A project for mother and daughter team Mouna and Shireen, the Atassi Foundation is providing a much-needed platform for Syrian artists, from the displaced and diaspora to those who have helped define the country’s art
When the Atassi family left their native Syria for Dubai in 2012, many longstanding colleagues from the art world might have assumed that the opening of a new gallery would be in the pipeline.
But, as Mouna Atassi explains, both she and her daughter, Shireen, were united in their conviction that timing and circumstances called for a different means of promoting Syria’s art and artists.
“With events unfolding in Syria, we took a conscious decision, as art professionals, to do something different,” she explains. “We felt a sense of responsibility to find the most effective platform for our experience and resources.”
The Atassi Foundation for Arts and Culture was the result of their quest. An independent, multi-pronged, not-for-profit initiative, the foundation champions Syria’s artistic talent through a broad range of projects that include research, residences, intercultural exchanges and exhibitions.
Fateh Moudarres, Face, oil on wood, 30 x 25 cm
Its most recent venture was a show, titled ‘Syria: Into the Light’, held in Dubai in March/April. Curated by Mrs Atassi, the exhibition showcased more than 60 works by over 40 artists, tracing the story of Syrian art from 1924 up to 2016.
Asked about the inspiration for the show, Mrs Atassi explains that both she and Shireen had thought long and hard about how best to bring Syrian art out from “behind the walls”. Their plans, she adds, also had to allow for the fact that many of the artists whose work they wanted to feature were now living abroad and, in some cases, were refugees.
Despite the challenges both they and some of their featured artists faced, the organisers had all agreed on the importance of ensuring that the show’s title relayed a sense of optimism about Syria’s future. Both mother and daughter are convinced that the choice of heading and the exhibition itself produced the desired results.
“The timing was ideal, as the show coincided with Art Dubai and was also the inaugural exhibition at Concrete, a new venue,” she says. “There was a great deal of interest in both the artwork and the panel discussions we held, so yes, I think we achieved our aim of bringing Syria into the light.”
Mounif Ajaj, Untitled, 2010, Oil on canvas, 164 x 145 cm
The scope of the show was a particular talking point, with exhibits featured spanning four generations of Syrian art, from the work of Tawfik Tarek, Michel Kurcheh, Fateh Moudarres and Marwan to Yousef Abdelke and Ghylan Safadi.
The breadth of pieces exhibited also reflected Mrs Atassi’s longstanding involvement in Syrian art. Recalling the opening of her first gallery in Homs back in 1986, she explains that in many ways, the pieces collected and exhibited over the years tell the story, chapter by chapter, of Syrian art’s evolution.
“Ours was the first private gallery in Homs, so it generated a great deal of interest there,” she says. “At that time, Syria remained largely closed to the rest of world and the art we showed reflected this in that it maintained Syrian characteristics of expression, while Lebanese and Palestinian artists were already using new media.”
Louay Kayyali, Nap, 1975, Oil on canvas, 95 x 75 cm
A decision to open a new gallery in the capital city of Damascus in 1993 marked a new phase for the Atassis, bringing with it more interaction between locals and non-Syrian artists. Change was afoot in Syria, as Mrs Atassi explains.
“The first decade of the new millennium was particularly significant, marking the point at which Syria began opening up to the rest of the world,” she recalls. “This was also a time when art was booming across the Gulf, with more galleries opening and private collections growing. These changing dynamics and their impact on Syria’s art scene were evident in the strength and variety of our programmes.”
Saad Yagan, Almawal Sabri Al Mudallal, 2009, Acrylic on canvas, 130 x 100 cm
Asked whether she believes that the work of Syrian artists has changed since the war began, Mrs Atassi is cautious in her response, especially on the subject of how much of the art will stand the test of time. “Many artists now based abroad are beginning to use new media which were not widely available before, such as graphic optical illusion and animation,” she responds. “Some artistic production is strong, but time will tell which experimentation built on emotional reactions to events will endure.”
While their latest project remains in its infancy, the Atassi Foundation’s achievements over the past 12 months are already impressive, encompassing archiving, which represents a critical part of their work, commissioned research and collaborative ventures, among others.
Lutfi Al Romhein, Untitled, 1996, Marble, 45 x 30 x 17 cm
Planned projects include participation at the popular Shubbak Festival, with a symposium, in collaboration with the British Museum, scheduled for July.
The foundation will also be sending a 12m x 3m epic artwork to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto for a show in May, following on from a collaboration last October, when it provided the Canadian venue with modern and contemporary pieces for a show titled ‘Syria: A Living History’. While the domestic backdrop remains one of despair, these and other initiatives organised by the foundation are already proving pivotal in extending the reach of Syria’s artists well beyond the borders of their troubled homeland.
Michael Kurcheh, Badawiyeh, Oil on wood, 53 x 38 cm