Carving Out a New Art Landscape

A new foundation is working to raise the profile of video art and other new media art installations on Syria’s cultural scene.

Abeer Boukhari founder of All Art Now

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.

Promoting non-art

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.

All Art Now gallery

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.

Winning recognition
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.”

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This article was published in Syria Today magazine

The Cutting Edge (profile of artist Buthayna Ali)

Art shouldn’t be hung with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign on it, says new media artist Buthayna Ali.

The Artist

I first met Buthayna Ali in 2003 at the launch of her exhibition Promises which focused on war and violence in the Middle East. Back then, the event was one of the first new media art exhibitions to be held in Syria and Ali was still an emerging artist who had only just finished her postgraduate studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Fast forward six years and Ali has left a distinctive mark on the Syrian art scene, working to promote new media art despite a lack of funding and interest from galleries.

“New media art is still underrated in Syria,” Ali said. “The layperson does not reject new media art. Rather, it’s the traditional artists who oppose it, mainly because they don’t know what it is.”

A new generation of Syrian artists, says Ali, is seeking modern tools to express itself with. Traditional framed oil paintings and canvasses, she explains, do not make it onto the list.

“Art is about life and we are in the age of multimedia,” Ali said. “Therefore, it’s natural that we want to express ourselves using the language of this age, which is new media art.”

During the Syrian parliamentary elections in April 2007, twelve students from Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts criticised candidates running for positions in a video installation entitled Vote, made at one of Ali’s workshops. The videos were screened at the Umawiyeen Square two days before the election results were announced.

“The students voted using their own tools,” Ali said. “Through their videos they made their opinions known, that this was not the way they wanted to be represented.”

Vote 2007

Ali has always been calm-natured, yet she also refuses to shy away from controversy. Her works of art often draw on themes that break the taboos of religion, politics and sex.

The inspiration for one of her most well-known installation pieces, entitled Marionettes, came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Saida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus.

“It’s common to find such lingerie sold in the streets next to religious centres,” Ali said. “I find that very strange in such a conservative society like that of Syria.”

Marionettes 2007

Marionettes was exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007. The piece featured eight items of lingerie hanging by strings like marionettes in front of eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors could see themselves wearing the lingerie.

“I wanted to raise the same questions that occurred to me when I first saw the lingerie,” Ali said. “I wanted people to ask themselves: ‘It’s impossible for me to wear this. How would it look on me if I did? I’m curious to try them on, but I’m not brave enough, are you?’”

One of Ali’s most recent exhibitions was a collaborative video installation with Syrian artist Bayan al-Sheikh, held at the Netherlands’ Glow Festival in November 2008. The work created an optical illusion with four round screens hanging from the ceiling that broadcast a whirling dervish as viewed from above. A fifth screen located on the floor showed the same whirling dervish, but shot from a different perspective. Every now and then the screenings were interrupted by videos and sound recordings of people in the streets of Damascus discussing everyday topics.

Ayn 2008

“Mevlevi dancing is a way of exiting reality and entering a more spiritual world,” Ali said. “Yet when talking to dervishes about their everyday life you find out that it has nothing to do with Sufism.”

Indeed, Ali’s last Syrian exhibition was in 2006. In the installation entitled We Ali turned Alrywak gallery into a playground, hanging more than 50 black rubber base swings with words such as ‘money’, ‘love’, ‘sorrow’ and ‘business’ written on them in white. Visitors walked among the playground as these same words were broadcast, reverberating around the room.

“I wanted to say that life is like a swing,” she said. “While swings symbolise freedom and flying, no matter how high you swing you will always lose momentum and slow down. You always end up left stuck between two ropes and in need of somebody or something to give you another push.”

The Artist in her exhibition We Nous

While Ali still struggles to display her work in Syria, she knows there is much interest in new media art.

“Unlike traditional art which is framed and hung with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign in front of it, visitors can interact with an installation work and use all of their senses,” she said. “This is what makes new media art so special.”

Buthayna Ali’s latest installation on the Israeli war on Gaza will be on display from March 15 in the Green Art Gallery in Dubai.

Buthayna Ali
Buthayna Ali was born in Damascus in 1974. She graduated with a degree in the History of Islamic Art from the Sorbonne Paris IV University in 2001 and obtained a postgraduate diploma in painting from Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris in 2003. Ali taught at the Faculty of Art in Damascus from 2002 to 2007. She currently lives and works in Canada and Syria. For more information log onto www.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 47