, may surprise the uninitiated, he says. “The work goes through so many media: ceramic, photography, mirror, fiberglass, collage,” he says. “And issues like gender equality arise, which is not exclusive to the United States”

The show runs from May 8, 2022.

Crowned among the top 200 international collectors in the world by Artnews, Afkhami lives between Dubai, New York and London, where he is also vice president of real estate investment firm London Strategic Land. He spoke to Penta from Southampton, NY

PENTA: The title of the show, “Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians”, is evocative. What does this mean to you?

Mohammed Afkhami: “Persians” has been used by everyone from Greeks to Brits to refer to Iran’s glorious past. There is irony in this. The rest of the title reflects aspects of Iranian art itself. “Rebel” refers to subtle critiques of the system in Iran. “Mystic” is about artists who draw inspiration from Sufi and spiritual influences. “Poet” reflects elements taken from the history of literature in Iran. And “Jester” refers to slightly critical parts of the series, but in a fun way.

What is the biggest misconception you have come across about Iranian art or artists?

People have a rather dark image of militant Islam with Arabic calligraphy, that is, they even think Iran has art. What they find instead is creativity and versatility.

For someone who is just starting to explore the world of Iranian art, or who plans to collect, which emerging artists would you like to highlight?

I would recommend [Tehran-based artists] Nazgol Ansarinia, Alireza Dayani, Morteza Ahmadvand and Shahpour Pouyan, who are all in the series. There are a bunch of artists in the thousands in single digits who have a huge track record in terms of career and price. Renowned galleries like Gagosian and Lehmann Maupin now have Iranian artists in their stables. And over the past 15 years, established museums from Pompidou to LACMA to Tate have set up acquisition committees to purchase art from Iran and the greater Middle East. There is a growing audience.

What do you want people to take away from this show?

I have a simple wish: that they leave thinking that Iran is a country of contradictions. I hope people will come away with a more optimistic alternative view of Iran. It is a complex place. If people actually buy Iranian artwork, it’s a home run.

What is the first piece of art you bought?

It was a random event. I was in Iran in 2004, on a short visit to see my father and family. A friend took me to see contemporary art galleries in northern Tehran. There were two artists whose work resonated with me—[abstract painter] Sirak Malkonian and [contemporary artist] Mahsood Arabshahi. I asked how much their labor cost. Iranian currency had so many zeros and I was so conditioned to Western prices. My friend said, ‘No, 500,000 tomans is US $ 500. ‘ So I bought both.

When buying art, are you guided by your instincts or by investment measures?

It was all instinctive. Over time, and as my collection grows, it has become more tactical, but not for the purpose of enriching myself. Along the way, I came across some western art dealers who tried to convince me that it was folly to buy Iranian art with no liquidation value. So I bought Western artists that I liked, but with advisers.

These artists included Kusama, Serra, Kapoor, Gormley, the living icons of today. They served as a large hedge. The promotion of these works allowed me to be more aggressive on the Iranian front. On a cost basis, the value of the fundraising has been maintained. Iranian work probably appreciated too, but it’s harder to know. But I don’t see it as a financial asset. It’s more of a floating ambassador project.

What about a private museum, at the Rubell Where Glenstone?

I like this idea, but I’m a tough pragmatist. It is more important than anything to have as many eyeballs as possible on the collection. And there are sustainability issues. People don’t think about what you need to run a private museum for 30, 40, 50 years. What we do now keeps the art there, moving and relevant.

How is the contemporary art scene in Iran?

It’s mushroomed. When I first bought there in 2004, there were only six galleries. Now there are something like 150 of them, and they are such an important feature in Iranian society. Despite the difficulties the country faces, the fervor for its own works of art is quite impressive.

Since you are acting as a de facto art ambassador, are you thinking of promoting other aspects of Iranian culture?

I am. The next phase will concern literature and food. Iranian literature is amazing. Some of the world’s great philosophers and poets are from Iran, think Rumi, Omar Khayyam or Hafez. People quote them constantly, often without realizing that they are from Iran. And our food is one of the best cuisines on the planet. There is also commercial potential. Our fancy stews wouldn’t lend themselves to fast food, but an Iranian kebab will give any burger a hard time.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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