Q&A: Khaled Samawi, founder of Ayyam Gallery

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.

Khaled Samawi / Photo by Adel Samara

Khaled Samawi / Photo by Adel Samara

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

Documenting Life As It Is (profile of Syrian filmmaker Ammar al-Beik)

Art should do more than imitate life. It should capture and document it, says Syrian filmmaker Ammar al-Beik whose unconventional films and documentaries have won international praise.

Ammar al-Beik / Photo by Manaf Hassan

Ammar al-Beik / Photo by Manaf Hassan

Syrian filmmaker Ammar al-Beik’s early start in the industry was less than successful. As a 12-year-old, Beik auditioned for a role in the movie Dreams of the City by noted Syrian director Mohammad Malas. He failed to make the cut. Some 19 years later, however, in an ironic twist, Malas would hire Beik as his assistant director for the film Bab al-Makam, released with the English title, Passion, in 2005, giving Beik his big break.

Beik has charted an unconventional approach to filmmaking and it shows in his work. The 36-year-old avoids working with large film production companies which he believes restrict creativity by imposing a rigid framework of rules and conditions. Instead, he prefers to just grab the camera and shoot, letting his spontaneity guide him. He has been particularly influenced by French director Robert Bresson’s book, Notes on the Cinematographer. Beik directs and produces all of his own work and insists on employing amateur actors. “Famous actors are spoiled by the movie industry,” he said. “Cinematography requires amateur models that are pure and intact, ones that spontaneously give themselves rather than actors who perfectly perform a role.”

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film Jerusalem HD

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film Jerusalem HD

Showing me a bulging book filled with olive tree branches and stones collected from Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, Gaza, Haifa and Nablus, Beik explained that he asks Palestinian directors to bring a piece of their homeland to the international film festivals he attends. His documentary film Samia tells the moving story of Samia al-Halaby, a 72-year-old Palestinian painter who returns to Ramallah after spending years in exile. Most of the film’s footage was shot by Halaby herself as she carefully selects a stone from the neighbourhood she used to live in to bring back to Beik. “The video was so spontaneous and touching that it had to be turned into a movie,” Beik said. “Samia reflects the destiny and lost dreams of many Palestinians who were forced to flee their country 60 years ago.”

Beik believes the role of art is to represent life as it is. Consequently, he uses it in his documentary style films to portray the everyday problems of ordinary people in society and politics. “If I avoid breaking taboos or crossing red lines in my work, creating art only for art’s sake, the result will be fake because it doesn’t reflect my inner self,” he said.

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film They Were Here

Still from Ammar al-Beik´s film They Were Here

I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to Her Grave, produced and directed by Beik and formerly exiled Syrian director Hala Alabdallah in 2006, is his most famous film to date. The 105-minute long film, part documentary and part fable, examines the fate of three Syrian women who face social and political oppression, prison and exile to France. Interviews with the three women alternate with various footage: the desolate island of Arwad; paintings by Alabdallah’s husband Youssef Abdelke; and his emotional return to Syria to see his mother after 24 years of living in France. The film pays a highly emotional tribute to the rejuvenating power of poetry and beauty in general. During the movie, the viewer sees Beik cleaning the camera lens, Alabdallah directing the actors, and a little boy re-filming his scenes, without much success. These small details bring out humour in the film, without detracting from the moving story line. Shot in black and white, the film has won a number of awards, including the Documentary Prize at the 2006 Venice International Film Festival.

At present, Beik is working on a film which focuses on the bloodshed and instability in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Beirut. “The Palestinian-Israeli crisis and the chaos in Iraq and Lebanon affect every detail of our lives in Syria,” he said. “As a Syrian, they are present in my life and therefore in my art.”

He has also been setting the wheels in motion for a movie which will feature film directors from all over the world in front of the camera, including Manoel de Oliveira, Jia Zhangke and Bernardo Bertolucci.

Despite his success, Beik maintains he never believed his childhood dreams would become a reality. “When I was a little boy peeking at the director from backstage, I couldn’t imagine I might get into the heart of filmmaking,” he said.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.