As headlines are dominated by the Syrian political crisis, new exhibitions in Damascus have drawn to a halt. But the city’s art gallery doors are still open.
The conflict seems unlikely to deter the Syrian contemporary art boom that has lit up the market over the last five years. In 2007, a major work by Safwan Dahoul, a leading and much coveted Syrian painter, sold for $10,000. Today it reaches $150,000. The post-9/11 appetite for Arab culture may have played its part; as titles on Islam and the Middle East flew off the virtual shelves of amazon.com, art from the Middle East also experienced unprecedented international attention.
Compared to artists from Lebanon, Morocco and Egypt, who were already relatively exposed to global galleries and collectors, Syria revealed itself to be an oil well of untapped talent, paint being the asset. Artwork prices soared, contemporary art galleries mushroomed and reports such as “Syrian Art Sizzles” (Time Magazine, Sept 2008) and “Damascus Evolves Into a Hub of Mideast Art” (New York Times, Nov 2010) saluted the awakening.
“The talent hiding over the last five or six years was the surprise factor, the shock factor, that made them globally interesting,” says Khaled Samawi, the owner of Ayyam Gallery, a blockbuster art enterprise with a roster of some of the most highly-valued Arab artists — the majority from Syria — and a triad of exhibition spaces in Damascus, Beirut and Dubai. “When we first opened in 2006 to 2007, in Damascus, it was absolute golden years. I’d say once a week a private jet would land from the Gulf or somewhere, who had come to Damascus just to visit Ayyam.” Samawi, a former hedge fund manager, has spearheaded the rise of Syrian contemporary art, with a smaller cluster of galleries, such as Damascus’ Tajalliyat Art Gallery, and auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s following suit. Most of Ayyam’s artists, such as Asaad Arabi and Oussama Diab, have seen their paintings rocket in value five to 10-fold, thanks to Ayyam’s polished and well-publicized exhibitions, record-breaking auctions and young artist competitions. By providing their artists financial stability and access to an international hit list of collectors, the market has grown so much that Edge Capital, a venture capital and private equity holding company, is now choosing to invest in Ayyam’s expansion. New galleries in London and New York will open in the next two to three years, a major triumph for Middle Eastern art. Samawi sees it as a “vote of confidence”, both for the artists and collectors, giving “the scoop” to Executive before the official press announcement.
The investment strikes at the right time. The political uncertainty embroiling Syria is inspiring a new drive in contemporary art: angry, poignant and provocative. “They’re painting the best art they’ve ever produced. It’s painful, humanitarian art,” Samawi describes it.
“For years people have been living under fear, and now the fear is gone. Now artists can express themselves. There are no more taboos. They can talk about the president, the power, the party,” says Ammar Abd Rabbo, a Paris-based Syrian photojournalist who exhibited “Coming Soon”, a series of portraits of pregnant women, in Beirut last February. He believes there is a new, powerful generation of young Syrian artists in the making, “born from the crisis and revolution.”
Some art has already left Damascus’ citadel. “In Army We Trust”, a radical set of paintings by Thaier Helal, sold positively at Ayyam’s Dubai gallery earlier this year, despite its provocative title. Established artists Mohannad Orabi, Mouteea Murad, Kais Saman and Omran Younes have abandoned their solitary ateliers and transformed the empty Damascus gallery — which stopped hosting new exhibitions four months ago — into a remarkable shared workspace. The ferocious art being produced, both in quantity and subject matter, is broadcasted on a live feed from Ayyam’s website. “It’s probably the busiest the gallery has ever been,” says Samawi, who has offered the space as a cultural refuge to citizens surrounded by violence.
“We started the workshop to see this situation in a different way. There is a huge power inside us, and we have to make these ideas and feelings visual,” says young Damascus-born painter Mohannad Orabi, whose work is becoming “more realistic, more emotional.” The eerie, blackened eyes of his human figures are unmistakable, but Orabi now paints them “open.” “Now,” he says, “you can see the detail inside and the sparkle. This sparkle is a kind of hope.”