Art Lessons

Students and teachers at Syria’s public arts academies say their programmes need to be overhauled.

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts - Photos by Fadi Hamwi

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts – Photos by Fadi al-Hamwi

Walking around the University of Damascus’s faculty of fine arts is like entering a rundown labyrinth. Sculptures, paintings and odd-looking metal objects are scattered everywhere. Peeling paint adorns the walls and cigarette butts cover the dusty stairs of the four-storey building. The haphazard physical appearance of the school reflects a similar situation in the curriculum.

Inadequate curriculum

Students and teachers interviewed by Syria Today criticised the curriculum of the three public universities arts programmes, noting their omission of contemporary arts, under-qualified staff and an overly general, rigid and one-size-fits-all programme.

“As the Syrian saying goes ‘a rose from every garden’, this is how the curriculum is. It erratically teaches students a little of everything without giving any depth to any of the subjects,” Zavien Youssef, a lecturer of painting at the faculty, said.

Youssef as well as many students suggested that each teacher should set up a workshop and students should be allowed to choose classes where they could practice several, individual art forms for four or five months.

The curriculum also fails to cover contemporary art. Students like Imad Habbab, who is in his fourth year, said they regret that their curriculum includes modern art history (art between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries) but none of the contemporary arts like new media arts. Although there is a new media artist teaching at the faculty of fine arts, she is restricted to teaching only what is in the curriculum, Habbab said.

“The earliest part of modern art history that we studied at the university is almost 100 years old. That is ridiculously old,” Habbab said. “The problem is that most teachers are old-fashioned artists and they know nothing about contemporary arts. This is why I don’t think it will be taught in the university any time soon.”

photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Under-qualified staff

Yamen Youssef, a sculptor and master’s student at the University of Damascus, argued that many professors are less qualified than they were when he was a student five years ago.

“During my time, many of the professors were well-known Syrian artists and art historians,” Youssef said.

According to Alaa Abu Shahin, an art teacher at University of Aleppo, the opening of private art universities during the last five years or so is the reason behind the lower quality of art professors in public universities. As a result, some teachers are forced to teach subjects for which they lack specialisation.

“Private universities attracted most of the big names,” Abu Shahin said. “It’s because they offer better salaries and jobs.”

Students also complained that the faculty does not provide the needed supplies for academic art studies – nude models, for example. Instead, students paint the likeness of the same two fully-dressed men and one female model during their four years of studies.

“We once had a veiled model,” Youssef, the sculptor, said. “How am I supposed to learn to sculpt muscles if I don’t have a nude model to copy? How could it be that today we only get to study artistic anatomy in theory while students in this very same faculty had nude models back in the ‘60s?”

To solve this problem, students said they paint each other, use human sculptures as subjects or pay to hire nude models.

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Rigid system

The faculty of fine arts functions under the Ministry of Education. So it follows a similar system as other faculties, which, in Youssef the sculptor’s opinion, is incompatible with fine arts. During the first year, for example, students have to study painting, sculpture, etching and graphic and fashion design. They can then specialise only in one area, but are selected for this specialty based on their marks in all courses. Fashion design requires the highest marks.

Also similarly to other universities functioning under the Ministry of Education, the faculty of fine arts has specific working hours. Because the buildings close at 2pm, students have little time to work on projects.

“In other universities where people have specific classes, it makes sense to have specific working hours, but when it comes to fine arts that simply doesn’t work,” Youssef said. “In the higher institute of music and theatre, students are free to use the studios to practice their music at any time during the day. It should be the same with fine arts.”

Despite the shortcomings of the University of Damascus’s fine arts’ programme, Abu Shahin said it is superior to the other two public fine art faculties in Aleppo and Suweida. He said the Aleppo faculty suffers from a shortage of professors, equipment and libraries. He argued that one of the main reasons for the shortage in staff is that none of the Syrian artists and academic professors – including those who originally come from Aleppo – want to teach in Aleppo, because it is too far from the capital and the country’s only developed art market. As a result, young teachers are overburdened.

“I am not an academic professor. I’m a recent graduate so I should only teach second-year students, yet I teach students in the second, third and fourth years,” Abu Shahin said. “At least in Damascus they have a larger number of teachers and academic professors. They visits museums and have gypsum sculptures to replace nude models. But in Aleppo we don’t even have that.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Download a pdf veriosn here.

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