Basma Al Sulaiman Shakes Things Up With a Virtual Museum for Her Adventurous Collection

The living room of Al Sulaiman's London townhouse
(Photo © Beatriz Da Costa)

The high-energy, low-profile collector Basma Al Sulaiman resists easy classification. Divorced and living in London since 2000, she has built a collection that is remarkable for the breadth of its holdings in Chinese, Indian, and South Asian contemporary art. She has also become a patron of art in and from her native Saudi Arabia. And although Al Sulaiman might have joined the museum building boom in the Middle East or created a  private institution in London, she has opted for a more egalitarian platform. The Basma Al Sulaiman Museum of Contemporary Art — or BASMOCA — is the first virtual museum to present an actual private collection to a limitless global audience of wired visitors. Launched in April 2011 with a ceremony in the port city of Jeddah, where Al Sulaiman was raised and keeps a second home, BASMOCA allows visitors to assume avatars and interface with friends or fellow visitors as they make their way through a sleek virtual museum that, at least in cyberspace, occupies a palm tree fringed island oasis surrounded by a tranquil blue sea.

It is my first visit to Al Sulaiman’s art- and antique-filled townhouse in London’s Belgravia district, and a bow-tied servant graciously serves coffee as I wait in the formal drawing room. The collector’s laughter drifts in. Biding my time, I scan the generously proportioned Georgian salon, with its elaborately plastered ceiling and French windows overlooking a small park. I spot a Thomas Gainsborough, set like a trophy between the windows, but on close inspection it proves to be Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy’s "Fetish Lady" of 2006, a modified found canvas sheathed in a gold frame and depicting an elegantly frocked, demurely posed woman sporting a black leather S&M mask. A studded dog collar rests against her pearl necklace and is connected by a chain to a wrist strap. The Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy maintains a provocative counterpoint to the antique furnishings, Venetian glass chandelier, grand piano, Persian rugs, and other accoutrements of the high-style interior.

Other contemporary works in the room are equally challenging, if less transgressive. A stainless steel scholar’s rock by Zhan Wang perches on a table. Above the fireplace hangs Zhang Xiaogang’s severe "Comrade" painting from 1995, one of two owned by Al Sulaiman from his storied "Bloodline" series. Yang Shaobin’s "No. 4," 2001-02, an abstracted figurative composition in crimson tones, commands more wall space. Al Sulaiman acquired the painting at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2007 for HK$1,807,500 ($233,393). Impressive in its own corner is an aluminum and bronze sculpture of stacked suitcases, Subodh Gupta’s "Kuwait to Delhi," 2006, which was inspired by the Indian laborers who travel back and forth between their homeland and their work in the Middle East. One of Shao Fan’s much-admired deconstructed chairs, this one a Ming example reassembled with Plexiglas, is just visible in a corridor. Although a small Gerhard Richter abstract typically sits on an easel in the drawing room (today it’s absent) and a Georg Baselitz painting hangs on one wall, the majority of works by Western artists are installed elsewhere in the house. In the dining room, for example, the two parts of Tracey Emin’s large neon "Our Angels (Foundlings and Fledglings)" — a bird on a leafy branch and a cursive text — cast a soft blue glow from opposite walls. The piece was  shown in the British pavilion during the 2007 Venice Biennale.

When Al Sulaiman enters the room, casually attired in a shortsleeved pink blouse, dark blue slacks, and sandals, she enumerates the highlights of recent trips to Asia, which included stops in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei, and Singapore. "I really go to a lot of places for art appreciation," she says. But she is not jetting from one art fair to another to party and network. Rather, Al Sulaiman regards these trips as occasions to "enlighten" herself about international culture.

Reared in Jeddah in the protective comfort of a prominent Saudi family active in banking, real estate, and retail enterprises, Al Sulaiman has always been a person of means. In Jeddah she earned a degree in English literature, and the subject of education threads through her conversations. To get her bearings as a collector she enrolled in a diploma course in modern and contemporary art offered by Christie’s. Al Sulaiman cites her visit to the "Sensation" exhibition in London — the 1997 Royal Academy of Arts show of the Saatchi collection that introduced the YBAs to a wider public — as the moment she came of age with respect to understanding contemporary art. "Saatchi has definitely been an inspiration," she says, "and I’ve tried to follow his model in the way I collect Saudi art, to look into new artists, to support and collect them. But there is a big element of commercialism in it [Saatchi’s activities], and I’m not a fan of that aspect."

Al Sulaiman has concentrated on cutting-edge international art for well over a decade but still owns her earliest acquisition, purchased at the start of the 1990s: a painting of ornamental birds by the British artist Marmaduke Craddock (circa 1660–1717), similar to one owned by Tate Britain. "For me, the main thing is that I have to like it," says Al Sulaiman about the appeal of any artwork. "Sometimes it’s a personal kind of attraction that grabs me. I never think of a specific place to put it, and I never think in terms of color or medium. Most of the time, the work finds its own right place, and it’s been that way for me since the very beginning."

With few exceptions, Al Sulaiman acquires works by young or emerging artists whose fame and prices have not yet soared. She works closely with dealers, chief among them Pearl Lam, the globe-trotting Shanghai and Hong Kong gallerist. "Living in London has really given her the confidence to be herself," says Lam of Al Sulaiman. "She has a good eye and is willing to learn, and she doesn’t depend on art advisers." Lam, who is a member of the BASMOCA advisory board, has sold several works to Al Sulaiman, including the Shao Fan chair and one of Zhang Huan’s early ash paintings of skulls, which is made of incense ash collected from Buddhist temples in Shanghai. "My Chinese collectors wouldn’t go near those works," says Lam, adding with a chuckle, "Basma is a very extraordinary Arab girl." According to Lam, Al Sulaiman’s constant refrain is "Show me new things!"

When it comes to new things, Al Sulaiman has a genuinely international and notably pan-Asian appetite. "She is one of the few Saudis who have been collecting actively in this arena," says Melissa Chiu, director of New York’s Asia Society Museum. "A lot of collectors share similar collecting interests, while Basma is very much someone with her own approach and an interest that is predominantly non-Western. That in itself is quite unusual." Judith Benhamou-Huet, a Paris art critic and the author of the 2008 book Global Collectors, comments on another aspect of Al Sulaiman’s independent streak: her embrace of Chinese art, with its preponderance of images of the face and body, which violates the Islamic proscription against depictions of the human figure. Asked about her pursuit of Asian art, Al Sulaiman simply replies, "There’s a big change in the geography of art, and interest is definitely turning to the East."

Saudi artists, however, are not being neglected. They are particularly well represented in basmoca, which Al Sulaiman describes as a way "for Saudi and Middle Eastern artists to exhibit their work for all to see. It is a location where anybody from anywhere in the world can get in touch with these artists and start a dialogue. It’s social networking for the art world." Since last year’s launch, she’s been promoting the site in Europe and the Middle East. "In the first months, we got thousands of hits," she reports, "and then it got slower, so the weekly curve goes up and down. During an average week we get 200 to 400 hits, but at peak times it can go up to 1,000. The audience is very international, not just regional."

Of course, behind the virtual museum is a real-world collection of physical objects. Al Sulaiman was early in her support for emerging Saudi artists — a number of whom have received international attention thanks to the touring exhibitions sponsored since 2008 by the London-based initiative Edge of Arabia and to the debut of a Saudi pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale — and has commissioned several works from Saudi artists associated with Athr Gallery in Jeddah. In that respect, says Mohammed Hafiz, who cofounded the gallery in 2009, "She’s more a patron than a collector. She’s done so much for Saudi art."

Among the Saudi works in Al Sulaiman’s collection installed at her Jeddah home are two sculptures by Abdulnasser Gharem, Concrete Block II, 2009, and Road to Makkah, 2011, both made of rubber stamps and industrial lacquer paint on wood. The latter piece was featured earlier this year in the exhibition "Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam," mounted by the British Museum, in London, in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library, in Riyadh. Al Sulaiman also owns Ahmed Mater’s mixed-media "Illumination Diptych 1 & 2," 2008, from a series in which the artist places X-rays of the human skeleton in compositions that evoke the pages of illuminated Islamic manuscripts. There are a dozen or so photographs from the "I Am" series, by Manal Al Dowayan, who shoots portraits of women and labels them "I Am a Doctor," "I Am an Architect," "I Am a Mother," "I Am a TV Producer," etc. in an effort to come to terms with her own uncertain role within Saudi society. Mater and Al Dowayan both appeared in "The Future of a Promise," a pan-Arab collateral exhibition during the Venice Biennale of 2011.

"I’m trying to create an awareness in the West of art from the Middle East," explains Al Sulaiman, adding, "Saudi art in particular." She’s eager to counter the Western misconception that the people from that part of the world are backwards "because we are all covered and live behind the veil." Conversely, she wishes to educate her countrymen, saying, "I would like to take on many roles other than just being an art collector." Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, who has sold Western work to Al Sulaiman, including pieces by Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, says admiringly, "She really took on much more than any other private collector to do something for her country, to connect Saudi Arabia to the rest of the world in terms of contemporary art. She wants her collection to have meaning and impact. I think this is really extraordinary."

With the goal of exchange in mind, Al Sulaiman, with a group of enthusiasts, is organizing the first international sculpture park in Saudi Arabia, which will display works by such major Western artists as Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and Victor Vasarely. The large-scale pieces, selected by an art-loving mayor, were acquired in the 1980s by the municipality and displayed for a time along the Jeddah waterfront. Today they are worth in excess of $100 million, according to valuations by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. "It will be in The Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive sculpture park in the world," boasts Al Sulaiman. The project is part of an ambitious municipal initiative to develop the city’s Corniche Road and waterfront.

Plainly these modernist works, destined for a public context, are not as confrontational as the contemporary art in Al Sulaiman’s private collection. She is keenly sensitive to her country’s conservative ways and acknowledges the challenge of educating viewers who have no inkling about advanced art. "I try to push boundaries but in a very subtle way. You don’t want to shock but you want to take small steps forward." That respectful approach was evident shortly after the basmoca launch, when Al Sulaiman, interviewed on Saudi television, was conservatively attired in a black headscarf and traditional dress.

In the course of a later conversation with Al Sulaiman, I recalled the bondage flavored, Gainsborough-esque Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy-14779">Banksy in her London drawing room, which she sold at Christie’s London last February 15 for £265,250 ($416,973), above its high estimate of £200,000. When I inquire about it, Al Sulaiman sighs, saying, "I had to sell that one. I’m trying to replace it right now with either a James Turrell or an Antony Gormley." The budget is not limitless. For international art, Al Sulaiman generally sets her price ceiling at around $200,000.

Making acquisitions can raise not only financial issues but philosophical ones as well, as was the case with some recent purchases of video and new media. At ARCO Madrid last February, Al Sulaiman acquired Bill Viola’s "Father and Daughter," 2008, a high-definition color video presented on a 42-inch plasma screen, from Blain/Southern, in London, as well as two works by the Russian artist Marina Alexeeva from the Marina Gisich Gallery, in St. Petersburg. Alexeeva’s "Museum" and "Mozart and Salieri," both from 2011, are mixed-media pieces from the artist’s "Live Box" series that incorporate video and holograms in light boxes. "The big question I ask myself," Al Sulaiman says, "is will this move to media art evolve, will it stand up to time as painting and sculpture do?"

There is no equivocation, however, where Saudi art is concerned. Al Sulaiman is working full tilt on researching and acquiring art for the next BASMOCA exhibition, tentatively titled "Dissect" and conceived as a history of Saudi art from primitive times to the present. She has been traveling throughout Saudi Arabia to prepare the virtual show, which is scheduled to "open" by late July. "It takes so much research," says Al Sulaiman about her latest challenge, "because it’s never been done before."

To see works from Basma Al Sulaiman's home, click the slide show.

This article appears in the July/August issue of Art+Auction.