Journeying into contemporary Middle Eastern art with Janet Rady

Journeying into contemporary Middle Eastern art
with Janet Rady
Culture: After studying and living in the Middle East for years, Janet Rady has dedicated her life to the art of the region.
4 min read
24 February, 2015
Rady has become one of the world’s premier Middle East art experts [al-Araby]

I first had the pleasure of meeting Janet Rady in September 2013 in opening of Taymour Grahne Gallery in NYC.

Just as Rady was getting ready for Art Dubai, we reconnected again. Of course, I did not fly to London to meet her. As a matter of fact, I've never been to London except for arduous layovers on longhaul flights in Heathrow terminals.

Instead, we had a delightful transatlantic conversation over Skype. Rady's self-confident demeanour and sultry English accent could easily beguile the American in me to think that I were talking to Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery.

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Rady was born in Malta, then a British outpost, to parents in the Royal Navy. And since the age of three, Janet knew she was going to study the history of art. She repatriated to London as a child, and, in 1974, had the opportunity to be a high school exchange student in Tehran.

Iran was spectacular.

"I started learning Persian and went skiing on the slopes north of Tehran," Rady told me. The trip sparked a love affair with the region.

She returned to London to pursue Islamic Studies and the Persian language at SOAS, where she indulged in the poetry of Rumi and Hafez. After graduation - and after the hostage crisis - Rady started a job in the British Consulate in Tehran in the beginning of the 1980s.

     I started learning Persian and went skiing on the slopes north of Tehran... It was nothing like the movie Argo.
- Janet Rady

"It was nothing like the movie Argo," she excitedly exclaimed.  

Since her last visit, Iran had gone through its Islamic revolution.

But the only difference it made in daily life, she says, was that she had to wear a hijab and coat to walk in the Grand Bazaar. "People were lovely as ever to me," she said.

Upon her return to England, Janet met an Egyptian who was to become her husband, and they moved to Australia.

But Rady was always unable to quench her thirst for Islamic art, eventually studying for a Masters degree in Islamic art while working in Sotheby's Melbourne, specialising in 13th century Syrian metalwork.

Australia proved to be life-changing. She was exposed to Aboriginal art and artists famed in Australia but unheard of elsewhere.

She moved back to London and taught at Sotheby's Institute, then took on a legal degree course while working in Sotheby's legal wing.

Later, as a finance manager at Thomas Gibson's Old Bond street gallery, she was exposed to the work of modern British artists such as Henry Moore, as well as Picasso, Fernand Leger and Francis Bacon. Her horizons expanded westwards.

"There was a life beyond Sotheby's," she tells me. She was rubbing shoulders at this time with famous American collectors including Eli Broad and Leon Black.

Rady began develop a bird-eyes view of art - both from the gallerist's perspective and from an artist's point of view.

After Gibson, she managed the Lisson Gallery in London, with branches in NYC and Milan.

When Christie's Francois Pinault held the first Contemporary Middle Eastern art sale in Dubai, it launched a new global interest in the region's work. Venetia Porter, the Beirut-born superstar curator of Middle Eastern art, then also curated the British Museum's Word Into Art - which was 100 percent contemporary Middle Eastern work.

Rady says these 2006 events changed the market for Middle Eastern contemporary art, and she immersed herself into the British Museum's exhibition for four months, never missing a lecture and networking with all the artists.

     The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle came together.
 - Janet Rady

She got to thinking and made the decision "to listen to her own gut-feeling and pursue her passion".

She left her job and found Janet Rady Fine Art. Despite warnings from friends and family of the risks involved, Rady persisted. Travelling to Cairo in 2006, she met William Wells, the Canadian director of Townhouse Gallery and a pioneer in the Middle Eastern art world.

Wells went on to mentor Rady, and shared many connections with her. She curated shows at Rossi Rossi and Waterhouse & Dodd and Osborne Samuel and in 2010 Rady had own branded space at The Bastakiya Art Fair. Currently she is conducting early discussions to develop her own gallery space in London's super-upmarket Mayfair district with a Middle Eastern partner.

Why Mayfair and not East London, where all the trendy new galleries are?

Mayfair is more market-focused, maintains Rady.

She reflects on her journey. "The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle came together," she says

Rady is now a seasoned veteran. It remains uncertain what has made her today's tour-de-force of contemporary Middle East art - the art history background, the languages, the business acumen, the legal knowledge, the global network, or the great exposure.

The fruits of Rady's long-haul career are ripening, and she has never been more ready. As for me, my first trip to London won't be just a layover at Heathrow - it will be to visit the opening of Janet Rady's Fine Art Gallery in Mayfair.