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Nov. 22, 2021, 12:36 p.m. EST

20 Minutes With: Prolific Art Collector Mohammed Afkhami

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As the founder of Dubai-based investment giant Magenta Capital Partners, Mohammed Afkhami knows the art of the deal. And as a voracious collector, he also knows the deal in art. Now, standouts of his 600-piece collection form the basis of a new exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York.

Rebel, Jester, Mystic, Poet: Contemporary Persians—The Mohammed Afkhami Collection ” showcases 23 artists—all but one Iranian-born—whose work “probes subjects such as gender identity, war and peace, politics and religion, and spirituality,” according to a museum statement. Eleven of the artists still live in Tehran; the rest are spread across North America and Europe.  

Afkhami, 46, takes their art personally. Swiss-born, he lived in Tehran until the 1979 revolution, when his family returned to Europe. “My maternal grandfather had a 20,000-piece Islamic art collection, one of the largest in the world,” he tells Penta . “After the revolution, much of it was nationalized.” 

Today, through his own collection, Afkhami’s become a high-profile champion of Iranian art. The contents of the show, which ran in Toronto and Houston , may surprise the uninitiated, he says. “The work crosses so many media—ceramic, photography, mirror work, fiberglass, collage,” he says. “And issues like gender equality come up, which is not exclusive to the U.S.”

The show runs from through May 8, 2022.

Crowned one of the world’s top 200 international collectors by Artnews , Afkhami lives between Dubai, New York, and London, where he’s also vice chairman of real estate investment firm London Strategic Land . He spoke to Penta from Southampton, N.Y.

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

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

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about Iranian art or artists?

People have a rather dark image of militant Islam with Arabic calligraphy—that is, if they even think Iran has art. What they find instead is creativity and versatility.

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

I would recommend [Tehran-based artists] Nazgol Ansarinia, Alireza Dayani , Morteza Ahmadvand , and Shahpour Pouyan , all of whom are in the show. There are a bunch of artists in the single-digit thousands who have tremendous runway in terms of career and price. Big-name galleries like Gagosian and Lehmann Maupin now have Iranian artists in their stables. And over the last 15 years, established museums from the Pompidou to LACMA to the Tate have put together acquisition committees to buy art from Iran and the greater Middle East. There’s a widening audience.

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

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

What was the first piece of art you bought?

It was a random event. I was in Iran in 2004, on a short visit to see my father and some family. A friend took me to see some contemporary art galleries in northern Tehran. There were two artists whose work resonated with me—[abstract painter] Sirak Malkonian and [contemporary artist] Mahsood Arabshahi. I asked how much their work cost. Iranian currency had so many zeros, and I was so conditioned to Western pricing. My friend said, ‘No, 500,000 tomans is US$500 US.’ So I bought both of them.

When you buy art, are you guided by your gut, or by investment metrics?

It’s all been gut. Over time, and as my collection grew, it’s become more tactical, but not with the purpose of enriching myself. Along the way, I came across Western art dealers who tried convincing me it was madness to buy Iranian art with no liquidation value. So I did buy some Western artists I liked, but with advisers. 

Those artists included Kusama , Serra , Kapoor , Gormley —the living icons of today. They’ve served as a great hedge. The value appreciation in those works has allowed me to be more aggressive on the Iranian front. On a cost basis, the value of collection has held itself. The Iranian work has probably appreciated too, but it’s harder to know. But I don’t think of it as a financial asset. It’s more of a floating ambassadorial project.

What about a private museum, a la Rubell or Glenstone ?

I love that idea, but I’m a hard pragmatist. It’s more important than anything to have maximum eyeballs on the collection. And there are sustainability issues. People don’t think through what you need to sustain a private museum over 30, 40, 50 years. What we’re doing now keeps the art out there, moving, and relevant. 

What’s the contemporary art scene like in Iran?

It’s mushroomed. When I first bought there in 2004, there were only six galleries. Now, there are something like 150, and they’re such an important feature in Iranian society. Despite the troubles the country faces, the fervor for its own artworks is quite impressive.

Since you’re acting as a de facto art ambassador, are you thinking about promoting other aspects of Iranian culture? 

I am. The next phase will involve literature and food. Iranian literature is incredible. Some of the great philosophers and poets of the world come from Iran—think of Rumi , Omar Khayyam , or Hafez . People constantly quote them, often without realizing they’re from Iran. And our food is one of the best cuisines on the planet. There’s commercial potential, too. Our fine stews would not lend themselves to fast food, but an Iranian kebab will give any burger a run for its money. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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