We met because Basma and one of my friends shared a divorce lawyer!” Gallerist Pearl Lam and her friend Basma Al Sulaiman have a good laugh as they sit in Al Sulaiman’s impressively decorated, art-filled London home. Lam recalls their first meeting around 2004 while drinking tea: “The lawyer introduced my friend to Basma and said: ‘If you collect Chinese art, you should meet Pearl.’
With her gravity-defying purple bob – paired when we meet with a lemon yellow sweater – Lam has been involved in the Chinese art world for nearly 30 years. In 1993 she began collecting Chinese art; in 2005 she opened her first physical space in Shanghai and since 2012 has a second Pearl Lam Galleries space in her hometown of Hong Kong, representing home-grown and international artists from pioneering Chinese abstract painter Zhu Jinshi to British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare.
Al Sulaiman, born in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile began collecting contemporary art in the 1990s. Her first purchase was a Hockney, and today she owns over 800 works ranging from high-profile international artists such as Ai Weiwei, Tracey Emin and Andy Warhol to Saudi artists. In 2000 she moved to London and completed a diploma in modern and contemporary art from Christie’s Education. That’s when she became interested in Chinese art. “A Saudi who collects Chinese art!” exploded Lamb. “You know? It was so strange to me. And she bought political pop art.” She shook her head. “I thought, ‘Why?'”
“Because it was different from what I had seen; it was fresh, it was human, it was real,” says Al Sulaiman, who has never worked with an art advisor and was introduced to Chinese art through a friend. “He called me and said, ‘Basma, there’s this amazing artist, I love his work, but it’s too big for my house, would you be interested in seeing it?'” The artist was Yue Minjun in Beijing. , now known for his “Cynical Realist” oil paintings depicting himself laughing, his face frozen in a demonic grin. Al Sulaiman bought the painting Face on the land in 2003 for £40,000. In 2007, when Sotheby’s London auctioned Yue’s seminal 1995 work inspired by the Tiananmen Square massacre, Executionsold it for a record-breaking £2.9m – the highest price for a contemporary Chinese work of art at the time.
“People started buying contemporary Chinese art in 1995,” explains Lam. “In the early 2000s – when Basma was there – it was just a very interesting, exciting time. There was this vibrant art scene, the government didn’t endorse it, and there were only a handful of Chinese collectors – so tourists went there to buy art as a souvenir because the prices were low. However, after about 2006 it went crazy.” Before then, Al Sulaiman often traveled to China and discovered artists while visiting her daughter, who was working in Shanghai. But she first met Lam at a dinner in London. The two clicked immediately – but more about what they disagreed on than what they did, says Lam. “Basma loves political pop; i don’t I consider political pop to be the Western definition of Chinese contemporary art. And Basma likes figurative art; i don’t But when you’re talking about art, it’s much better to have two different opinions,” she says.
The first piece Al Sulaiman bought from Lam was by Shao Fan – “a deconstructed Chinese chair, assembled as a sculpture. And finally she bought Chinese abstracts,” says Lam, referring to two works in Al Sulaiman’s house by Zhu Jinshi in Beijing, a pioneer of Chinese abstract painting who cakes his canvases in heavy, impasto layers.“He uses a shovel to throw up the paint,” says Al Sulaiman, standing in front of a large-scale triptych which she bought in 2015. “It’s so beautiful. If you think of it as a landscape, you can see it, you can feel it.”
In fact, abstraction is well represented in her home, and two minimalist, multi-framed works dominate the living space: the first, consisting of nine pink Plexiglas squares, is by the French conceptualist Daniel Buren (Framed colors, 9 Magenta elements2007), and the other is a series of two-tone paintings (Homage to Le Corbusier, 2000) by the German modernist Günther Förg. On the other side of the room is a large work by Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, his undulating, almost 5m tall form constructed from bottle tops tied together with copper wire. “I bought it in 2012, but it wasn’t until I moved in here in May that I could see it,” she says. “This is one of the reasons why I bought this place: I needed big walls.” The art is all displayed, slightly unconventionally, alongside 18th-century antique furniture – from France, Italy and England – and French Aubusson tapestries. “Pearl doesn’t like my carpets,” smiles Al Sulaiman.
The other place where Al Sulaiman’s collection lives is online. In 2011, she launched Basmoca, a virtual museum that can be walked around by an avatar. “I wanted to share the collection, but the concept of building a physical space back home in Saudi Arabia was a bit difficult at the time,” she recalls. Instead, she explored the idea of creating a space within the online multimedia platform Second Life, but ended up building her own virtual world.
“Basically, Basma was doing metaverse before anyone else was doing metaverse,” says Lam. “But it was like gibberish to people,” adds Al Sulaiman. “Nobody understood it at the time, it was way too early. Now everyone does it of course.” Earlier this year, she showed a portion of her Saudi art collection in a physical space – inside Maraya, a striking, mirrored building in Saudi Arabia’s historic desert canyon site AlUla.
Al Sulaiman has also dipped her toe into NFTs. She pointed to a screen on the wall. “It looks like Monet’s Water lilies,” she says of the digital work by Italian artist Davide Quayola, which plays on a loop and is surrounded by a wall of portraits – most are “classic”, but there is one with a cat’s head. “It’s supposed to be Mao,” she says of the painting by Shanghai-born artist Qiu Jie.
“It’s unusual for traditional art collectors to buy NFTs because they have no museum credentials,” suggests Lam, adding that the cryptocurrency crash earlier this year led to a weaker market for NFTs, but that they still have a role. to play for a younger generation of artists and collectors. “There are young artists selling NFTs for $50 or $100. This is democratized art. And if it is not NFT, another way of technology will emerge.”
One of the artists Lam represents is London’s Philip Colbert, a self-titled “pioneer of the metaverse” who launched the NFT project The Lobstars this year. And an artist Lam would like to introduce to Al Sulaiman is Mr Doodle, aka British artist Sam Cox, who recently covered his entire house in Kent in his graphic, graffiti-like images; the stop-motion video of the process was watched almost 2mn times on YouTube. “I did check on him after you told me,” Al Sulaiman said to her friend. “It’s very different. Interesting…”
“I know some of these things are not your aesthetic,” says Lam, “but I think they are interesting because they are the new generation of artists. Our minds must be very open – my gallery mission is about cultural exchange.”
Both women describe each other as “open-minded”, and they often travel together, visit art fairs and discover new artists. A few years ago they went to Japan with friends – to Tokyo and the island of Naoshima. They took a trip to Saudi Arabia earlier this year – a first for Lam. They also recently discovered an artist they are equally passionate about: Maha Malluh. “Her work is all about found objects, about memories and history,” says Al Sulaiman, walking towards a sculpture constructed from old enameled cooking pots. Another artist they agree on is Babajide Olatunji, whom they bumped into at the Art Dubai fair, and whose work Lam bought on the spot – a charcoal and pastel portrait that is hyper-realistic yet depicts an imagined sitter . Lam will showcase the Nigerian artist at her Shanghai space next year, while another of his drawings has been made on Al Sulaiman’s walls (via Sotheby’s, for £10,000).
Other works in Al Sulaiman’s collection include figurative paintings by the Egyptian artist Adel El Siwi (Hamdi and Hamada, 2009) and Jonathan Wateridge in Norfolk. But just as Lam sees herself as a conduit for a diverse cross-section of artists in China, Al Sulaiman’s ultimate dream is to bring her eclectic collection to a permanent space in Saudi Arabia, where in 2014 she became the first woman has received an award from the government for her contributions to the country’s arts and culture spheres. “Culture is a bond,” she concludes. “It binds people in a special language that doesn’t need a translation.”