20 minutes with: the prolific art collector Mohammed Afkhami – 71Bait

As the founder of Dubai-based investment giant Magenta Capital Partners, Mohammed Afkhami knows the art of the deal. And as a voracious collector, he also knows his way around art. Outstanding pieces from his 600-piece collection now 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 but one born in Iran – whose work “explores issues such as gender identity, war and peace, politics and religion and spirituality”. according to the museum statement. Eleven of the artists still live in Tehran; the rest spread across North America and Europe.

Afkhami, 46, takes her art personally. Born in Switzerland, he lived in Tehran until the 1979 revolution, when his family returned to Europe. “My maternal grandfather had a 20,000-piece collection of Islamic art, one of the largest in the world,” he says penta. “After the revolution, a lot of it was nationalized.”

Today, Afkhami has become a high-profile advocate of Iranian art through his own collection. The content of the show, which ran in Toronto and Houston, might surprise the uninitiated, he says. “The work traverses so many mediums – ceramics, photography, mirror work, fiberglass, collage,” he says. “And there are issues like gender equality coming up that aren’t just limited to the US.”

The show runs through May 8, 2022.

Named one of the top 200 international collectors in the world by Artnews, Afkhami lives between Dubai, New York and London, where he is also Vice Chairman of real estate investment firm London Strategic Land. He spoke to penta from Southampton, New York

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

Mohammed Afkhami: “Persian” has been used by everyone from the Greeks to the British to denote a glorious past of Iran. There’s some irony in that. The rest of the title reflects aspects of Iranian art itself. “Rebel” refers to subtle criticism of the system in Iran. “Mystic” is about artists who draw from Sufi and spiritual influences. “Poet” reflects elements from Iran’s literary history. And “Jester” refers to parts of the show that are mildly critical but in a funny way.

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

People have a rather gloomy image of militant Islam with Arabic calligraphy – if they even believe that Iran has art. What they find instead is creativity and versatility.

For someone just starting to explore the world of Iranian art or thinking of collecting, which emerging artists would you highlight?

I would recommend [Tehran-based artists] Nazgol Ansarinia, Alireza Dayani, Morteza Ahmadvand and Shahpour Pouyan who are all on the show. There are a number of artists in the single digits of thousands who have tremendous streaks in terms of career and price. Well-known galleries such as Gagosian and Lehmann Maupin now have Iranian artists on their stalls. And over the past 15 years, established museums from the Pompidou to the LACMA to the Tate have set up acquisitions committees to purchase Iranian and Middle Eastern art. There is a growing audience.

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

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

What was the first artwork you bought?

It was a random event. I was in Iran in 2004 for a short visit to my father and some relatives. A friend took me to some contemporary art galleries in northern Tehran. There were two artists whose work spoke to me –[abstract painter]
Sirak Malkonian and [contemporary artist] Mahsud Arabshahi. I asked how much her work cost. Iranian currency had so many zeros and I was so attuned to western pricing. My friend said, “No, 500,000 tomans is $500.’ So I bought both.

Do you let yourself be guided by your gut feeling or investment figures when buying art?

It was all good. Over time and as my collection grew, it became more tactical, but not with the aim of enriching myself. Along the way, I met Western art dealers who tried to convince me that it was madness to buy Iranian art with no liquidation value. So I bought some Western artists that I liked but with advisors.

These artists included Kusama, Serra, Kapoor, Gormley – today’s living icons. They have served as a great hedge. Appreciating these works has allowed me to be more aggressive on the Iranian front. On a cost basis, the value of the collection has held up. Iranian work probably appreciated it too, but it’s harder to know. But I don’t consider it a financial asset. It’s more of a floating ambassador project.

How about a private museum, a la rebel or Glenstein?

I love this idea, but I’m a strict pragmatist. It is more important than anything else to draw maximum attention to the collection. And there are sustainability issues. People don’t think about what it takes to keep a private museum going 30, 40, 50 years. What we’re doing now is keeping the art out there, moving and relevant.

What is the contemporary art scene in Iran like?

It’s mushroomy. When I first bought there in 2004, there were only six galleries. Today there are around 150 and they are such an important part of Iranian society. Despite the problems the country faces, the passion for one’s own artwork is quite impressive.

As you act as a de facto arts ambassador, are you considering promoting other aspects of Iranian culture?

I am. The next phase is about literature and food. Iranian literature is incredible. Some of the world’s great philosophers and poets are from Iran – think Rumi, Omar Khayyam or Hafez. People quote them all the time, often without realizing they are from Iran. And our food is some of the best cuisine in the world. There is also commercial potential. Our fine stews would not be suitable for fast food, but an Iranian kebab can compete with any burger.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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