photos by Aisha Jamal
When Syrian artist Mohammad Ali began to plan his mid-year project at Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts (FFA), he decided to break with tradition and try something different. Using black ink to paint the same figure in different positions a thousand times, Ali proceeded to bring his creation to life via an animated video art piece entitled Diversions. Starting with a close-up shot of an ambiguous-looking shape, the video gradually pans out to reveal a figure in motion.
“The point of the video was to show that people often make judgments based on first appearances before they realise exactly what they are looking at,” Ali said.
Unfortunately for Ali, the faculty judges didn’t get his point and after the video ended, one examiner asked: “So, can you show us your project now?”
Ali is not the only alternative artist to be snubbed by the FFA. The examiners refused to mark part of Syrian artist Iman Hasbani’s graduation project when they discovered it was an installation piece.
“Syria does not consider modern art forms such as installation, video art and graffiti, to be art,” Ali said. “There are no universities here which teach these forms of experimental art, they are simply ignored.”
The majority of Syria’s art galleries also refuse to showcase alternative art pieces, but not because they view them as non-art, Hasbani said. Instead, the lack of interest in video art and installation works can be ascribed to the fact that these works are for viewing only. Hasbani claims that if the works can’t be sold, commercial galleries have no incentive to exhibit them.
All Art Now, a Syrian art foundation which opened in 2005, is working to bring these neglected modern art forms into the mainstream. Abeer Boukhari, founder of All Art Now, describes the foundation as a networking point for Syria’s young experimental artists.
“My job is to connect people,” she said. “I search for talented artists in Syria and try to connect them with art fairs, galleries, possible sponsors and art organisations that can arrange workshops or exhibitions.”
Last January, All Art Now, in partnership with the French organisers of a video art festival held in Marseille, staged Syria’s first International Video Art Festival. The two-week festival featured the works of artists from all over Europe and the Arab world.
Since it first opened, the foundation has organised several workshops on graffiti and installation art. It also supports a number of Syria’s alternative artists internationally, taking their works to art fairs and festivals in Turkey, France and the US.
Most importantly for young artists wishing to showcase their works in Syria, All Art Now has its own art gallery. Tucked away in a small back street in the Old City, this space is nothing like the other galleries that have opened their doors in traditional Arabic houses over the past few years. Forget the beautiful courtyard, cosy showroom and jasmine-filled air – All Art Now prides itself on its dilapidated premises.
“My gallery is a lab, a space for people to try new things.” Boukhari said. “Artists are allowed to do whatever they want here. It’s already in a bad condition, they can’t make it worse and I don’t have the money to fix it anyway.”
This run-down gallery hosted Syria’s first new media art festival last August, showcasing the experimental works of Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian artists. The artists painted on the ceilings, scribbled over the walls and removed doors. The festival also incorporated video art shows and, randomly, Swiss performing arts.
Residents and shop owners in the Old City, some of whom had never attended an exhibition at an art gallery, turned up to see what all the commotion was about.
“Installations are interactive shows, they are not a display of beautiful paintings on sale and that’s why people feel more engaged with them,” Nisrian Boukhari, a Syrian artist, said.
Syrian artist Ziad al-Halaby’s installation was a hot topic of debate. He draped the staircase in cotton sheets and covered the adjacent wall in writing. One prominent sentence read: “This place is yours. You are free to do whatever you want.” Music and light coming from upstairs served to lure visitors up the ramshackle stairs, but when they gave in to the temptation and took the risk of climbing up, they found only two empty rooms.
“Ziad wanted to show people that curiosity often overcomes reason,” Boukhari explained.
While crowds of young spectators buzzed around the opening of the festival, it was a no-show for almost all of Syria’s older established artists.
“Most of these artists considered the installation and video art on show to be a case of teenage madness,” Boukhari said.
While recognition at home may be slow in coming, Syria’s alternative artists are making a name for themselves abroad. Ali’s video art, previously rejected by the FFA, was received with critical acclaim at New York’s Scope Art Festival in 2008, leading him to tour Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, France and Russia.
“When my video was rejected I put it aside for five years,” he said. “While I still created videos, I never screened them, but now those very same creations have toured the world in one year. Without All Art Now I wouldn’t have continued creating installations or video art. It gave me the space and support I needed to work.”
For more information log onto www.allartnow.com
This article was published in Syria Today magazine