A new wave of contemporary and alternative art forms stole the spotlight this year, much to the delight of audiences.
It was never going to be easy to follow on from the Damascus Arab Capital of Culture celebration, in which the capital hosted a jam-packed calendar of exhibitions, plays, films and lectures. Nevertheless, 2009 provided local audiences with a number of interesting performances and events. Better yet, throughout the year contemporary art performances and exhibitions began to steal the spotlight away from a cultural scene long dominated by the classical arts.
In recent years, the number of Syrian art galleries has grown exponentially. Unique among them is All Art Now, a gallery specialising in contemporary art forms.
“My gallery is a lab, a space for people to try new things,” gallery owner Abeer Boukhari told Syria Today. “Artists are allowed to experiment with new media art and practice whatever new art form they want.”
The gallery, which first opened in 2005, really began leaving its mark on the country’s contemporary art scene this year. The gallery staged Syria’s first International Video Art Festival and the first New Media Art Festival, which showcased the experimental works of Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian artists. It also invited several celebrated international new media artists to lecture throughout the year.
All Art Now may be the only dedicated new media gallery in the country, but many other galleries organised one-off exhibitions focusing on new media art. One of the more high-profile exhibitions was the British Council-funded video art exhibition that showcased works by 12 British artists at the Mustafa Ali Gallery in April.
“Since the opening of All Art Now gallery in Damascus, the number of contemporary art shows has significantly risen,” Omar Nicolas, a student at the faculty of fine arts at the University of Damascus, said. “Now I can attend new media art exhibitions in Syria – this wasn’t possible a few years ago.”
Last year’s celebration of Damascus as the Arab Capital of Culture was a real treat for theatre-goers. Barely a day passed without a play taking to the stage somewhere around the capital. What made the festival all the more unique was the number of street and location theatre performances and workshops.
“The Damascus Arab Capital of Culture festival broke the boundaries between Syrian audiences and new forms of theatre such as street and location theatre,” Rashed Issa, cultural correspondent for Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper, said.
While the volume of performances put on last year was always going to be difficult to repeat, it is clear from this year’s more limited line up that Syrian audiences are eager to see new forms of theatre. Among this year’s more unique performances were Safar, one of the country’s first interactive plays spearheaded by Syrian actor and director Kifah Khous, as well as Don Quixote, performed by the Syrian drama group Koon at the Higher Institute of Theatre. Both were performed last month.
Another interesting development was the EU-funded Ludotent street theatre project in which German and Italian experts trained Syrian artists from the National Theatre in game pedagogy and improvisational theatre. The artists then travelled to rural towns and villages to perform.
“Young directors are now more willing to experiment with new trends,” Syrian playwright Abdullah al-Kafri said.
“What’s more, the content of the plays is changing. Young directors are tackling important and sensitive issues, but not in a direct way. Rather, they are criticising current problems through simple everyday stories.”
The year was not without controversy, however. In April, the final Aleppo performance of Touqous al-Isharat wa al-Tahawoulat (Rituals of Signs and Transformations) by famed Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous was cancelled after local religious figures complained. The play had been performed and positively received in Damascus and Hama.
Syria’s dance scene marked a milestone this year when the Damascus Contemporary Dance Platform (DCDP) was launched by choreographer Mey Sefan of the local dance company Tanween. The event was put together to promote contemporary dance in Syria and staged a number of local and international performances, as well as a series of lectures and workshops targeting local dancers.
Arguably the most successful local contemporary performance was Congratulations by the country’s first movement theatre troupe Leish. The show explored femininity and masculinity in Syrian society through the country’s wedding rituals.
“It was so witty and entertaining,” Dina Halabi, a young student at the University of Damascus, said after attending a performance. “What makes it even greater is that it’s actually Syrian.”
Not all performances were as kindly received. Many audience members did not know what to make of The Knight of Strange Words, an experimental dance performance staged in February. The show featured Syrian dancer Fadi Shahin performing to the beats of techno music in front of a huge screen displaying digital art intertwined with phrases by Syrian poet Adonis. A fusion not to everyone’s taste, if local newspaper reviews were any indication.
Last month’s Damascus Film Festival provided local movie-goers with a heavy schedule of foreign films, as did the European Film Festival, now an annual event. The biggest change to the local film scene, however, came via the growing popularity of documentaries, with the second annual Dox Box documentary film festival once again proving a hit with local film fans in March.
“New resources such as the Al Jazeera and National Geographic documentary channels, as well as the launch of the Dox Box festival, have shown people that there are different types of documentaries and that they are more than simple video reporting,” Salina Abaza, a freelance graphic designer passionate about cinema, said.
The French Cultural Centre’s cinema club, which screens films twice a week and invites two prominent Syrian directors to debate the works with the audience afterwards, was another popular venue throughout the year for film buffs.
While the annual Jazz Lives in Syria festival used to be the only musical festival the country could boast of, a number of new musical events stole the show this year. Prime among these was the Liban Jazz festival, which served up a string of highly appreciated acts such as Norwegian ‘new jazz’ musician Bugge Wesseltoft and Italian pianist Giovanni Mirabassi.
“It’s great to listen to different genres of music other than the traditional ones that are repeated every year,” a young student at the Higher Institute of Music said.
Local musicians were also given a new platform to perform via the Music on the Road festival which saw local acts perform in public parks dotted throughout the city. The biggest audience, however, was reserved for much-loved Lebanese singer and writer Ziad Rahbani who performed in a packed Damascus Citadel in July.
Rock and hip-hop fans were also treated to new local albums. Syrian rock group Kulna Sawa played a number of packed shows following the release of Kulna Sawa Radio, while Sham MCs released the country’s first hip-hop album, Cross Words.
“People are bored with the same kind of Syrian music remixed and reproduced every year, it’s high time to get something new,” Firas Ahmad, a CD shop owner, said.
Photos by Carole al-Farah, Fadi al-Hamwi & Adel Samara
This article was published in Syria Today magazine