Ancient, historical building made out of stone
Ancient, historical building made out of stone

Sunrise in Persepolis, capital of the ancient Achaemenid kingdom. From this particular Persian empire, Greece would have been the Near West, China the Near East, and current-day Cambodia the Middle East

History and its related language are written by the victors; but as history changes sometimes redundant terminology remains in use. One such term is the phrase Middle East, which is outdated, colonialist, increasingly pejorative, and should be consigned to the same dustbin as “Near East” and “Darkest Africa”, writes Darius Sanai

Are you a Far Easterner? Or maybe a Near Easterner? Do you know anyone who still describes themselves in this way? I don’t. Conversely, I know people from East Asia and people from South Asia.

Interesting animal Illustration engraved in a stone wall

Bas relief at Persepolis. Nobody referred to its residents as Middle Easterners: each empire believes itself to be at the centre of civilisation, an often hubristic view which becomes more exposed as empires recede

And yet, I am, apparently, a Middle Easterner. The phrase is house style to describe the region in all the world’s leading media, whatever its political viewpoint, from the BBC and the Economist to the New York Times, CNN and Fox News. The term is used to describe the swathe of countries from Iran (where I am from) in the north to Yemen in the south. The Middle East sometimes also refers to places further west, like Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and even Egypt, which is in Africa.

Middle East is a redundant term, as steeped in colonialist “orientalist” perception as the term Far East. “East” refers to a comparative longitude from: London and Paris, one-time colonial hubs; and it’s the Middle because it’s between the Near and the Far East from their perspective.

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Yet nobody would describe China or Japan as the Far East now, or Palestine as the Near East, and rightly so. (Although the French, always slower to bend to what they see as political correctness, still use the term “Proche-Orient”, referring to its “Proche”-ness to the Quai d’Orsay, where geopolitical machinations ferment.)

The “Far” East was far to the east from the centres of global power of a couple of a couple of hundred years ago, although not far at all from the centre of the Hang dynasty. Shanghai, technically part of the Far East, is near west when viewed from Japan or Korea.

Construction site with stone building on a desert like ground

Persepolis, in modern-day Iran. Each empire creates a world view and terminology on its own terms. The Persians ruled the ancient world from Persepolis until their defeat by the Greeks. Our own reference to the Middle East is a construct of western European empires which finally disappeared after World War II

Equally the “Near” East (comprising Beirut, Istanbul/Constantinople and so on) is quite far west when observed from Khmer empire in northern Cambodia and north, not east, of the Ethiopian empire, and the term was phased out of polite usage at the end of the 20th century.

“Middle East” has also become a perjorative: we all know what kind of image the words “Middle Eastern man” conjure up.

So why are we still using the term? Just like a Senegalese is from West Africa, a Finn is from North Europe, and a Sri Lankan is from South Asia, an Iranian, Jordanian or Syrian is from West Asia, as much as a Manchurian is from East Asia and a Bangladeshi is from South Asia. This vast continent stretches from the Bosphorous at Istanbul In the west to Japan in the east, from the Siberian Arctic in the north to Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the south and Indonesia in the south east.. We are all Asians, and nearness, middle-ness and distance are purely relative terms.

Map of Asia

Asia can be and should be sub-divided into it’s geographical sub-regions without any need for the terms middle east, near east and far east

Read more: Hansjörg Wyss and the Wyss Foundation

Or perhaps as an Iranian living in London, I am actually living in the Middle West, also known as the UK and Western Europe, and occasionally travelling to the Far West (New York) and the Near East (China). Which would be almost as confusing as all of us Middle Eastern men foregoing our sunglasses, open-topped Lamborghinis and shisha pipes and being journalists or academics. It’s time to ditch the cliche, and the terminology that perpetuates it.

Darius Sanai is Editor-in-Chief and Proprietor of LUX: Responsible Culture, owner of the Oxford Review of Books and an Editor-in-Chief at Condé Nast

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Two long tables in a room with a green light up sign for Richard Mille at the end of the room
Two long tables in a room with a green light up sign for Richard Mille at the end of the room

Dinner at the ceremony for the Richard Mille Art Prize, against the spectacular backdrop of
Louvre Abu Dhabi

One of the art world’s most prestigious awards, the Richard Mille Art Prize in partnership with Louvre Abu Dhabi, was this year awarded to a female artist in the Gulf. Darius Sanai visited Louvre Abu Dhabi for the big event

Under a starlit sky by the edge of the Gulf, two celebrated dancers are performing classical ballet to Beethoven‘s Moonlight Sonata. Two long tables of guests-art collectors, government officials, artists and watch collectors- look on, mesmerised.

The performance is choreographed and led by Benjamin Millepied, the renowned director, dancer, and choreographer (including of the film, Black Swan), and husband of film star Natalie Portman. His accompanying danseuse is Caroline Osmont, of the Paris Opera Ballet. The dance is short, but beautiful. When I ask Millepied afterwards how it is to create and then perform a routine to the Moonlight, which was not written to be danced to, he simply smiles, and says, “I liked it!”

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Memorable as it was, the dance at the gala outdoor dinner was just a warm-up for the main act: the announcement of the winner of one of the most significant art prize in the world-and quite possibly the most financially rewarding: the Richard Mille, art prize in partnership with Louvre Abu Dhabi. Worth $60,000 to the winning artist, the Prize, awarded by the uber-luxury, high-tech watch brand, also sees it ten shortlisted regional candidates display that works at Louvre Abu Dhabi, the local iteration of the fabled, Paris museum, whose collection sweeps from ancient Persia to Cy Twombly.

A white building by the sea

Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel

Louvre Abu Dhabi is the cornerstone of an impressive, new cultural district in the Emirate, which will soon house further significant museums, including a Guggenheim, and which is already home to the astonishing Abrahamic Family House, an interfaith complex, comprising a mosque, cathedral and synagogue (plus an education centre), devoted to the three major Abrahamic faiths and nurturing mutual understanding.

Earlier that day, we’d had a private tour of the new Louvre (which was closed to the public, as it is every Monday). The “Art Here, 2022” exhibition, housing, the shortlisted works, had pride of place in the museums Forum. The theme in this, the Prize’s second year, was “Icon. Iconic.“, a suitably art-world-gnomic concept allowing artists to exercise their full creative imaginations. Eight of the ten artists on the shortlist were female, and encouraging affirmation for women in these times.

A white room with light coming through a window

Between Desert Seas, 2021, by Ayman Zedani

The first work is so complex it required several minutes to negotiate and understand. Ayman Zedani’s Between Desert Seas approaches you visually as white salt on an internal roof; and then aurally, as a soundtrack that you quickly realise, is about the plight of the Arabian Sea humpback whale. Listening for a couple of minutes, between whalesong, you learn that these non-migratory whales are a unique species, derived from a pod that became separated from the rest of whalekind around 70,000 years ago. They have developed the own song and culture – and they are under existential threat. Global warming has acidified and poison to the sea, and the removal of water for desalination has made it more toxic.

coloured sheets on a table

Wall House, 2022, by Vikram Divecha

Wall House, by Vikram Divecha, is a proposal by the artist to remove and retain the walls of hundreds of houses in the region that are slated for demolition, and preserve them to show a portrait of our times has created by the houses’ inhabitants. The idea is illustrated by a 1:100-scale maquette, showing what is a large scale installation of this project could look like.

There was Sidelines, a work by Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan, celebrating the intricate heritage of weaving in Saudi history, lost when oil money started flowing in the 20th century.

A brown and cream tent

Sidelines, 2016, by Manal AlDowayan

Afra Al Dhaheri, an artist from Abu Dhabi, showed Weighing The Line, a striking workers, consisting of hanging ropes, pulled down by ropes on the ground-symbolising, in the artists’ words, social conditioning and constructs.

I was particularly struck by Xylophone, a work on pyro-engraved scrap wood by Elizabeth Dorazio, a Brazilian artist, now resident in Dubai. The artist said she wanted to make a statement that wood is a “vestige of excess extractavism”- and the work is quite beautiful and engaging.

UAE-born artist and academic Shaukha Al Mazrou created A Still Life of an Ever-Changing Crop Field, in glazing ceramic, inspired by crop circles, and “natures place in the world, invaded by human imprint”, one of the several environmentally inspired, works and beautiful as an installation.

A large wooden and tin pole

Camouflage: The Fourth Pillar, 2022, by Zeinab Alhashemi

Perhaps the most visually arresting work, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life (after Zeid), is by Abu Dhabi-based artist, Simrin Mehra-Agarwal. It is a complex work that appears on first sight to be a tapestry. It is, in fact, made of graphite, charcoal, ink, primer, plaster, gypsum powder, stucco, acrylic, gesso, glue, sand, fibreglass, vellum, Mylar and paper on wooden panels. The artist says it “questions nature and its various states of bloom and decay within the context of the histories of war or neglect, as well as the contemporary issue of climate change”. Powerful, complex, at first sight, it looked like a maelstrom of clouds viewed from a satellite.

A woman in a floral dress standing between two men

Peter Harrison, CEO of Richard Mille EMEA,
and Manuel Rabaté, Director of Louvre
Abu Dhabi, present the 2022 Richard Mille Art Prize in partnership with Louvre Abu Dhabi to Rand Abdul Jabbar

Zeinab Alhashemi, an artist, based in Dubai, submitted the fourth pillar, from her camouflage series that featured at the celebrated DesertX AlUla. The pillar mimics the pillars at the gallery and, made of camel hides over metal rods, tones with the surrounding desert.

Standing by the ruins, the work of mosaic clay tiles by Dana Awartani, an artist based in Jeddah with Saudi and Palestinian roots, was visually striking on the lower floor. Awartani says she deliberately did not use the straw traditionally utilise in the region is tiles, thus allowing them to crack naturally overtime.

an artwork on the floor

Installation view of Standing By the Ruins, 2022, by Dana Awartani

Next to this work was a long plinth on which was displayed 100 of exquisite, intricate little glazed stoneware figures. In a panoply of colours and sizes, earthly wonders, celestial beings, featured, plays, on jugs, cups, human, and natural figures, that related directly as a modern take on Mesopotamian stoneware, including some in the new recollection. The artist, Iraqi-born Rand Abdul Jabbar, is based in Abu Dhabi.

people sitting having dinner in a room lit up with orange and yellow lights

Dinner in stunning surroundings

One of the most valuable art prizes in the world (if not the most back valuable); eight out of ten artist, shortlisted female; powerful themes of environmental loss; significant pedigree from all the artists and support and an exhibition at a Louvre. Why isn’t the Richard Mille Prize even better known, I pondered, while on my way to the prize giving event that evening?

A man and woman dancing on a stage

The ceremony, Benjamin Millepied and Caroline Osmont perform a
ballet choreographed by Millepied to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata

Perhaps because the Middle East and Gulf region is relatively new to the contemporary art scene (they’re not the ancient art scene, in which it predates the West by millennia); or perhaps, because the Western eye does not yet quite respect this part of the East and its culture as it should. In any case, credit to the powerful French brand, the Louvre and iconic Swiss brand Richard Mille for making it happen.

The evening after the dance and a performance by Dutch singer, Davina Michelle, the winner was announced: Rand Abdul Jabbar is Earthly Wonders, Celestial Beings. The artist was presented with the award and generous check.

ceramic coloured art pieces on a white table

Earthly Wonders, Celestial Beings, 2019-ongoing, by Rand Abdul Jabbar

“Rand Abdul Jabbar delivered outstanding works at push the boundaries of contemporary creativity,” said Peter Harrison, CEO of Richard Mille EMEA. “This is a celebration of our tenure partnership with Louvre, Abu Dhabi, and 10 incredible artist from the region, whose work was inspired by their cultural roots.”

Read more: Deutsche Bank: The Art Collection You Didn’t Know About

The originality, power and scope of a generation of artist, based in the Gulf that had been made clear. This is a region that is artistically, on fire.

Find out more: richardmille.com/louvre-abu-dhabi

This article was first published in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of LUX

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Two men playing with a basket ball standing next to a van filled with basket balls
Two men playing with a basket ball standing next to a van filled with basket balls

The 2023 edition of Art Dubai will feature 24 Dubai-based galleries, the largest number the fair has ever had, reflecting the continued growth of Dubai’s artistic ecosystem and its increasing reputation as a global creative and cultural hub

The most significant art fair in the Middle East opened today with a focus on artists from South Asia. LUX reports on the multi-sensory experience that Art Dubai is currently offering to its visitors

Art Dubai has traditionally bee a blend of art from the Middle East from surrounding regions and the rest of the world. This year the focus is firmly on South Asia, specifically countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, whose thriving contemporary art scene is informed by ancient cultural and craft influences as well as much more modern societal conversations and clashes.

A woman looking at a red and pink light installation

Art Dubai is featuring over 130 contemporary, modern and digital gallery presentations from six continents

“South Asian artists are receiving reinvigorated attention on the world scene due to a new generation of collectors, artists and galleries. Many of the most interesting artists from the region have been creating significant works for years or even decades, as the recent Pop South Asia exhibition at Sharjah Art Foundation, hosted by Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi, demonstrated. Although there is a current growing interest in South Asian art, it is also important for collectors to understand the cultural and historical nuances that inform it.”

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“People in these countries have been creating notable art works in a variety of mediums for a very long time and we should be careful to avoid a simplistic western-orientalist perspective that it is just being ‘discovered'”, says Durjoy Rahman, LUX partner, philanthropist and founder of the Durjoy Bangladesh Foundation.

A man looking at three squares of art in blue, yellow and purple

The 2023 fair includes over 30 first-time participants and more than 60% of the gallery programme is drawn from the Global South

Rahman’s foundation supports both the Sharjah Art Foundation and Art Dubai.

The programme is unlike other art fairs, delivering daily performances and food-based experiences spanning Dubai to South Asia.

Read more: Rana Begum and Durjoy Rahman on South Asian art’s global ascendancy

People in costumes standing on a stage holding bowls of food

The focus on the Global South has been heightened by a new commissioned performance programme in partnership with leading South Asian galleries and institutions

The themes explored at the fair include those of community, celebration, hope and connection. Among the significant galleries involved in the South Asian focus at Art Dubai are Galleria Continua, Efie Gallery and Unit London.

Art Dubai is open from Wednesday 1st-Sunday 5th March 2023

Find out more: artdubai.ae

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red lights installation in the dessert

Light Horizon by artist Sabine Marcelis in Wadi Namar, part of the Noor Riyadh Festival 2022

Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, has not been a city you would associate with art. Yet it has just staged the one of the most spectacular outdoor art shows the world has ever seen. LUX travelled there and was impressed with the breadth and depth of art and local participation

It is a warm autumn evening on the outskirts of a vast city in the middle of a desert. Darkness has fallen, and on the walls of a courtyard, thousands of illuminated Arabic letters are rising and falling, projections streaming up and down and disappearing temporarily into space before reappearing. Families and other visitors, drifting in and out of the courtyard, are enraptured.

A couple of minutes’ walk away, another larger than life light artwork is playing out. This is on the back wall of another building, viewable from a specially made area at the back of its garden, a story of a dream, animated in bold colours and dramatic scenes in a massive projection four stories high. We won’t give away the plot of ‘Fantastic Dreams’ by Morgane Phillippe, playing on a loop in this dramatic setting, but it’s pretty striking.

A couple of minutes walk away, in a piazza, is another artwork, this one seemingly of swathes of red tentacles beneath a huge crimson light, weaving in and out of the exoskeleton of a building. Small children zoom around below it on their scooters, delighting in dodging the crowds clustered below chatting to the artist, Grimanesa Amorós.

yellow glowing giant crystals outside

Carving the Future by Saudi artist Obaid Al Sufi. The festival showcases local and international artists with dramatic, complex and beautiful installations

This is just a taster, a fraction of the art on show, in what is without doubt the most spectacular outdoor art exhibition at the moment in any city of the world. It sounds like it could be Venice during the (now finished) Biennale, but the scale of the public art here is much bigger, and it is not confined mainly inside buildings and pavilions as it is in Venice.

This is in fact the second edition of Noor Riyadh, a festival of art and light created by the authorities in the Saudi capital to turn the rapidly-developing city into a global art destination and a town where artists can be seen to be thriving.

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For those of us from outside the country who had a view of Saudi Arabia as a place where culture was not encouraged, Noor Riyadh was quite a surprise – doubtless also for many of those in the country itself, as change is coming fast. Noor Riyadh would not have even been conceivable just three years ago, someone closely associated with the festival told me. It is part of a broader plan by the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to catapult the country from being a kind of wealthy recluse of the Middle East, as it has been to date, to a cultural and artistic force.

The involvement and support of local artists is fundamental, another source told me. Although they did not say it directly, I suspected they were thinking of contrasting themselves with neighbours like Qatar and Abu Dhabi, which have, in the last few years, gone from zero to hero in terms of the global art scene, with Qatar acquiring one of the biggest collections of modern and contemporary western art in the world, and Abu Dhabi opening a Louvre and a Guggenheim as if they were architect-designed fast food franchises: but neither of them having much concern about their own culture or artists, perhaps because of their diminutive size. (Qatar does have a stunning Museum of Islamic Art, but the works are from all over the Arab and Byzantine lands, as well as Iran).

A screen underneath a bridge

De Anima, 2022 by Sarah Brahim. This was the second edition of the festival of light and art based in the Saudi capital

In Riyadh, by contrast, it is all about blending top local artists – and encouraging many more – with expertly curated artworks from the rest of the world, and, importantly, not shutting them away in a private collection but having them on display for all members of the public to see, with no charge, at several locations in this vast city.

One of the co-curators of Noor Riyadh is Hervé Mikaeloff, an internationally renowned art figure who works closely with Bernard Arnault of LVMH, and brands like Dior. I had last chatted with Hervé when he gave me a private tour of the Miss Dior art exhibition he curated at the Grand Palais in Paris. Here he is now, having helped bring in some of the dazzling international art names, at dinner with a crowd of fellow curators, museum directors and collectors at Il Baretto in the King Abdullah Financial District.

Hervé told me, over a glass of mineral water (alcohol is still banned in Saudi Arabia): “We wanted to bring international artists for people to see what they couldn’t see elsewhere. , to show them quality artworks from international players. There are plenty of local artists also. Through the artwork we presented. ,we wanted to bring new art but also an international sensibility to show what is happening around the world. That is why the [2022 festival theme] is called We Dream of New Horizons. I think we succeeded, the public is there, Noor Riyadh is not only for VIPs, it is very popular and I really liked that.”

There was a palpable character of Noor Riyadh being a Saudi initiative, something created by locals, for locals, with the help of very well selected international experts, which Hervé backed up. “Riyadh is not like Dubai where there are people from everywhere around the world. There is local culture and history and I find that very interesting.”

A pink and blue cartoon sculpture figure lit up in the dark

Cupid’s Koi Garden by Eness, in Salam Park. Installations from local and international artists were showcased over a wide geographical area

Riyadh is a huge city, much bigger than I expected it to be in terms of surface area. With the exception of new developments like the rather striking King Abdullah Financial District, where some of the most spectacular installations were placed, much of the city is quite austere: think suburban Orange County with fewer swimming pools. But changes are, without a doubt, happening here. In expensive shopping malls, cafes and fast food restaurants alike, I saw local women sitting without head coverings – since 2019, it has no longer been compulsory for women to cover their hair and wear and abaya in Saudi Arabia, although the majority of women still do. Even the latest advertising billboards for swanky property developments are cleverly photographed so it can’t quite be told whether the woman in the aspirational young couple looking up at the apartment development is wearing a headscarf or not. Judged by Western standards (and whether Western standards are correct for the world is a whole other debate; I’m not always so sure), there is a long way to go in terms of equality, but nobody can deny things are moving in the right direction, quite fast.

And there can be little doubt about the aspiration for quality in the art. Although this was just a second edition of the festival, The Royal Commission for Riyadh City, ultimately in charge of the art program as a whole, sought and received good advice and went for the best. At dinner one night I found myself quite at random sitting next to Alicja Kwade, one of the most prominent and respected artists in Europe, represented by the highly respected König Gallery in Berlin. The others at the table included a well known gallerist and museum director from Europe. I went to view Alicja’s complex, architectural work, Morgana, the next day.

Palm trees in front of a red circle surrounded by scaffolding

Earth by Spy at King Fahad National Library. The festival exhibits over 120 installations across 40 locations around Riyadh

Meanwhile Charles Sandison, the artist who created my personal favourite work there, The Garden of Light, the rising and falling projection of Arabic letters in the nighttime courtyard, told LUX:

‘With my artwork I wanted to create a technological complex visually dramatic architectural intervention – but also provide an intimate environment where the viewer could find their own place to be. The context of the festival opened up new possibilities and cultural dialogues for my work which I hope will continue’.

Arabic writing all over ancient walls

The Garden Of Light by Charles Sandison. The festival is co-curated by Hervé Mikaeloff, Dorothy Di Stefano and Jumana Ghouth

The group visiting the opening of the show comprised a significant slice of great and the good of the art world, so much so that if you had funnelled them onto an island in the first week of the Venice Biennale as the guestlist for Francois Pinault’s celebrated party, the French luxury tycoon would not have been disappointed at all.

Another international artistic name, Neville Wakefield, curated the “From Spark to Spirit” exhibition at Noor Riyadh, and told us: “As explored in ‘From Spark to Spirit’, it is evident that light in this world can be seen as an integral means of communication. We are now connected to each other by screens – by the light of information. We communicate with one another through the direct manipulation of light to form words and images that together map a collective consciousness, bringing us together in an era of rapid technological and cultural transformation.”

light up installation in the dark

I See You Brightest in the Dark, 2022 by Muhannad Shono. The range of light art on show includes immersive site-specific installations, public artworks, sculptures, art trails and virtual reality

The festival was put together in several distinct areas of town, and casual visitors from overseas (I didn’t spot any this time, but they will doubtless come in years to come as the event gains credibility and respect in the art world) need careful instruction on where to go and how to get there.

The soul of the festival is perhaps the multistorey light installation by local artist Muhannad Shono, who told us: “The work is an attempt to weave back into tangibility the intangible. The four rooms are a journey through loss, memory and acceptance. The installation exists at the thin line that separates the perceptible and the invisible, the here and those we can no longer hold close.”

Read more: Never-Before Seen Andy Warhol Photographs at the Beverly Hills Hotel

In contrast to the works in the JAX area, in converted warehouses on the edge of the city, was the spellbinding spectacle installed in the swanky new King Abdullah Financial District, a kind of Wall Street without the beer, recently built, architecturally striking and with aspirations to be the leading financial centre in the Middle East. Here, you can’t miss the light poem installed in giant letters: “On a Never Ending Horizon A Future Nostalgia to keep the Present Alive”.

The artist, Joël Andrianomearisoa, was there (many artists were there with their works, which was both surprising and inspirational), and told us it was: “A light poem for Riyadh. Some words suspended on the horizon of our emotions to tell the story of the present, to create the desire of the past and to affirm the vision of the future. On a never ending horizon a future nostalgia to keep the present alive.”

lit up sentence on a glass window

Artwork by Joël Andrianomearisoa. A core element of Noor Riyadh is its comprehensive public program of over 500 events such as tours, talks, workshops, family activities and music

And the works mentioned at the top of this article were in another area completely, the diplomatic quarter, on yet another side of town. There were more works in the desert. These distances are not small: depending on where you hail from, think Venice Beach to Hollywood Hills to downtown LA, or Chelsea to Hackney to Lewisham, or Prenzlauer Berg to Grunewald and back, to begin to get an idea.

This makes the whole thing even more remarkable in a way. Many ambitious festivals would have set themselves in a single location. To show over 120 artworks from 40 countries in 5 districts across the city is not just ambitious but visionary. And if it was part of the vision that middle class families should bring their children to be scooting around the artworks, or laughing as they ran through a light tunnel installation, then bravo.

A green purple and yellow sculpture lit up in the dark

Rawdah, 2022 by Abdullah Alothman. The festival exhibits more than 120 installations by over 100 artists

Informal public participation and enthusiasm not just for the works, but for the context and joy that artists can bring, is fundamental to creating a momentum around art from the ground up: the Pompidou Centre demonstrated this in the 1980s by turning the Beaubourg area of Paris inside out, and TATE Modern continued spreading the fun in London in the 2000s. Fun is not, I suspect, a word that appears alongside Riyadh in many Google searches to date, but Noor Riyadh used the playfulness of these striking public installations to appeal to the local population and win hearts, first and foremost. For the international visitor, it was the quality and sheet quantity of works that spoke for themselves.

Noor Riyadh was the single best art spectacle in the world at the time of viewing this year. That’s quite an achievement, and if in future years more local artists join in with enthusiasm, and more art world influencers and collectors are visiting, Riyadh may just turn into a prime destination on the global cultural map – and most importantly, a centre of artistic creativity in its own right.

Noor Riyadh is available to visit until Saturday 4th February 2023

Find out more: riyadhart.sa/noor-riyadh

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two men in white clothing

Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar and Ali Jassim

One is an artist and the other a financier, but in coming together to create a charitable foundation, Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar and patron, Ali Jassim have also found themselves blurring boundaries and creating art together, discovers Mark C. O’Flaherty

The relationship between artist and patron is one that has formed part of the bedrock of creative endeavours for centuries. The links between the Medici and Michelangelo defined Renaissance Italy with a complexity and intimacy far more than any of Brunelleschi’s domed architectural gestures, or the fictitious romance of Romeo and Juliet. Masterpieces simply flowed from the marriage of painter and family. Similarly, Peggy Guggenheim freed up Jackson Pollock to create his grand abstract-expressionist canvases through a $150-a-month contract between 1943 and 1947, from Mural, the piece he created for her Manhattan townhouse, to his first major drip-technique masterpiece, Full Fathom Five. Right now, artist Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar and financial advisor, philanthropist and entrepreneur Ali Jassim are exploring what an artist and patron can achieve in the 21st century. Both men have Iranian heritage (Jassim’s on his mother’s side), with Behnam-Bakhtiar based in France and Jassim in Puerto Rico.

abstract painting with blue green red

‘Garden of the Soul’ At Dusk, 2020

When I speak to Behnam-Bakhtiar, it is via Zoom and he is in bed, functioning at half speed
after contracting Covid from his wife and child. “It’s okay, it’s just boring,” he says, sitting up to talk enthusiastically about what he was working on before the virus landed, and what comes next. Much of that will involve his relationship with his patron and now partner in philanthropy, Jassim, as they establish the Jassim Bakhtiar Foundation in Monaco, to help children in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the region. “We are doing our first fundraiser next year, in the south of France,” says the artist. “We want to have a huge impact. The language of arts and culture can create momentum and bring on the right people together for a cause, but this isn’t just about donating a few thousand dollars, we are looking at tens of millions.”

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The pair met around 10 years ago, at an exhibition in London. “We immediately knew we shared many of the same attributes, purely as human beings,” says Behnam-Bakhtiar. “Of course, we both have an Iranian heritage, but we found that we share core values. He was an art collector, and we talked a lot about my theories and philosophy, and he wanted to know where I wanted to go with my work. Then as he spends some time in Cap Ferrat, near where I am, we started talking more about Iran and the orphans of the conflict, and we decided to look at creating a foundation. But our relationship is about more than that. I believe we share experiences from past lives. We talk for about four hours on the phone every day. He likes to come and get his hands dirty in the studio, too, and the dynamic goes both ways: I’ve also become an advisor to him in his business endeavours.”

abstract painting with black green reds

From the ‘Garden of the Soul’ series, At Midnight, by Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar

Jassim is a fascinating character, who has worked extensively with high-profile figures in the business world of the Middle-East and Europe. “When I first met Sassan, I felt an inexplicable connection. Then, over the years, as I found myself growing emotionally and spiritually, I began to understand it was a connection beyond explanation, beyond science and mathematics. It is a feeling that spans many lifetimes,” he says. “I believe the greatest teacher we have in our life is our own soul. Sassan and I both believe this, and we often take time aside to connect and meditate multiple times a week. I would love to live in a world one day where I feel I’ve had a positive impact and where respect is present across the world throughout races and religions, most importantly for Mother Earth. Difference is what we want to portray on the canvas through the art we are creating, but the goal is unity.”

abstract painting with mix of colours

From the ‘Garden of the Soul’ series, Love Always Prevails (detail), 2020, by Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar

Behnam-Bakhtiar has spent years exploring meditative practices as part of his work, grounding himself with Kundalini principles and, as he says, “focusing on my chakras and accessing dormant power”. He describes a William Blake-style revelatory moment of seeing bright colours after getting deeply into meditation, which fed through to how he creates his work. Many of his canvases have a romantic Monet-like quality to the florals, but also look like pixelated glitches on a monitor. Behnam- Bakhtiar tells me his peinture raclée technique is linked directly to his meditation: “When you strip layers of yourself away, you go inside yourself. I wanted to shut off external layers so I could feed the frequency of my soul. That promoted health and wellbeing and had a profound impact on me. So that’s what I started to do with my painting. I began to scrape off layers. And that physical process takes about six months, even for a relatively small painting. I play with the paint. The consistency of it is crucial. I need to wait after I’ve applied it so that it dries to a certain degree, at which point I can scrape it off to get the texture I am seeking. It is a technique that was born through meditation.”

man with sunglasses against a painting

Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar at the unveiling of ‘The Journey’, 2022, presented by Ali Jassim

As well as exploring meditative practices and laying the groundwork for their foundation (the HQ of which will also house Jassim’s impressive art collection, putting Behnam- Bakhtiar canvases alongside work by Renoir, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol and Richard Prince), the pair have been working on a collection of paintings entitled ‘The Journey’. Although the imagery has the same abstract beauty for which Behnam-Bakhtiar is renowned, it is also some of the most political and personal he has done in years, with skulls and crowns manifesting themselves in the mixture of oils, acrylics and crushed stone.

abstract painting with lines in different colours

From the ‘Garden of the Soul’ series, At Sunrise, by Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar

Years ago, Behnam-Bakhtiar worked in the medium of photo collage, and the subject matter was overt. Born in Paris in 1984, he grew up in post-revolution Iran against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war. One way of dealing with his traumatic experiences, which included imprisonment and life-threatening episodes, was to address the politics of Iran through imagery in works such as the 2016 series ‘This Way’, which features My Favorite Kinda Soldier is This Way and Tehran is This Way – the latter incorporating a collage of a figure with a gas mask and a dress of Iranian carpet pattern. Subsequently, as he practised meditation, it came to feature in his methodology, and his work became more visually romantic.

yellow blue abstract painting

From the ‘Garden of the Soul’ series, At Peace, by Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar

In everything Behnam-Bakhtiar does, there is the resonance of his trauma in Iran. War and its impact on the human psyche are common and essential themes in contemporary art. In 2022, one of the most talked-about installations at the Venice Biennale was Anselm Kiefer’s work that took over the vast walls of the Sala dello Scrutinio in the Doge’s Palace. The series of paintings, entitled ‘Questi scritti, quando verranno bruciati, daranno finalmente un po’ di luce (‘These writings, when burned, will finally cast a little light’)’ created a devastating immersive tableau incorporating blasted landscapes and remnants of clothing. With war raging in Ukraine, it felt apposite, but almost intolerably graphic and moving. I ask Behnam- Bakhtiar why his reaction to trauma is to create beautiful imagery, rather than aggressive pieces.

abstract painting with fuchsia red and blue colours

Trees of Paradise, 2019, by Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar

“That’s probably the best question anyone’s asked me,” he says. “It’s been a very important value in my work. And I’ve had the privilege of being in group shows with Kiefer. My life has been filled with traumatic experiences. Back in the day, I would sit with some of my idols, who were older Iranian artists and friends of mine, and ask why we always had to paint sad things. And I knew the answer, of course – the art world wants us to show women in a hijab and show the sufferings of our people. The collages I used to do, that was when I had lost the plot. I had an exhibition in London and showed that work; it was about the children who were part of the war. Then I created another series, ‘The Real Me’, which was around the time we were all portrayed as bearded terrorists. I wanted to show that, despite the Islamic revolution, we lived like anyone else. I’d had enough of seeing sad work. Even if I start from a dark piece, it always ends up being beautiful. You can see the hurt, but I also want you to see the transformation in it, to bring hope and strength and love.”

white walls with two pink paintings

‘Extremis’, Setareh Gallery, 2019

When Behnam-Bakhtiar talks about his patron “getting his hands dirty”, he means literally. Jassim has been working with him in the studio and, while he is operating under the artist’s direction, he has been physically making his mark on the canvas. The physical connection to the work is important for both of them. “What we are doing with the foundation together is so important,” says Behnam-Bakhtiar. “And this is a unique dynamic, for an established artist to work with someone who isn’t a painter. But I want him to have visual input. And I will credit those pieces to both of us.”

Read more: Domaine Clarence Dillon: L’Art de Vivre

With the duo also developing NFTs as part of their output, as well as building the Jassim Bakhtiar Foundation together, the potential for what began as a straightforward patron-and-artist scenario is limitless. The High Renaissance brought us Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, created with as many as 13 assistants and the infinite resources of the Vatican. With every advance in technology, and a will to use art for much more than religious decoration, Sassan Behnam-Bakhtiar and Ali Jassim could create unimaginable wonders.

Find out more: sassanbehnambakhtiar.com

This article first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2022/23 issue of LUX

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Reading time: 8 min
Iran Issa Khan wearing an orange scarf and orange earrings
Iran Issa Khan wearing an orange scarf and orange earrings

Iran Issa-Khan

Born in Tehran, Iran Issa-Khan moved to New York in the 1970’s, and became one of the world’s most celebrated fashion photographers and a favourite of celebrities and political figures during the following two decades. Here, Iran speaks to her friend and LUX’s Chief Contributing Editor, Maryam Eisler, about widening her focus from the beauty of the human form to exploring the majestic scale of the natural world. The artist now resides in Miami where she has been working on her Nature series for the past twenty years.

Maryam Eisler: What occupies your mind these days, Iran, creatively speaking?
Iran Issa-Khan: Well, I am working on my book which is going to be about fifty years of fashion and personalities. I am trying to get that off the ground by next year.

Maryam Eisler: You have had a fascinating career. On the one hand, people, in particular celebrities, have played a big role in your oeuvre, and on the other hand, you have had this incredibly beautiful dance with nature and its zen moments.
Iran Issa-Khan: Yes. In a way, if you look at my magazine covers and the people I have shot, nature’s beauty is always present, and I enjoy celebrating it with my lens. To me that is very important and you know, being from the Middle East, I am used to being surrounded by beauty so, this is what has carried me throughout life, in this country included [The United States].

Follow LUX on Instagram: luxthemagazine

I stopped shooting fashion, in the nineties when my make-up artist died of old age, and I moved to Miami. I left New York, and an artist friend of mine, asked me to shoot some black and whites of nature. I had never done that before, but suddenly I started looking at it with a new perspective, as if earth was opening up to me in such a new and beautiful way. I thought to myself, I have to capture it, because no human being can be that perfect. I just used my eye, my sense of aesthetics and all the lessons that I had learned while shooting fashion and people and put it all towards something that nobody had necessarily paid much attention to: a plant, a flower, even a small shell. Some of my shells are minuscule, but I blow them up to five by ten feet. So, for me, nature takes on a whole new meaning in terms of its grand beauty but also in terms of its emotive connection to me, personally. There is purity. Everything is so clean, so ordered, so pleasing to one’s eye and to one’s soul.

Harper's Bazaar Covers

Harper’s Bazaar Covers by Iran Issa Khan

Maryam Eisler: Stepping back in time, what led you to photography in the first instance? When did your journey start?
Iran Issa -Khan: We are talking about the late seventies when we left Iran with the Shah. I hadn’t worked a day in my life and somehow a friend of mine who worked at The New York Times said “Why don’t you become a photographer?” I said, “What do I know about photography?” She said, “Well you love the arts, why don’t we get you a teacher?” So, I hired William Minor Jr, a very well-known photographer and I worked with him for a whole year and all of a sudden, I learned how to process print, and everything else about photography. I realised this was going to be the love of my life because I could capture meaningful moments and shoot them. I built it up and then I went to Harper’s Bazaar and I said “I want to do some covers for you. I am a refugee and I am stuck here and have to work” They said “Yes, but you know a lot of personalities all over the world, so why don’t you do a year of personalities and if you’re good at that, we’ll let you do covers.” And so I did personalities… Carolina Herrera, Nancy Reagan, Diane von Furstenberg, Bill Blass, Rufino Tamayo, the Ferragamo family …all the people that I knew. Somehow, because of my upbringing and the way we had travelled all of our lives, I felt comfortable walking into these homes and telling people what to do. After a year, they said “Okay, you are good enough to do covers.”

My first cover was of Paloma Picasso and she loved it. She loved the pictures so much so that she hired me to do all her ad campaigns for twenty five to thirty years. So, we did that and then in between I got all the top models. Somehow, I got there by sheer belief in myself.

Oscar de la Renta standing in a red room by a mirror

Oscar de la Renta photographed by Iran Issa Khan. Courtesy of Iran Issa-Khan

Maryam Eisler: What is your most important life lesson?
Iran Issa -Khan: It is very difficult for me to explain the life we led back home in Iran. The connections we made both at home and through our travels… It was a different world; you were educated twenty-four hours a day and what I learned most importantly from my mother was to be good to those who work for you, because they can’t talk back at you. It raises your bar and makes you a stronger person. So that is what I did all my life and during my career as a photographer too. Additionally, my whole life has been about connecting people together. With that, I too became stronger, with a voice to be heard.

Shell

Courtesy of Iran Issa-Khan

Maryam Eisler: Tell me about one of your most memorable and most cherished, social moments.
Iran Issa-Khan: I think meeting Zaha Hadid was one of the best moments of my life. First of all, she came from Iraq and I come from Iran so we connected right away on those terms. It was instant love between us but she had to be tougher than me. She not only wrote a forward in my book but she pushed me in my career and bought my work. She had it in her bedroom in London, and said to me “You and I have a lot in common because we both come from countries that have constant beauty everywhere …in nature, in architecture, in people, in everything!’. So, we had this connection which was deep and strong. I think she did a lot for me and my work. She made me see things in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I would come and sit and we would talk for hours, sharing stories. In Miami, we spent a lot of time together, having fun and laughing, so she relaxed and became herself. I would say that she is one of the few people that has really touched me in a very deep and meaningful way, teaching me all along to be better every day and believe in myself.

an art gallery

Iran Issa-Khan’s ‘Forces of Nature’ exhibition curated by Natalie Clifford and Space Gallery St Barth currently on display at the Musee de Wall House in St Barth

Maryam Eisler: If you were to give any advice to a young, female photographer, who is just starting in her career, what would you tell her? And I am emphasising ‘her’.
Iran Issa-Khan: Good, because I really believe in helping women get ahead because women have always played second fiddle and it is not fair because they also have to be mothers, wives, best friends. They have empathy, they have love, they have care. But they can also take a picture and make it beautiful. With their art, they can make you cry, they can also make you laugh, that is their power. To bring children into the world and raise them is a lot of work, so they can do anything they set their minds to. I want them to stick to their passion, their career, believe in themselves, go for it and don’t let anything or anyone take you down, and I mean nothing and noone. Be proud to be a creative woman. Own it.

Read more:David Taggart on photographing our cover star Jeff Koons

Maryam Eisler: What makes a good photograph?
Iran Issa-Khan: Something you would never forget. You see it once and that’s it. It is with you always.

a white curly shell

Purity by Iran Issa-Khan. Courtesy of Iran Issa-Khan

Maryam Eisler: I love the fact that you don’t stay shy of embracing the vocabulary of ‘Beauty’. Some would say it’s a taboo word in the art world today!
Iran Issa-Khan: For me, that is the only thing I live by, Beauty. Don’t forget I am going to be eighty years old in February, so I have lived a long, long, life. I live in an apartment in Miami Beach where I have water on both sides, I have boats and I look at the sky early in the morning and the sparkling lights at night. For me, it is all about beauty. Even when it rains, even when we have hurricanes, it is all beauty. It is a very special kind of beauty that only God and nature can give us – and that, rules my life and my work.

Iran Issa-KhanMaryam Eisler: How wonderful that you have so seamlessly managed to connect your work around nature with a place of great natural beauty, St Barts, where you currently have a show of your photographs ‘Forces of Nature’ at the Musee de Wall House.
Iran Issa-Khan: Not only that but I used to go and spend my birthdays in St Barts every year, with twenty, thirty friends, many years ago and I never realised then how fabulous it was. The museum opens its doors and all the yachts are right there…with people walking all around; It is such a perfect place to show my art.

Iran Issa-Khan’s ‘Forces of Nature’ exhibition curated by Natalie Clifford and Space Gallery St Barth is currently on display at the Musee de Wall House in St Barth until 10th February 2022.

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Reading time: 8 min
Nayla Al Khaja sitting by a film camera wearing a pink dress
Nayla Al Khaja sitting by a film camera wearing a pink dress

Nayla Al Khaja

Nayla Al Khaja is the first female filmmaker in the United Arab Emirates and a pioneer of Middle Eastern film on the global stage. Here, she speaks to LUX Contributing Editor, Samantha Welsh,  about the importance of recovering nuance and overcoming prejudice through storytelling.

Nayla Al Khaja is not one to shy away from glass ceilings. Besides founding Dubai’s first film club (The Scene Club, which has over 22,000 members), she has received widespread acclaim at international film festivals for challenging gendered and cultural stereotypes in her work. Now, Al Khaja is striving to bridge cultural difference and inspire the next generation of Middle Eastern filmmakers. Her conversation with LUX is timely: as Saudi Arabia announces unprecedented investment in cinema over the course of the next five years, it seems that Al Khaja’s work is only set to skyrocket.

LUX: You describe yourself as a storyteller, is that right?
Nayla Al Khaja: My curiosity has always had a bigger appetite than anybody else around me. What drives me is human stories that touch the heart and mind. The power of storytelling encompasses a lot: it breaks [everything] down to its bare minimum. That’s what brings us together as humans. Film does that in such a visceral way.

film crew working on a lake at dawn

Private film made for an initiative under the office of H.H Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid

LUX: Your work often challenges the dominant western narrative of the Middle East. How important is it to you to retell that story in different terms?
Nayla Al Khaja: The Middle East has always been portrayed in one light. I don’t feel that the West quite understands the nuances of different countries, and the [varying] position of women, in the region. It is exhausting. I think people would be shocked to see that female empowerment is a massive checkpoint here. There are some stunning examples of women – ministers, judges, criminologist – who are really leading the way. 62% of graduates and workplaces are helmed by females in powerful positions. Of course, there are families that are still very conservative towards women. If today I [were to] take an hour and a half flight and land in Beirut Lebanon, it would be a completely different tolerance level. But things are changing quite fast. To paint twenty or more countries in the same way is murderous, in my opinion.

Follow LUX on Instagram: luxthemagazine

LUX: Your films explore cultural differences in a way that bridges divides and reveals our shared humanity. Is that key for you?
Nayla Al Khaja: It is very key for me. My first feature film, which is scheduled to be shot in March 2022, is precisely that. It’s called ‘THREE’ and its part of a trilogy. It’s about an Arabic woman who fights very hard to save her son’s life in [the face of] various adversities. She finds help in the hands of a total stranger, an American doctor, who gets complete access to this conservative family. Things kind of break down and, in the end, they find common ground. It’s based on a true story in Dubai in the 90s. It’s very heart-warming; the meeting of minds. We are looking at casting a very big name either from UK or USA. I am very excited about it.

Nayla Al Khaja wearing a pink head cover

LUX: You’re currently working on another work that flips gender stereotypes entirely. Tell us about that.
Nayla Al Khaja: I’m doing an anthology called ‘The Alexandria Killings’, which has been in my mind for years. It’s [a true story] about two sisters from Egypt in 1921, who ran brothels in Egypt, then resorted to killing when Egypt crumbled after the British empire left. It’s out of this world: I’ve been obsessed about them and have done a lot of research. I like the fact that it’s about women who weren’t ‘proper’: women usually get stereotyped, but those two were really a mafia. They ran a whole gang. You never connect that with the oppressed Arab women who are painted in the West. These two sisters are going to break that completely. I pitched it to Rocket Science [film studio] in London, who really liked it, and they ended up getting Oscar winner Terry George to be the director. I sit on it as the executive producer. To have something I have been dreaming of for years realised is such a blessing. It’s like my first international glass ceiling has been broken.

LUX: How has your work been received at home?
Nayla Al Khaja: There has been a sea change among young people. Although I’m a tiny fish in a massive ocean outside [my country], I am a fish in a small aquarium here. I can really make a difference in my home, amongst my people, because I can see the influence. Young people constantly email me! It makes me realise how one person can impact a generation of young people to think outside the box, to be daring and push the status quo. Every time there is a push like that, things expand. They might be slow expansions, but if we look back ten years ago, we have come very far.

Read more: Philanthropy: Cultural Changemaker Surina Narula

LUX: That responsibility to share your expertise with others, does it inform any other elements of your process?
Nayla Al Khaja: I like to street cast. In my film Animal, many of the actors hadn’t had any experience before and they were absolutely brilliant. The young actress had never been in front of a camera before. The father hadn’t had much of acting experience either: this was his second short film. But when you give them the right tools you can really get gems out of them. With Animal, I won best film in Milan out of 72 entries!

LUX: Are you optimistic about the future of film?
Nayla Al Khaja: I feel we are losing the golden era of cinema. Everything is going at a much faster pace, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. [Previously], it was all about character and story, but now it’s about special effects; the bigger the better. We need to stop, pause, take a deep breath, and start to appreciate the beauty outside rather than the technical. One thing that’s worth noting is that Saudi Arabia announced the opening of over four thousand cinema screens in the next five years, which means it could be the next Mecca for filmmaking, and all the incredible talents will have a platform. The potential in storytelling and financial gain here is enormous.

filming on a lake

LUX: How do you propose to drive that change?
Nayla Al Khaja: I have a sensational art house film which could potentially really shake festivals, because there has never been anything like it. Not because I’m directing it but because of the aesthetics: we are going to shoot in the mountains in the gulf, where no one has ever filmed, in a language that’s dying, which my grandma used to speak [the mountain language, Shehi]. Unfortunately, the challenge that I face is that it’s virgin ground. People often think, ‘it’s easy for Arabs to find money’. Believe me, raising money for films may be difficult everywhere but it’s excruciating here. There has never been a local film with international presence and financial returns. So, I’m finding a formula to crack that. I’m just glad to be pioneering.

As with all of our philanthropists, readers who have their own foundations and philanthropic interests are encouraged to reach out to our interview subjects and their institutions directly

Find out more: www.naylaalkhaja.com

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Reading time: 6 min

Alia Al-Senussi is an academic and global arts patron. Photograph by Anton Corbijn

Alia Al-Senussi grew up between Egypt, South Dakota, and Minnesota, and is now based in London where she works as a cultural strategist with a special focus on young patronage and culture within the Middle East. She is the Art Basel Representative for the UK and MENA, a senior advisor to the Ministry of Culture of Saudi Arabia and a guest lecturer at institutions such as Brown University and Sotheby’s Institute. Here, Al-Senussi discusses her philanthropic efforts, work in Saudi Arabia and belief in art as a catalyst for social change

LUX: What forms the basis of your passion for art and culture? When did this interest begin?
Alia Al-Senussi: I am passionate about contemporary art and supporting living artists. I focus mostly on Middle Eastern art and artists as this is close to my heart and my heritage. I very much hope I see the day when more artists of Middle Eastern origin are integrated in to the wider art world, and society looks past myopic views of political systems and embraces people, and the change they are trying to bring.

Follow LUX on Instagram: luxthemagazine

The first time I really understood what contemporary meant in the context of art was visiting Tate Modern in January 2004, and experiencing the life-changing work by Olafur Eliasson The Weather Project. It felt like an overwhelming moment: to gaze into this vast space and to see people treating a museum like a social space rather than a temple to worship art. In this way, art could change the way we see and the way we act—I became a believer.

Art provides an alternative discourse by which we can solve problems, promote heritage and instil a sense of national pride. My hope has been that by educating artists and patrons we can then educate the wider population on the benefits that art can bring to their everyday lives, not only beautifying the communities where we live, but also promoting more creative ways to solve problems, bridge differences and build community sentiment and strength.

H.R.H Alia, 2016, Hassan Hajjaj. Courtesy the artist

LUX: What is it about certain contemporary artists such as Manal Al Dowayan that so inspire you to champion them?
Alia Al-Senussi: In Saudi artists and patrons I see this deep commitment to art as a cornerstone of an evolving society. I am proud to be a part of this fascinating art world, and to help introduce more and more of my friends to Saudi culture, and to artists like Manal AlDowayan, Dana Awartani and Maha Malluh. These pioneers, of all ages, have been the voice of their society, as well as patriot activists. They are change-makers as well as cheerleaders, leading us all in to a brave new world.

Phil Tinari, a dear friend, and brilliant cultural leader, visited Saudi Arabia at my invitation in September 2019, and immediately understood what was unfolding. He has since agreed to work with me and our team at the Ministry of Culture, as the curator for the inaugural Ad-Diriyah Biennale. Collaborating with Phil has been a sustaining (and guiding) light in this year of uncertainty amidst Covid-19. Phil sent me this message the night he arrived to Riyadh, illustrating just how quickly he grasped the changes afoot – it is a quote from Václav Havel’s 1994 speech The Need for Transcendence in the Post-Modern World:

“Today, this state of mind or of the human world is called postmodernism. For me, a symbol of that state is a Bedouin mounted on a camel and clad in traditional robes under which he is wearing jeans, with a transistor radio in his hands and an ad for Coca-Cola on the camel’s back. I am not ridiculing this, nor am I shedding an intellectual tear over the commercial expansion of the West that destroys alien cultures. I see it rather as a typical expression of this multicultural era, a signal that an amalgamation of cultures is taking place. I see it as proof that something is happening, something is being born, that we are in a phase when one age is succeeding another, when everything is possible. Yes, everything is possible, because our civilisation does not have its own unified style, its own spirit, it’s own aesthetic.”

Al-Senussi with friends at Roden Crater. Photo courtesy Alia Al-Senussi.

LUX: The world is watching the next generation of Saudis and there is an optimistic outlook for women’s voices to be heard – how have you found your passion for politics, power and patronage is received among educated women of influence in Saudi?
Alia Al-Senussi: My work in Saudi Arabia has been multifaceted, as I have been part of the moment when this cultural community came together and continued to evolve. I was lucky to have been introduced to Saudi through family, and then friends, and to have been there at the first moments of a cultural reawakening almost two decades ago, helping to make connections amongst members of the community within and outside of the Kingdom. Women were then, and still are, at the forefront of culture and are change-makers at every level.

Read more: Life coach Simon Hodges on how to thrive in uncertainty

The idea that culture can change a community was instilled in me throughout my life, but never more so than through my work with Art Basel. I have been able to translate this to so many parts of my personal and professional lives. My colleagues at Art Basel and in Saudi embrace the belief that culture has power; that it is at the nexus of change and positive evolution.

LUX: You are renowned not only for your intellect, but also for your drive. How much of your time does chairing or founding patron groups take up?
Alia Al-Senussi: I actually think I fried brain cells rather than grew them getting my PhD! It certainly was an intellectual exercise, and one that made me realise how important it is to continuously exercise one’s mind, as well as emotions. My mother instilled in me a sense of honesty, integrity and work ethic. She taught me that one must not rest on history or title, but one’s own value and contributions to society. My maternal grandfather often discussed the value of “being a productive member of society.” I have taken these values to heart and strive to make a contribution, big or small, in any way I can through the work I do.

Most of my personal and professional time is taken up with activities in art and culture. I am fortunate that many of my friends are also intimately involved in the art world so I can share these fantastic and special experiences with them. It makes it a lot easier to keep busy with work when you do it with people you love and admire!

Al-Senussi at Mada’in Salih, an archaeological site located in the area of AlUla within Al Madinah Region in the Hejaz, Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy Alia Al-Senussi.

LUX: What exactly is your role as Chair of the Tate Young Patrons, and how do you ensure you get optimum results?
Alia Al-Senussi: I served as Chair of the Tate Young Patrons for 5 years, and now sit on the Director- and Board- appointed Tate Modern Advisory Council as well as being a founding member of the Art Now Supporters Circle (Tate Britain). The Tate holds a very special place in my heart. It was one of the first institutions I got involved with in London, through the Young Patrons. Then the Middle East and North African Acquisitions Committee was launching and I was one of the first people on board. One thing led to another and I was asked to be a Young Patrons Ambassador, and also to represent the Young Patrons on the advisory board of the Tate. I feel like the Tate is family and also that I have a responsibility to help it evolve and grow, not just in London, but in the Middle East also, and in terms of its role in society, particularly at this fractious time.

LUX: Can you tell us a little about your work with Delfina Foundation?
Alia Al-Senussi: ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ – that is my motto, and one that I see embodied in the work of Aaron Cezar in his role as Director of Delfina Foundation. Aaron, and the foundation, are unlike any other. Delfina is a home, not just at its physical space in London, but also throughout the world whenever you come across residents (artists, curators and collectors). Delfina Foundation is a safe haven, and Aaron is the ultimate angel, providing solace and shepherding our entire community to embrace new concepts while breaking down the intellectual barriers that keep us apart.

Read more: Juanita Ingram on empowering women in the workplace

LUX: What are your proudest achievements?
Alia Al-Senussi: I discovered my passion for art and the art world by chance. Upon graduating with my MsC from LSE, some friends recommended that I meet Michael Hue-Williams to work on a project he had created in Siwa, Egypt, with the world-renowned artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov.

I had never worked in the arts, but as I had an interest for non-governmental organisations working in the Middle East, I thought this would be an interesting first job for me. Also, the fact that Siwa bordered Libya was particularly poignant.

In the end, it was fate and I fell in love with art, the art world and everything about it. I saw it as being a perfect way for me to balance my interest in political science, international relations and the history of the Middle East with a “softer” way of approaching the difficult issues facing the region.

My entire life is shaped by this first art world experience, and by the belief that an international cosmopolitan world is a better one. Every time I make an introduction, conceive a project or bring people somewhere new, I feel a deep sense of pride – the world shrinks that tiny bit more and we learn more about our neighbours and about humanity.

LUX: How will COVID-19 affect what do you do?
Alia Al-Senussi: I hope, and fervently believe, that people will realise the importance of culture in this new and renewed world. Of course things are moving online in the short term, and I believe that this means we can share our shows and messages with a wider audience and hopefully make them want to come see things in real life. Art Basel provided me, and so many, with an online community, but this was not a substitute for the thrill of interacting with people, swapping stories, having fun and experiences in Hong Kong, Miami and Basel.

Al-Senussi at The Lightning Field.

LUX: We know you have been passionately engaged with the US election process and we would love you to share with us a few ways you think the result will benefit the work of your partners over the next four years.
Alia Al-Senussi: I have decided to embrace beauty. I also have committed myself to art and artists that reflect my values, and who work to effect positive change in their worlds, and in mine.

A large part of my Libyan identity was actually shaped by my mother, an American of Scandinavian-German origin who grew up in Worthington, Minnesota. My mother studied International History for her Bachelor’s degree in Minnesota. She fell in love with Middle Eastern culture so upon graduating decided to pursue a Master’s at the American University of Cairo. It was in Cairo that she met my father.

My American identity is inextricably linked to my Libyan heritage, to my belief in an international cosmopolitan world, and to the life I have built for myself in London, the Middle East and Asia. Everything I held dear was shattered in 2016, by others’ small-minded desire to isolate ourselves from the “other” in the US and the UK. I couldn’t imagine that was the world I was living in. How could my community reject the essence of me in such a way? My friends bundled me up, helped me to heal and gave me my marching orders (literally!). Going to the Women’s March in Washington was a therapeutic moment, and now four years later I see the change again, and I am hopeful we can rebuild and evolve by making a world that is more equitable and by embracing the ideals that I hold dear.

LUX: Any other advice for our readers who might be considering going into art philanthropy?
Alia Al-Senussi: Artists, collectors and institutions are becoming more aware, and truly taking ownership of their ability to be change-makers. I applaud institutions like the Tate that are working to accurately reflect our world in their galleries—a global cosmopolitan world.

Fill yourself with passion, surround yourself with people you admire and embrace the idea of what is right, rejecting what is wrong. As mentioned before, a rising tide lifts all boats, so make sure your community rises with you.

Follow Ali Al-Senussi on LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/alia-al-senussi

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Reading time: 11 min
Models on catwalk at fashion week
Models on catwalk at fashion week

Atelier Zuhra’s latest collection “The Immaculate Flight of the Phoenix” showcased at London Fashion Week over the weekend. Image by Daniel John Cotton @cottonphotographer

Rayan Al Sulaimani is the female entrepreneur behind the growing couture fashion house Atelier Zuhra. Since its launch in 2015, Atelier Zuhra has had a growing presence on Hollywood’s red carpet. Following the launch of her latest collection at London Fashion Week, Emma Marnell speaks to the designer about fairytale dresses, timeless couture and her cultural heritage

Middle Eastern woman wearing headscarf

Rayan Al Sulaimani

1. The brand is named after your grandmother – has she always been a style inspiration for you?

My grandmother Zuhra is a strong Omani woman with a great passion for living life to the fullest. Yes indeed, she has always been a style inspiration, but eventually through the years I have also developed my own unique sense of style.

Follow LUX on Instagram: luxthemagazine

2. What led you to focus on evening wear and specifically, show-stopping dresses?

From a young age, it has always been my dream to dress celebrities for big red-carpet events in a fairytale like Cinderella gown or to dress a bride at her wedding and help her dreams come true. Hence, from the very beginning we have always focused on creating show-stopping dresses.

Model on catwalk wearing black feathered dress

Atelier Zuhra’s LFW 2020 collection. Image by Garry Carbon @becauseimgarry

3. Can you talk us through the inspiration behind your LFW collection?

The collection is called “The Immaculate Flight of the Phoenix”.

In mythology the phoenix is a powerful bird which cyclically regenerates and is continually reborn over and over again in human legend and imagination. In the same way, this symbolises the beauty of ethereal everlasting couture as this immaculate bird represents the idea that the end is only ever the beginning.

Read more: Vik Muniz’s photography series for Ruinart

The LFW collection entwines beautiful tailoring with modern innovation and couture. The collection is brilliantly coloured in black and grey to represent the ashes of the phoenix. Contrastingly, its eyes are blue and shine like sapphires. Whereas the lilac and other ethereal playful colours are associated with the rising sun and fire, illuminating in the sky. Everything we have created in this collection is emphatically elegant and impeccably designed so that it looks like it would feel delightful to wear and to walk in.

backstage at a fashion show

Backstage at Atelier Zuhra’s LFW 2020 show. Image by Daniel John Cotton @cottonphotographer

4. How are your designs influenced by your cultural heritage?

Middle Eastern culture has definitely been a source of inspiration for all of our creations. Being born and brought up here [in Oman], I have grown up as a part of this beautiful culture, and knowingly or unknowingly it is somehow reflected in my designs. I would say the Middle Eastern influences are most recognisable in the silhouettes that we work with.

Model wearing maximalist dress on catwalk

Atelier Zuhra LFW 2020. Image by Image by Daniel John Cotton @cottonphotographer

5. When you’re dressing down, what’s your go to outfit?

My personal style is very classic and chic.

6. Who would be your dream to dress for the red carpet?

Angelina Jolie, Blake Lively, the Kardashians and Scarlett Johansson.

Discover the collections: atelier-zuhra.com

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Reading time: 2 min
Luxury hotel interiors of a drawing room with painted walls and soft furnishings
Facade of a grand mansion house

The Rocco Forte Balmoral hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland

Since he created it in 1996, Sir Rocco Forte has grown his eponymous luxury hotel group to include multiple properties in key destinations across Europe, with a major expansion this year within his family’s native Italy. And there are plans for the boutique group to move into the US, Middle East and Asia. LUX’s Editor-in-Chief Darius Sanai speaks to the group’s chairman and founder about new openings, changes in the hospitality industry and what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur
Colour portrait of a middle aged man in a suit

Sir Rocco Forte, Chairman of Rocco Forte Hotels

LUX: Rocco Forte hotels is currently in a period of planned rapid expansion – why now?
Sir Rocco Forte: We had a period of consolidation after the financial crisis and have gradually come out of that and the business profitability increased. We’ve improved the quality of the management team. Generally taking the company forward, it was the right moment to start expanding again and looking at adding additional properties…

There are a huge number of different luxury brands within Marriott. Having said that, I think there’s an opportunity for the niche player somewhere, a business that is much more personalised in its approach to its customers, where attention to detail is extremely important. I think people are looking for things which are more individual, more related to where they are going. They want the rubber stamp wherever they go. I think it is going to get more and more difficult for these big companies to actually deliver that, and for a smaller organisation like mine, it’s easier because the top management is hands on. The business and the detail of business has some advantages.

Follow LUX on Instagram: the.official.lux.magazine

LUX: How has the landscape and your business philosophy changed since you started?
Sir Rocco Forte: It’s changed significantly on the technological side, the way people buy hotels in particular is much more a business done through the internet than there was than it was before, there are online travel agents who are becoming quite powerful. Customers are now more inclined to book through the web than going to direct to hotel. Then there’s the social media aspect which is also becoming more important, as a means of communication and promotion of properties. There is an interaction between guests who have tried properties and posted comments and so on. This is picked up by other people and used to validate their choice. TripAdvisor type sites didn’t really exist before and now people use it to make up their minds about hotels. Then you have the back of the house side of things; technologies have come in there and give management a greater ability to know their guests. There is increased technology in the rooms, television, wi-fi. Wi-fi became available 20 years ago and now people complain unless they had the fastest band available in the hotel. People used to pay for wi-fi and now they don’t want to pay for it anymore. Telephones, actual landlines have gone out of the hotels; they are hardly used.

In terms of the actual service side, the principles remain the same. The customer wants to be treated as an individual, wants to feel a warm welcome when he goes into a hotel, wants to be recognised. Maybe the relationship between the customer and the staff members has changed to some degree, it’s become slightly less formal, which is something that we did from the beginning.  I wanted to de-formalise the service to some degree. Then you’ve also got to keep up to date in a hotel because there are things that people have in their own houses that they expect to find at a hotel and it is a competitive market place.

Luxury hotel interiors of a drawing room with painted walls and soft furnishings

The front hall at Brown’s, a Rocco Forte hotel in London. Photo by Janos Grapow

LUX: The marketplace is much more crowded nowadays with new players coming in and there’s Airbnb. What is it that has allowed you to keep going and growing with so much more supply?
Sir Rocco Forte: Airbnb doesn’t really effect the luxury end to any great degree. Airbnb has already started to show problems with consistency. There are plenty of niche players coming in and it does eat into the marketplace, but if you have a well-located hotel and you deliver an excellent service and have a regular clientele that like the place, it’s very difficult to prize a luxury customer away from a hotel that he’s used to and where the staff are trained to his needs. There have been a lot of new openings in London and there are more in the pipeline; there’s always a supply and demand equation. I think you’ve got to try and distinguish your hotel group from others and make a potential customer feel that they will get something special, something different if they come to you. The staff are the people who deliver the service and you’ve got to ensure that they’re motivated in the right way. They need to have the right training, the right philosophical background. We put a lot of effort into induction where we tell them about the family, the history of the company, the history of the hotel and something about the city where the hotel is located  so everyone has a sense of heritage and belonging as a family. It is my sister and myself and three children running the hotels, we know a lot of the individual staff members and it creates a sense of warmth in our hotels which you cannot necessarily find anywhere else.

Read more: Chaumet’s latest exhibition reveals the symbolic power of tiaras

LUX: Is it important that your guests can recognise the brand when they’re staying at one of your hotels?
Sir Rocco Forte: Yes, part of having a group is that, you get cross fertilisation and you get customers using more than one hotel, following the brand. So the brand is important because the customer knows that if he comes to Brown’s or goes to Hotel de Russie in Rome, he will get a certain type of service and a certain type of welcome.

LUX: A lot of your properties are significant and historic properties in individual cities, how do you imbue them with the Rocco Forte brand?
Sir Rocco Forte: The induction is consistent throughout the company that creates the blueprint on which the hotel is based. My sister who leads the decor has a strong agenda and sense of place. It is very difficult sometimes to please everybody. The thing is you get a hotel designer to design the hotel and there are the prototype rooms, but it is never quite finished, it is a design hotel, you are always adding little bits and pieces and so on, which gives a more personalised touch. My sister does that very well. She usually buys locally, which give the rooms a more homely feel.

Views from a luxury terrace over a European city

The view from the Popolo Suite at Hotel de Russie in Rome

LUX: You have lots of developments happening in Italy at the moment – is Italy a particularly important destination to you?
Sir Rocco Forte: Italy is not the easiest place to do business, so in a way that is an advantage for us. Italy is a tourist destination, it is the prime tourist destination in the world. The American market loves Italy and that’s a very important market for travel. About 40% of our business comes from the States, you can get high prices for the rooms you sell, which in some destinations it’s impossible to do. So from that point of view, it’s attractive. The bureaucracy and the labour laws make it difficult, but the demand is there if you get the right hotel in the right location and at the price.

LUX: And Italy is underserved by luxury hotels, isn’t it?
Sir Rocco Forte: Yes, there’s no luxury chain across Italy, and we now have the opportunity to create one. We have six hotels and the three new hotels that we’re developing — we are doing a second hotel in Rome, a small 40 bedroom hotel in Puglia, and we have just taken on a place in Palermo, which is a 100 bedroom hotel and used to be a jewel of a place, but is now very run down and it’s been badly run for many years. It is a wonderful destination hotel. The city Palermo is having a revival, a lot of people are buying houses there, and doing them up. It is quite a good time to go in there and I already have a resort in south of Sicily, and Palermo is the airport you use for that so having the two properties working together is beneficial. But obviously, I need to be in Venice and Milan, I’d like to be on the Amalfi coast and some of the other heritage cities with smaller hotels. I am pushing to try and get there.

I also still want to be in the States…New York and LA and Miami maybe, I’d like to be in Paris, I’d like to be in Moscow, and probably another German city. Hamburg or Dusseldorf would complete the German equation. We are doing our first hotel in the Far East, in Shanghai, which will open next year. We don’t have a clear date, things get delayed quite a lot there.  It is moving forward, but slower than it is supposed to. That will be our first step into that part of the world. We will see. If I am going to travel to my hotels and if they are way out, that’s less attractive. I have to think carefully about it, about how far we extend geographically. Within Europe it is fairly straightforward.

Read more: Maryam Eisler’s new photography series reimagines pastoral romance

LUX: With the new portfolio that you are developing, are most of the hotels owned or managed, or both?
Sir Rocco Forte: The Palermo hotel we bought, but we probably won’t keep the ownership. We are talking to a partner about taking it on and leasing it back to us. The other two are leases, I prefer leases to management contracts because we’re in control with a lease. You have complete control of the property and you can do more or less what you want. With a management contract, the owner tends to interfere all the time. He thinks he knows how to run the property better than you do. If the hotel is doing well, he doesn’t need you, if the hotel is doing badly it is your fault. You take on more risk with a lease, but then it is a bigger upside and you have control over your own destiny.

Luxury hotel suite with plush furnishings

A Junior Suite at Hotel de La Ville, one of two Rocco Forte hotels in Rome

LUX: As an entrepreneur, what qualities have you needed to get to this stage with RF Hotels?
Sir Rocco Forte: Very difficult to say. I think you have to have a passion for what you’re doing, what you want to do, and you have to really care, and have people around you who believe in what you’re trying to do, who will help you to do it. You have to have determination. Where there are obstacles you have to overcome them. You have to have the determination to overcome them, not take no for an answer, continuously try to move things forward. It is easy to get dispirited, upset and to give up. A lot of people do, but I am not made that way and I am always looking forward, always looking to see if I can do things better. It is that, and I think the minute I stop having a passion, then I should stop working. But I hope that will never happen.

LUX: Do you have dreams of passing on the business to your children one day?
Sir Rocco Forte: Yes, but my kid are still in the early stages and they might well reach a stage, where they don’t want to take on responsibility so we’ll see. At the moment, that’s the idea. And it’s good having them working the business, it gives a certain continuity to the business and it adds value to the business. In the short term, it makes us different to a lot of other companies and from a personal point of view, it gives me a huge amount of pleasure: my kids have left home, but I see them all the time. We’ve got something in common to talk about and to argue about, and to enjoy. You never know — I could go under the proverbial bus tomorrow. And then what happens? The business is in a position where it can continue to go forward, but then my family would have to decide what they want to do.

LUX: Talking about the younger generation, do you think that, as customers, their demands of the hospitality industry are different?
Sir Rocco Forte: Apart from the technological side that we were talking about it earlier, the way they dress is differently, but in the end of the day they still enjoy service and being looked after. It depends…a lot of them are brought up under very comfortable circumstances and they understand that way of life and I don’t think they are particularly different. All the ones I’ve seen using my hotels, seem to enjoy the facilities like anybody else. I suppose there is more of a consciousness of wellness and well-being and looking after yourself than there was in the previous generations. We meet those demands through the facilities that we have in the hotels already. But I wouldn’t say there is anything dramatic and to build a hotel for a specific sector of a population is narrowing your market quite considerably. I also think people whether they are millennials or older people, like the idea of heritage and like the idea of history, and they enjoy it when they experience it — I don’t think that has changed. Most people want to know what is the next thing? I don’t know what the next thing is, but I think hotels tend to follow trends rather than set them. Mine do anyway. I think in the luxury sector, that is more so than it is anywhere… You have hotels now that have no staff, you put a credit card in a slot, you get a room key and you go up to your room. And there isn’t a restaurant, there are communal rooms for people to use, you help yourself, all these sorts of things, but not at the top end of the market. I don’t see anything dramatic on the horizon.

Read more: Where I would invest £100m in property by Knight Frank’s Andrew Hay

LUX: Your portfolio is predominantly city-based. Have you ever been tempted to start a resort hotel in tropical climates? And if not, why not?
Sir Rocco Forte: Because anything I’ve looked at hasn’t really worked financially. I haven’t managed to find anything. The hotel in Puglia has a beach facility available, but it is not on the sea. And then there is a seasonality thing, which is difficult. When you are building a new hotel from scratch, to finance that on quite a short winter season, for example, is difficult because it closes, then it opens for a very short summer season and then it closes again…

Luxury contemporary style villa with a private pool and wooden terrace

A luxurious villa at Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort in Sicily

LUX: And what about the residences model that a lot of new hotels seem to have now, is that something you’d ever consider?
Sir Rocco Forte: It depends on the property, the location and the size of the property. But in Rome we’re now doing five luxury apartments, which are situated on the corner of Piazza de Spagna, which is within walking distance to our hotels (one is on top of the Spanish steps and the other one is on Piazza del Popolo). So that’s a new endeavour. Also we’re building some villas now in Verdura, which initially will be let as basically a sort of extended stay or hotel accommodation for families who want to stay together in one unit. We’re starting to get into that market.

LUX: Are there any other new developments in the pipeline that we should know about?
Sir Rocco Forte: My daughter has been working on the spas. The spa in the new hotel in Rome will be her spa design, which she thinks will be the first properly designed spa. She thinks that it has more activity and treatments and so on, which will encourage people to come and see. There are a range of creams that she produced which are properly organic so that is a bit of a new venture. Otherwise, we are continually looking to improve the facilities in our hotels. We are looking at the food side particularly. It is difficult for hotels to do restaurants well. We are always searching. A lot of places that have successful restaurants started out being run by restauranteurs, rather than hoteliers and then they have a few rooms as well. For example, Chiltern Firehouse or Costes originally, they had a few rooms and then they bought the hotel next door extending it. I haven’t found the key to creating really successful restaurants. Our restaurants are doing well by the standards of hotel restaurants. If we are doing 120 covers a day, we are happy, but there are restaurants doing 250 covers a day. Some hotel restaurants you go into, you never see anybody there. That is not the case with ours, but we can do a lot better than we do.

Discover the full Rocco Forte portfolio: roccofortehotels.com

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Reading time: 15 min