The French collectors behind the Arab World Institute's artistic wealth

Mohamad Al-Qazzaz, Sunday 2 Apr 2023

French collectors Claude and France Lemand donated a great deal of contemporary artwork to the Arab World Institute’s Museum in Paris (AWI), allowing it to hold countless exhibitions.

Claude Lemand
Claude Lemand in his private gallery


In 2018, the two art collectors Claude and France Lemand made a major donation of 1,800 works from their private collection. The works are by Arab artists, collected over more than 35 years before founding their Parisian gallery in 1988, upon their return from Cairo.

Claude was born in 1945 to a modest family in Lebanon. His grandparents perished in the great famine that struck the Levant during the First World War while the country was besieged on all sides by the Germans, Ottomans, British and French.

His father was young, illiterate and pursued multiple small jobs to make ends meet. His mother, who grew up in an orphanage, had a penchant for culture and spoke English fluently. She was also an excellent storyteller and encouraged her son to deepen his knowledge of a variety of subjects. As a result, Claude was the only member of his family to pursue higher education, continuing his studies in France. In 1974, he returned to Lebanon to teach at the university for nine years, until the civil war broke out.

He fled to France at the outbreak of the war and became a French national. He then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was stationed in Sudan for two years, followed by a placement in Saudi Arabia. He eventually came to Cairo with his wife, who sold her private clinic to accompany him during his stay in Egypt in 1981.

Cairo, an essential stage

In Egypt, he worked at the Faculty of Languages at El-Alson and founded a specialised translation centre at the French Embassy where he inventoried the works translated from French into Arabic and vise versa.

Seeing that Arabic books were rarely translated into French, he took the initiative to contact several Egyptian writers to publish them in French, including Naguib Mahfouz, Youssef Idriss and Gamal El-Ghitani.

He and his wife also toured several galleries and visited museums. They acquired several canvases, including paintings by Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar and Hamed Nada.

The couple opened an art gallery back in Paris, becoming one of the few to exhibit Arab artists.

"In 2013, we thought of donating works from our private collection and we chose the AWI so that they would be exhibited there permanently. This event was announced during a press conference that took place in Paris last January, in the presence of Mr. Jack Lang, then president of the AWI and Mrs. Nathalie Bondil, director of the museum and exhibitions department. Our proposal was well received by Lang, who wanted the museum to have the largest number of acquisitions by Arab artists," said Claude Lemand.

He adds that "in this spirit, we organised our first calligraphy exhibition, bringing together many artists, including those from Egypt. Then we held a second exhibition, Lumières du Liban (Lights of Lebanon) and a third that focused on Algeria. I sincerely hope I can devote one or more exhibitions to Egyptian art."

The Lumières du Liban exhibition brought together around a hundred works by 55 artists, from 1950 to the present day. The exhibition Algeria My Love took place between 15 March and 31 July 2022, retracing 50 years of painting to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Algerian independence.

Lemand is always present in these events as a curator, collector and bibliophile. He often has specialised works translated to enrich the libraries in both languages, navigating between the works of Gazbia Sirry, Etel Adnan, Youssef Abdelke, Adam Henein and Abdallah Benanteur.

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