From Shared Traditions Come Diverse Talents

From Shared Traditions Come Diverse Talents
Syra Arts Gallery’s co-founders, Sylvia Van Vliet Ragheb and Randa Fahmy Aboul-Nasr, are providing welcome platforms in Egypt and Washington DC for artists from the Middle East and Iran to reach new audiences well beyond their shores.
What prompted you to first open Syra Arts Gallery?
It started when we began collecting Egyptian artwork since we both lived in Cairo at the time. We met the artists and went to spend time with them in the places where they were creating their art. We experienced the cultural and social context in which their work was emerging and yet, at the same time, we were struck by the universality of the art. It was this magical mix of strong local authenticity and universal appeal that made us want to take their art to a wider international audience.

Did you find interest in the artists you represent to be immediate or did it take time to raise their profile on the international stage?
It did take time to raise the profile of our artists internationally and to develop their ‘fan base’, especially since we’re not dealing with local art in its native environment. We’re also a relatively small organisation; I’m sure that if we had the funds and capabilities of larger institutions, we’d be able to do much more.
Have you noticed that a particular genre or style of art is proving to be especially popular among buyers?
Art that reflects turmoil or inner struggles, whether political, cultural or social, is always popular and buyers are always fascinated with the stories behind the art.
What has been the impact of the turmoil in Egypt on the artists you represent and how has the situation there manifested itself in their work?
Egyptian artists are still being challenged by that political upheaval to become more outspoken and push the boundaries of their art. They’re about so much more than their political leaders; they’re all about freedom of creation and of expression. It was very important for them to have a channel like Syra Arts to gain access to overseas exposure and express their artistic visions.


Where do you think you’ve arrived in your efforts to encourage cultural exchange and better understanding between different heritages through art?
Even though we’ve come a long way in six years, we haven’t even scratched the surface. The US is a large country; we’d like to see more large-scale exhibitions that bring together several artists from the region like, for example, the one held at the Institute du Monde Arabe in France, titled ‘25 years of Arab Creativity’.
You’ve held many successful exhibitions. What has been the highlight of the shows you’ve put on to date?
Every show has been a highlight in itself. We’ve held shows for many artists from different generations using various artistic styles, all of whom provide a glimpse of the diversity that characterises the Middle Eastern and Iranian art scene today. What’s so powerful about them is the way in which they all combine their strong roots with an artist vision or aesthetic that is universal. Everything they do is traceable to their history; they’re steeped in that deep pool of collective heritage, and shared traditions, from which they all draw their inspiration. Yet their individual modes of expression are incredibly modern. The collective shows ‘From Shiraz with love’, featuring several artists from Iran, and ‘Debunking Orientalism’, featuring Egyptian artists, truly reflect that range of artistic expression.


Is there a particular artist you’ve helped on their journey that resonates with you?
Marwa Adel. A single mother and already an established artist in Egypt, she came to the US for a year and we held a show for her at the gallery. She is now back in Egypt and her new work has taken a different direction, based on her experiences as an Egyptian abroad.
What projects do you have in the pipeline?
We want to introduce more of our artists to other areas of the US. We’re planning several pop-up shows in New York City for the coming year.
As collectors, what art do you find yourself drawn to?
We’re drawn to art that comes from the heart; art that’s pure and unpretentious, that creates an understanding of where the artist is coming from, what they’re feeling and trying to express on the one hand, while, at the same time, stimulating and capturing our own emotions and thoughts.
Are there any particular artists that are exciting you right now?
Firouz Farmanfarmian. An international artist with an Iranian background, he embodies and questions the idea of identity in the face of change, as well as the intricate substance of memory. Remembrance to him is a fragile and obstinate posture in front of the forces of time, raising questions related to origin, and the trace of travelled paths. The theme is central to the ongoing crises. His current show ‘Nomadic Displacement’ can be viewed at the Museum of Marrakech.


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