Reflections on a challenging reality

The Contemporary Syrian Art Auction, a landmark project for the Atassi Foundation for Arts and Culture, in collaboration with ArtScoops, provides a fascinating snapshot of the Middle Eastern country’s art scene, while offering collectors and art enthusiasts a delightfully diverse selection of artworks by some of Syria’s most talented artists. With bidding now well under way, Shireen Atassi, director of the foundation, shares her thoughts on the vital, mutually supportive role that sales of this nature can play in tough times.

How did you choose which artists and artworks to include in the auction?

The main criteria for choosing artists was to ensure that we present as wide an angle on current Syrian artistic production as possible, both in Syria and beyond. The auction therefore includes artists who have stayed in Syria, in addition to artists who are currently based in various parts of the world, from the Middle East and Europe to North America.
We varied the generations to include three or even four generations of artists, from the well-established, such as Youssef Abdelke and Ziad Dalloul, to the emerging, including Ala’ Hamameh and Juhayda Al Bittar.
Finally, we tried to vary the medium, with the result that the auction features works on paper, paintings on canvas and photography, alongside sculpture and digital art. We are by no means saying that these are the only artists worthy of a place in this auction, rather that we wanted to provide a glimpse of the Syrian art scene through this selection of works. The price point of all works was another factor in the choice of works; we understand that these are tough times for everyone, and we are keen to encourage young collectors to acquire art. 

What themes and motifs have caught your eye in the way that Syrian artists and the diaspora are interpreting or reflecting today’s huge challenges, from Covid-19 to regional unrest, in their art?

 Art in general is a reflection of the challenges and issues of the day, but it is also a reflection of what occupies the minds of individual artists. I cannot say there is one particular theme or motif that is singularly represented in these works, rather that each is a part of a wider picture we are trying to demonstrate.
Because these issues and interests are so diverse, it was clear from the outset when we first began organising this auction that we’d need a catalogue to present these artists, some of whom are less well-known than others, and to document their work. Viewers will find pieces that explore the challenges of quarantine (Elias Ayoub, LOT 14, Quarantine Impressions, 2020), for example. Monif Ajaj (LOT 34, Figues, 2020), meanwhile, whose earlier works depicted political strife both in Syria and in the Arab world in general, is now reflecting on his passion for plants, in part since he now lives in France and does a lot of planting himself. In contrast, Youssef Abdelke is still exploring the notion of violence (LOT 53, Bird, 2020), while Laila Muraywid (LOT 28, Because White Is the Colour of Patience, 2008) has always been interested in exploring the female body and its cultural connotations.

What do you think sets contemporary Syrian art and artists apart from other creative talents from the region working today?

I am not sure I can say that there is one attribute, theme or quality that sets Syrian artists apart from their regional counterparts. Yes, their experiences of war, corruption and displacement endured over the past 10 years undoubtedly remain fresh in their minds and often feature in their work, but that is no different from the broader regional art landscape that is known to be deeply rooted in the socio-political strife. The creative talents of this region have been a vehicle for change and progress, and I am grateful for being able to work so closely with them.

What message do you have for collectors and art enthusiasts browsing through the works for sale in this auction?

Other than buy, buy, buy? Or should I say bid, bid, bid?!
In this auction we present our true selves, and I hope the audience appreciate this authenticity. We are aware that there have been quite a few auctions lately raising funds for good causes, but I certainly hope the audience finds it refreshing to see works of less familiar names in this auction. I urge them to look beyond the obvious. Finally, I would like to say that we are proud to be all coming together to support each other and to overcome the distances - physical, emotional and psychological - that separate us.

The Contemporary Syrian Art Auction runs from October 6 to October 12, 2020, on ArtScoops. The Atassi Foundation is a non-profit organisation dedicated to creating knowledge around Syrian art, preserving the country’s artistic heritage and supporting its artists.

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