Somerset House, London
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Experimental feature

Each year an artist is commissioned to take over the central court at Somerset House in London during the contemporary African art fair 1-54, which opens to the public on October 4. This year, the 88-year-old Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi will show his first sculptural project, “Meditation Tree”, inspired by the indigenous Haraz tree. With its spiky thorns and unusual behaviour — it drops its leaves while other trees grow them — the Haraz tree is celebrated in Sudanese proverbs, songs, poetry and drama. And, for El-Salahi, it’s a metaphor for artistic identity.

The commission comes thanks to the Kamel Lazaar Foundation (KLF), which is funding the work through El-Salahi’s London gallery, Vigo. KLF, which collects and promotes art from the MENA regions (Middle East, north Africa), has taken on a three-year sponsorship of the courtyard. Vigo is showing further trees as part of the same installation.

I meet Kamel Lazaar, the Tunisian-born financier and founder of KLF, in the old-style grandeur of the Lanesborough Hotel in London. He is between two trips — later that day he is off to Istanbul to spend time at an artist’s studio. Softly-spoken, with a thatch of white hair and wearing a casual checked shirt, he talks about why he started the foundation, his battles with the Tunisian government and the importance of making culture from the MENA region better known abroad.

Lazaar doesn’t come from an art-focused family; he started collecting seriously in the late 1980s after making his fortune (estimated at around £300m in 2013) founding the financial services group Swicorp. At first he bought Tunisian artists, before moving on to the wider MENA field. He says the collection now numbers close to 1,500 pieces, ranging from well-known names, such as Shirin Neshat, Kader Attia and Etel Adnan, to newer voices, such as Malek Gnaoui.

He believes art from the MENA area is still under-researched and under-exhibited. “I see so many artistic practices brewing that are not being shown or acknowledged,” he says. “Collecting is the most basic way I can be an activist in the art world — one becomes the custodian of ideas and practices.”

His mission is to make art and culture from the MENA region better known, and the foundation does this through myriad projects, from publishing, grants and fellowships to educational initiatives. “I believe that culture must be built from the roots up,” he says.

Ibrahim El-Salahi’s ‘Meditation Tree’

Not all the projects have seen the light of day, and indeed one long-running attempt to build a space for the collection in Tunisia has repeatedly been rejected by the government. Lazaar started the foundation in 2005; it is based in Switzerland because Tunisian law doesn’t allow such institutions. “And I wanted to ringfence the collection and build a space,” he says.

His daughter Lina, one of his four children, is vice-president of the foundation. “I started this as a solo journey, and then Lina came in and gave her life to the foundation, working full-time,” he explains. Do they always agree? “Sometimes not,” he says. “But even if we don’t, we still might buy something. And we never, ever sell anything.” Lina, he says, “has a different view. She tells me, ‘We have some less interesting works in here we should consider parting with!’”

Later that day she speaks to me on the telephone from Tunisia. Born in Riyadh, raised in Geneva and now living between London and the UAE, Lina seemed destined for a career in finance, but after five years at HEC and LSE, she says she found her “passion lay, not in numbers, but in all things related to art”. After training at Sotheby’s Institute in London, Lina moved on to the auction house, where she organised its first ever auction of Arab and Iranian Contemporary art in 2006.

“In my 10 years with Sotheby’s, I was able to give MENA artists a platform and visibility to showcase their talents,” she says. She fizzes with passion about other projects: the foundation has a publishing arm, Ibraaz, which will soon be relaunched, as well as Jaou, a platform for exhibitions and seminars.

Kamel and Lina Lazaar

Last year Lina curated the Tunisian pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale — the first time Tunisia has had a pavilion since 1958. Entitled The Absence of Paths, the exhibition and performance examined the issue of migration, featuring kiosks manned by would-be migrants issuing universal travel documents. “Migration and human movement was such an important, emotive and crisis-filled subject that we wanted to highlight the absurdity of the world we are living in by staging a dramatic performance by migrants distributing free visas to the world,” she explains.

But the Tunisian authorities weren’t initially keen on the project. “The country had suffered a massive tourism crisis following successive terrorist attacks, bringing an already fragile economy to its knees,” she says. “The government tends to use art to suit a projected image of the country. And as you can imagine, they were quite convinced the young men would not return to Tunisia.” In fact they did return, and the foundation now employs two of them.

Another point of contention between the KLF and the government has been the drive to establish a permanent space for the collection. “We are Einstein’s definition of insanity — we keep doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result!” she jokes. The foundation is on its fifth attempt to get agreement for a building in Carthage: an initial plan by Zaha Hadid was rejected, as were subsequent ones. The problem, says Lina, is a misunderstanding of the nature of philanthropy. “The government doesn’t seem to trust people’s genuine desire to impact the cultural scene,” she says.

Meanwhile, Lina is looking at the collection with a more critical eye. “I think it needs a very gentle spring clean,” she says. “My father is a purist, and the collection is also about relationships and commitment to the artists. But we want to institutionalise the collection, to create broader layers of narrative. I would be happy to have fewer works if a tighter collection triggered broader curatorial interest.”

I ask her if she and her father always agree. “Of course not!” she replies. “We can disagree, but it must be with passion, and we have to maintain openness to follow through on the conversation. Sometimes we end up in better places.” She adds, “It can take time, but we are not in a rush. This work won’t be finished by either of us.”

They are both hoping that they will be able to organise the Tunisian pavilion for next year’s Venice Biennale. Following the positive critical reception of last year’s initiative, the foundation is now in discussions with the government. Will it happen? “We are getting positive feedback,” says Lazaar.

“Fingers crossed!” says Lina.

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