Responsible Future

The future of the art world could be closer than we think

In Conversation with Mohammed Afkhami

The future of the art world could be closer than we think

Mohammed Afkhami was just four years old when the 1979 Islamic Revolution swept across Iran, forcing his family to leave their home country. He wasn’t to return until 2002, when he visited, now as a senior executive at Standard Bank. ‘It was an emotional experience,’ he says, recalling those first moments after stepping off the plane. ‘When you come back to your country of origin, you instantly know you’re from that place. It’s sort of a smell in the air and a feel that you have, and I never felt like that anywhere else.’

He had, in fact, taken that job with the Johannesburg-based bank, because of its links in the Middle East and North Africa. ‘I always had this yearning for being closer to the Middle East, especially Iran,’ he explains. ‘The reason why I joined [Standard Bank] was that they had an office in Dubai, an office in Tehran, an office in Tripoli, Libya.’ He ended up in a senior position covering the whole region and, just as he had hoped, was able to travel to Iran with increasing regularity.

Then, as in any good story, fate intervened and altered the course of Mohammed’s life. Two years after his first trip back to the country of his birth, he still only had surface knowledge of Tehran. ‘My trips were always short – like 48 hours, 72 hours,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really get the chance to get to know the country.’ But then, on one of these short trips, he had a problem with his passport that forced him to stay grounded for over two weeks. He began to explore a little deeper and, thanks to a thoughtful friend’s recommendations, discovered Tehran’s booming contemporary art scene.

At that time, there were only five galleries in the city selling contemporary and modern art. ‘To give you a sense of how that scene has exploded, today there are over 150,’ Mohammed says. Visiting those first pioneering galleries, the financier was blown away. ‘I was pulverised, firstly by the quality of the works, but also by the price,’ he says. Having grown up in the West, he simply couldn’t believe that you could buy a quality artwork for as little as a few hundred dollars. So, he says, ‘I started buying.’

Mohammed’s early forays into collecting were fortuitously timed with a blossoming of the art scene not just in Tehran, but also across the Middle East, as Dubai burgeoned into a regional art centre. This all combined with a general heightened interest in the region on the part of the art world, evidenced by the big global auction houses such as Christie’s, Bonham’s and Sotheby’s establishing annual, sometimes biannual, auctions. ‘The mood,’ he reflects, ‘was just ripe for an explosion of art in the Middle East.’

If not for his modesty, Mohammed would also take some of the credit for that mood. Since the early 2000s, he has consistently supported artists and built his collection, and has now amassed one of the world’s largest collections of contemporary Iranian art, numbering more than 650 pieces and featuring over 150 artists, 125 of whom are Iranian. Among their ranks are highly regarded artists such as Mohammad Ehsai, Shirin Neshat and Ali Banisadr. Mohammed has been instrumental in the development of the global market for Iranian art and, alongside his private collecting, has also worked with the British Museum and the Guggenheim, among others, to ensure these institutions are strengthening their acquisitions from artists in the Middle East and North Africa.

For him, this is all a labour of love. ‘Our collection is really based on the love of Iran and the love of promoting Iranian artists,’ he says. This can be contrasted with all those individuals who treat art more as a financial asset, he says, who seem to all get advised to buy the same works and who all have the same collection of certain ‘must-have’ artists. ‘We don’t look at it as an asset,’ Mohammed adds. ‘We’re acting as a collector that is trying to create a chronological archive of Iran’s modern and contemporary art history.’

This passion also leads to a strong desire to share the collection with the wider public. ‘I want to bring the collection to as many different pockets of audience around the world as possible,’ he says. When the pandemic struck in 2020, it initially made this ambition of opening up access to the collection almost impossible. An important show that had been in the works for years, ‘Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians’ at New York’s Asia Society, had to be cancelled (it is now set to return in September 2021 and will run through to January 2022). Last summer, with the pandemic showing no signs of easing, Mohammed sat down with the director of the collection and some former curators and advisors. ‘I thought, you know what? We should be creating a virtual museum.’

Since then, he has been building a team to design exactly that: a digital platform for housing the collection’s works, which he hopes will eventually allow millions of people to view the collection. Intriguingly, this virtual space won’t be completed until later this year, when it’s likely a large number of museums and galleries will actually have reopened, particularly in the West. Mohammed is unfazed. The pandemic has led, he says, to ‘a permanent shift, where the art world will be divided into the physical and virtual.’ Many museums and galleries around the world pivoted their activities to digital platforms during the pandemic. ‘I don’t think that goes away,’ says Mohammed.

He’s also looking further into the long term. ‘I’m thinking about that generation that is coming out of school and entering university,’ he explains. ‘They’re as comfortable in the virtual world as they are in the real world. I just don’t see how that mentality doesn’t extend into the art world.’

The virtual museum will be based in the UAE, where the collection started and where it is still primarily based. It has already been through several iterations, as Mohammed and his team (which includes architects who have previously worked with Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron) have learnt more about the process. Initially, it was effectively a recreation of a real-life museum, a space resembling the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland. Then, he explains, the team realised that ‘the beauty of the virtual world is that you don’t have any limits. You don’t have any architectural limits, you don’t have any creative limits.’ Now, they’re working on a new version that is much more radical, ‘mad and wild’, as Mohammed puts it.

In his mind, this digital platform will eventually evolve, becoming not just a space for exhibiting the entire archive but also a meeting ground for people in the art world, freely accessible to the public and capable of hosting virtual conferences, speeches and forums – ‘a bridge to different art worlds around the world,’ as he describes it. While he doesn’t believe this will ever entirely replace our very natural human desire to congregate in physical spaces (he sees a future defined by a ‘bricks-and-clicks’ model), the pandemic and the technological shifts it has brought with it are, for him, bearers of opportunity. ‘I want to make the collection accessible to millions of people,’ he says, ‘and this is a good way for art to be made available.’

For Mohammed, all of this boils down to a fundamental philosophy that art and culture should never really be yours solely to own and jealously guard. ‘There’s something good about sharing these sorts of works,’ he says, ‘because at the end of the day, they’ll out-survive you. And so they don’t really belong to anyone. That’s how I look at the artworks we have. We’re just a custodian in this lifetime, until the next person grabs the baton.’

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