The Art World Star You’ve Never Heard Of
Most galleries do their utmost to get the artists they represent into museum collections. It increases prestige for everyone involved and, in the case of young artists, helps solidify their reputations as legitimate subjects to collect: Someone good enough for the Museum of Modern Art is good enough for everyone else.
Few dealers, though, could dream of the level of institutional attention that’s been lavished on 32 year-old Lawrence Abu Hamdan, an Amman, Jordan-born, Europe-based artist who’s made waves ever since his The Freedom of Speech Itself, a documentary project that tackled Britain’s use of voice analysis to vet asylum seekers, was considered significant enough to be submitted to the U.K.’s official asylum tribunal as evidence. (Abu Hamdan also testified as an expert witness.)
Since then, his work has been exhibited in dozens of institutions, including the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the New Museum in New York, and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and has been acquired by a laundry list of the world’s top museums, such as New York’s MoMA and Guggenheim museums, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands.
In October, London’s Tate Modern announced that it would acquire Abu Hamdan’s Rubber Coated Steel as a part of its Frieze acquisitions. The work is a “wonderful, complex installation,” says Tate curator Andrea Lissoni in an accompanying video on Frieze.com. “[Abu Hamdan] is interested in understanding how sound can be a fundamental device to interrogate the representation of reality.”
Part of Abu Hamdan’s appeal comes from the pitch-perfect topicality of his work. His art focuses on the physical and social effects of sound, with a particular emphasis on emigration, the Middle East, and refugees. His 2013 “audio essay,” Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley , for instance, captured the plight of the Druze people, an ethno-religious community split by border between Israel and Syria, whose members “gather on both sides of the Israeli/ Syrian Border and shout across the jurisdictions to family and friends on the other side.”
A more recent work, Sayndaya (the missing 19db), from 2016, was created in conjunction with Amnesty International: Sayndaya is a prison in Syria at which about 13,000 people have been executed by the Syrian government since 2011. Because survivors of the prison were often incarcerated blindfolded, their testimony is based on what they heard, rather than saw. Abu Hamdan, in turn, created an installation at the Sharjah Biennial, where visitors entered a dim room, lit only by a small light box, in which they heard an “article of evidence” produced by Abu Hamdan from the prisoners’ testimony.
“In the U.K and the rest of the world at the moment, there is a popular movement towards wanting to take [political] action,” says Tate Director Maria Balshaw. “As soon as you’re in that terrain, Lawrence’s work makes absolute sense.”
Another, crucial aspect of Abu Hamdan’s appeal is his accessibility. Many artists’ work is similarly conceptual and political, but much of it is impenetrable or laden with art-jargon; on occasion, it’s interesting in concept but tedious in practice.
Abu Hamdan’s art, in contrast, is relatively easy for the non-art world public to understand, and—crucially—fascinating to watch or listen to. “It’s part of his genius,” says Maureen Paley, whose namesake gallery represents Abu Hamdan in London. “He has that ability to translate and communicate across a wide spectrum.”
This is particular catnip to museum curators who need to balance so-called contemporary art discourse with the needs of an interested, if not art world-savvy, public.
Until now, however, Abu Hamdan has been relatively unknown outside a small contingent of curators and dealers. That’s partly because he’s comparatively young, partly because he’s made relatively few artworks, and partly because those artworks aren’t commercial enough to appear in design magazines or, for that matter, auction catalogues.
“We’re not talking about a very commercial artist,” says Philippe Charpentier, a co-founder of the Paris gallery Mor Charpentier, which also represents Abu Hamdan. “It’s a tiny production, too. You have two to three new bodies of work a year.” Of those works, many are major installations rather than, say, editions of photographs that can be parceled out and sold in volume.
Paley, his London dealer, echoes that sentiment. “We’re talking about relatively few pieces in the world,” she says. “Because of their potency and importance, they’ve gone to museums.”
Charpentier is showing two works by Abu Hamdan in his booth at the FIAC art fair, which takes place from Oct. 19: two “acoustic paint works” and a light box that was part of the Sayndaya installation at the Sharjah Biennial. All those works range from 7,000 euros ($8,300) to 12,000 euros, while Abu Hamdan’s larger installations cost in the range of 35,000 euros. Smaller works like those at FIAC are relatively easy to live with, though the majority of his art, which obviously has an audio component, is much harder for the casual collector to live with, and complicates his market appeal.
But while his prices represent a significant amount of money for most people, in relation to his peers (and particularly considering the mountain of awards Abu Hamdan has received in relation to those peers), those prices are almost preposterously low. “To be honest, he’s only 32 years old,” says Charpentier. “Promising, very brilliant, but he’s only 32. It wouldn’t be smart to raise the price.”
This is almost certainly a temporary condition, however. As Abu Hamdan’s profile rises, his prices will almost certainly rise with it.
Presently though, Charpentier says he is going to continue to focus on selling Abu Hamdan’s work to “ important conceptual collections and institutions,” he says. “That’s the priority.”
This also means that interested, adventurous, non-super wealthy collectors might have the chance—at least for a moment—to participate in the career of an artist whom the world’s kingmakers have already anointed a star.
In the meantime, the sheer volume of museums that have acquired his artworks means that— unlike many other young artists— the global public has access to Abu Hamdan’s art. Additionally, Abu Hamdan has shows scheduled next year at the Chisenhale Gallery in London and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and he has several long-term projects in the works.
“He’s a smart guy, very charismatic and very focused regarding the most important topics of the day,” says Charpentier. “This kind of discourse is absolutely key.”