Putting Syrian Art on the Map

With dozens of contemporary Syrian artists producing top-quality work, Syrian art is pushing its way into the global art market.

Painting by Syrian artist Abdullah Murad

Contemporary Syrian art had never made a strong showing on the international art scene, due largely to the popularity of Islamic pieces. Over the last year, however, prices of modern Syrian art have gone through the roof. A major force behind the boom is a new gallery in West Mezzeh dedicated to helping Syrian artists play to win at home and abroad.

“Syrians traditionally used the investment formula of placing a third of their money in real estate, a third in collectables and a third in working capital,” Khaled Samawi, founder of Ayyam Gallery says. “Collectables for Syria’s new generation has meant German cars, Swiss watches and haute couture. We aim to help Syrians appreciate and buy their country’s art as well.”

Combining excellent business knowledge with good artistic taste, Ayyam Gallery, directed by Myriam Jakiche, is helping Syrian artists get their act together. “The only way to know what a painting is worth is to place it on the market,” Samawi says. “As our number of potential clients rises, the price of the paintings goes up.”

Photograph by Syrian artist Ammar al-Beik

The result? A mere year after Ayyam opened its doors the price of Syrian art has almost tripled. Paintings by Safwan Dahoul, one of Syria’s most important contemporary artists, used to cost around USD 8,000. When Ayyam opened, the price rose to USD 13,000. Now Dahoul pieces fetch between USD 40,000 and USD 100,000 with demand still outpacing supply even at these price levels.

“The artists provide good quality works and we provide good marketing,” says Samawi, who has signed exclusive global contracts with 10 of Syria’s most important contemporary artists, such as Fadi Yazigi, Youssef Abdelkei, Safwan Dahoul, and Abdullah Murad. “We’ve started appraising Syrian art all over the world as well.”

Samawi attributes the growing popularity of Syrian art to a constellation of factors. “The state got involved in everything over the last 40 years, but they generally let art alone,” Samawi says. “Because the country was closed to the outside world, artists here were not influenced by the West or by the state and were not pushed into tourist or commercial art. This produced styles collectors couldn’t find elsewhere.”

Painting by Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul

Samawi came up with the idea of founding Ayyam Gallery in February 2006 after reading an advertisement for Christie’s inaugural auction the following May in Dubai, where the famous auction house had opened a representative office in 2005. The sale was a big success and included works of four deceased Syrian artists: Nasser Chaura (1920-1992), Louay Kayyali (1922-1978), Fateh al-Moudarres (1922-1999) and Mahmoud Hammad (1923-1988). Kayyali’s three paintings alone fetched an unexpectedly high price of USD 40,000 each in the sale. A year later, in the most recent sale, similar works by Kayyali were auctioned of for an average price of USD 100,000 each. The auction proved a watershed event for Syrian art, ushering in a need to help Syrian artists promote and price their work. “If we consider art as a luxury item, artists had to produce, promote and freight it; that makes the artist a company!” he says. “Ayyam Gallery is an employee in this company, who promotes its goods and shares the profits.”

For Samawi, promoting art is not just hot air; Ayyam Gallery has published numerous art books for its in-house artists, and launched a free quarterly catalogue about modern Syrian art and the activities of the gallery’s in-house artists.

By Syrian artist Nihad al-Turk

To catch the eye of international art lovers, Samawi has teamed up with the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus to showcase works by Ayyam Gallery artists in the hotel lobby. At any one time, more than a USD 1,000,000 worth of Syrian art is showcased. In addition, the gallery has invited major art auction in 2006 only featured work by four deceased Syrian artists’, the third sale on October 31 2007, featured works by no less than 14 Syrians.

Together with the Iranians, Syrian artists also proved the most popular at Sotheby’s first modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art sale in October 2007, with the works of nine Syrian artists fetching USD 422,020.

By Syrian artist Walid al-Masri

In a bid to seek new talent, Samawi launched the Shabab Ayyam competition for Syrian artists under the age of 40 in May 2007, with USD 10,000 award for the best three. The competition lived up to Samawi’s expectations and as a result, 10 young artists joined the gallery.

As for the road ahead, Samawi is optimistic. “Middle Eastern art is on its way to a great future,” he says with a smile. “The Gulf is spending millions to catch up on art. If it keeps up this pace, the U.A.E. will soon become the third art centre in the world after London and New York. That’s when the real boom will happen!”

I published this article in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 31. Download pdf verison here.

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