Since opening its doors in 2006, Damascus’ Ayyam Gallery has projected Syrian art onto the international stage and put its in-house artists on the global art collector map. Khaled Samawi, a former London-based private banker turned art connoisseur tells me how his gallery has transformed the Syrian art industry.
What is the role of art in Syria?
In every country art plays both an internal and external role. Art’s internal role is to further the development of civilised society, while its external role is to help enhance the image of a country. In its external role, art shows people different elements of a country’s culture and heritage through its various creative forms such as visual art, music and theatre. When we held an exhibition in New York earlier this year, people were astonished to find out that contemporary art exists in Syria. They thought we would just present them with pictures of camels and horses.
What changes have occurred on the Syrian art scene in the last three years? To what extent, if any, do you think Ayyam Gallery has played an influential role?
I think the Middle Eastern contemporary art movement began to flourish in early 2006 with the opening of major auction houses in the region and specifically in Dubai. Syrian contemporary art plays a leading role in this movement due to the number of great artists who live in Syria. Ayyam Gallery has been a leader in showcasing these artists internationally and is considered, arguably, the leading art gallery in the Arab world.
What role should the private sector play in promoting art?
The private sector’s role is to finance the creative process and promote the artists and their works through collecting, exhibiting and publishing.
How much does Syrian art generally sell for at international auctions?
Generally speaking, top contemporary Syrian art sells at between USD 10,000 and 100,000 a piece, depending on the artist and the work.
The price of Syrian art has increased in recent years. Why do you think this is?
Syrian art was sold at a ridiculously low price before. In recent years, the best Syrian contemporary works have won a global collector base and are now sought after by the more astute art institutions in the world. Demand has moved from local to international.
How has this affected the local art market?
Nowadays, local collectors have to compete with international collectors for the best works, whereas before, they faced no competition in acquiring their chosen pieces.
How do you define investment in art?
If you like the work and you can afford it, then buy it. It’s as simple as that.
Do you think that investment in Syrian art has commercialised it?
How do you define commercialised art? If you give me a definition of what exactly commercialised art is then I can answer this question.
Some people contend that treating art as a luxury item strips it of any artistic value. What is your response?
The artistic value of an art piece does not change according to its price or classification. Those same works that sold for USD 1,000 five years ago are being resold today at USD 50,000. The artistic value of these pieces has not changed over the last five years. The market conditions have changed.
On what basis do you choose your in-house artists?
I have been collecting art for 20 years and my most trusted advisers are my eyes. I don’t need a book or an essay to appreciate an art piece.
What defines good art for you, high artistic value or high demand on the market?
If the work has high artistic value it will have high demand on the market.
How should the balance between decent art and good business be kept?
Investment in art is a pleasure and not a business. The fact that this pleasure has historically outperformed all other markets is a plus. High-quality art will always get what it deserves in the market if it is promoted properly. Junk art will always end up on the scrap heap no matter how it is promoted.
What does Syria need for a better art market?
More galleries, museums and collectors.
Syrian art is becoming popular among foreign collectors. Are Arab collectors also enthusiastic about Syrian art?
Syrian art is popular among all collectors who are aware of its existence.
Khaled Samawi answered my questions in writing.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine