The Plight of Women
Groundbreaking Work by Jewad Selim Leads Bonhams Middle Eastern Art Sale

One of the earliest works to explore the plight of women within the Arab world, Nisa Fi Al-Intidar ("Women Waiting") by Jewad Selim (Iraq, 1919-61) leads the Bonhams live behind-closed-doors Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art sale on 11 June in London. An iconic painting by the father of Iraqi Modernism, it has an estimate of £150,000-250,000.

Widely published and exhibited at the artist's major 1968 retrospective at the National Museum of Modern Art in Iraq, Nisa Fi Al-Intidar ("Women Waiting") was executed in 1943 and depicts sex workers from the back alleys of Baghdad – women subjugated by poverty and mostly illiterate, conditions which forced them into prostitution to survive. For Selim, the work was not only a comment on the plight of the prostitutes he depicted, but on all women whose lives depended on waiting for a man's favour, including young girls waiting to be betrothed purely to secure their transition to adulthood.

The painting is a seminal work from a transitional phase in Selim's life and was exhibited at the artist's first-ever solo show in Baghdad in 1950. He had returned Baghdad after an artistic education in Paris and Rome and he drew upon the avant-garde techniques he learned whilst in Europe to reassess the stylistic traditions of Iraq. The overtly feminist themes were radical for a work painted in 1943. 'Feminism' as a concept was still only in its early stages of development within Europe, and its themes were yet to be gain any significant recognition with artists in the Arab world.

Bonhams Head of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art, Nima Sagharchi, commented: "Whilst the ennoblement and admiration of women is a central theme in Modern Arab Art, it is almost unheard of for a Middle Eastern artist as early as the 1940s to be making clear socio-political statements about the status of women and their lack of independence, which makes Women Waiting perhaps the first overtly feminist painting to come out of the Middle East."

The artist's daughter, Miriam Selim, said: "Artists were appalled at the conditions of poverty, illiteracy and subjugation of a lot of Iraqi women during this period in Iraq's history. They were concerned about the situation of illiterate women who were "waiting" for marriage or who were forced to work as prostitutes. Jewad was very proud of his sister Neziha for having the courage to break out of the tradition of "waiting" and leaving to study art in Paris. The painting will have been a statement of the plight of women at this time."

A major mirror work by Monir Farmanfarmaian (Iran 1924-2019) is also included in the sale, from her landmark Geometric Installations series. The Magnificent Sacred is a meter-wide nonagon of mirrors and painted glass inlaid in wood and combines her deep understanding of numerology and symbolism with classical Islamic art and post-war abstraction. It was exhibited at Farmanfarmaian's major retrospective at the Niavaran Palace in Tehran in 2006 and is one of the most technically complex examples of her iconic mirror work. It has an estimate of £100,000-200,000.

Farmanfarmaian rose to international acclaim winning a gold medal at the Venice Biennale in 1958, and developed her first mirrored, geometric sculptures in 1969. Only as western curators have begun to readdress the historic role of female artists, has she begun to be recognised for her part in shaping post-war abstraction, having often worked alongside contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning at their famed Eighth Street Club. A 2015 retrospective at the Guggenheim museum in New York cemented her life time achievements – seven decades after she first arrived in the city. Monir Farmanfarmaian died last year, aged 96.

Another star lot is El-Amira, a magnificent bronze statue by Mahmoud Mokhtar (Egypt 1891-1934). Self-styled as the first Egyptian sculptor in over two millennia, Mokhtar radically shaped the history of Egypt, with his pioneering approach to modern art revivifying a national symbolism. El-Amira, is evidence of this; a perfect casting of a fellaha (meaning 'peasant woman'), idolised and transformed into a Pharaonic symbol of Egypt. Estimate: £90,000-120,000.

Despite a short career, Mokhtar is esteemed as Egypt's most famous sculptor. His deft blend of allegorical Islamic figures with a classical academic style was honed after winning a scholarship to École des Beaux-Arts in Paris – a far cry from moulding figurines out of mud from the Nile riverbanks, as he would later recall. His most famous work, Nahdat Misr ('Egypt Awakening'), monumentalised in Cairo, captured the national spirit of the 1919 Egyptian Revolution against British occupation, and includes two figures, a sphinx and Mokhtar's emblematic fellaha.

The sale will be a live 'behind-closed-doors' auction on 11 June. An auctioneer will be present on the rostrum, and bids will be accepted in the following formats: online, on the phone, or by leaving an absentee bid. All bidding will be done remotely in accordance with the latest government guidelines.

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