Bonding Over Ceramics

Syria’s most high-profile international exhibition, World Ceramics: Masterpieces from the V&A, drew to a close earlier this month. Countries, it seems, can bond over rare ceramics…

Syria’s most high-profile international exhibition drew to a close earlier this month. Damascus’ Khan As’ad Basha caravanserai hosted 116 of the British Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum’s most revered world ceramic treasures (and what better place to showcase ceramic traditions spanning across thousands of years of history from the Orient to Europe than a former resting point for hundreds of camels and caravans snaking along the Silk Road).

Ceramic history aside, the arrival of the touring V&A exhibition in Damascus has been heralded by the event’s organisers as an important cultural initiative for improving understanding between two peoples. British journalists shipped out for the launch party described it as a vital form of cultural diplomacy, one which works to soften the face of an uncompromising British foreign policy in the region.

Pointing to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s landmark visit to Damascus on November 18, Simon Jenkins wrote in the Guardian on November 28: “This exhibition is worth a hundred Milibands. Here is Britain taking Syria and Syrians seriously and at face value. Here is none of the patronising and preaching that seems second nature to political London whenever it steps ashore east of Beirut.”

The exhibition also got the nod of approval from the Independent. “It is right to try a variety of rapprochements between us and the Middle East, and to the political we might add cultural approaches”, Philip Henscher wrote on December 1. “You never know, that might do the trick where hard diplomacy is always going to fail.”

Promoting cross-cultural interaction

The intriguing V&A exhibition showcases some of the world’s rarest ceramic artifacts, sculptures and luxury wares. Some exhibits date back as far as the ancient Egyptian period to 3000 BC, while others originate from the Ming Dynasty in China and the European medieval and Renaissance times. A life-size goat from Augustus the Strong’s Meissen menagerie in Dresden and Picasso’s 1954 painted vase titled The Artist at his Easel are just two of the many unique pieces that stand out.

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Organisers of the exhibition explain that behind the extraordinary collection of artifacts lies the message that early international trade not only influenced ceramic art, but also encouraged cross-cultural interaction and the exchange of ideas. “The exhibition explores the links between the world’s great ceramic traditions and how international trade and cultural exchange spread manufacturing technologies,” May Mamarbachi, project manager and representative of the V&A in Syria, said.

Linking the past with the present, representatives of Shell Syria, an energy company which sponsored the V&A to come to Damascus, view the exhibition as an important initiative which bolsters cross-cultural relations between London and Damascus.

“Culture has a unique standing among people, it can bring them together with a lot of understanding regardless of political or social background,” Ole Mysklestad, Syria Shell chairman, said. “That is why it is the best means to open dialogue that will ultimately contribute to better understanding among people.”

For some visitors to the exhibition, this emphasis on the influence of cultural initiatives for improving relations between different peoples is a cliché devoid of much meaning. “I think the exhibition is spectacular and I could simply spend hours gazing at the artifacts on show,” Lina Barakat, a 25-year-old Syrian student, said. “You asked me about the meaning of cultural ties with England, but this means nothing to me in everyday life. This concept is just a hollow ideal – a straw man best left for the realm of academia. I guess culture can bring people together, but it also tears them apart. The gesture of bringing the exhibition to Damascus is symbolic though, we’ve never had anything like it here before.”

Indeed, the real significance behind the exhibition is perhaps less in its outstanding displays or underlying message promoting cross-cultural interaction and more in the fact that it is the first time an exhibition from a major international museum has come to Syria. Furthermore, Syria is the first country in the Middle East where a V&A touring exhibition has ever been staged. While the exhibition is also set to travel to Abu Dhabi, the region’s up-and-coming arts centre, the fact that it will not be dropping in on any of Syria’s more immediate neighbours gives the occasion even more prestige.

The exhibition is not, however, the outcome of a deliberate, self-sacrificing cultural initiative by British V&A representatives to engage with Syria. It would not have toured to Damascus without the “generous sponsorship” of Shell Syria. As the project’s sole sponsor, the company forked out SYP 46.5m (USD 1m) to bring the exhibition to Damascus.

Valuing Syria’s own ceramic heritage

Some critics argue the cost of importing the V&A to Syria was excessive and the money would have been put to better use if it had been invested in more local heritage preservation projects. They note that despite the fact that Syria is recognised as one of the world’s earliest pottery producing centres – hand-made ceramics in the country date back more than 8,000 years – little interest has been shown in restoring the Damascus National Museum’s (DNM) worn-down ceramics section. They hold that precious ceramic artifacts chaotically displayed in grubby showcases and unclearly labelled are a more worthy cause for investment than a temporary British exhibition.

“The Damascus Arab Capital of Culture Secretariat should focus on providing more support and expertise to the museum to ensure its displays are properly presented,” one of the exhibition’s visitors said. “Syrians should have the chance to become informed about their own rare and invaluable ceramics; this in the long run would bring better results than a temporary exhibition.”

The fact that the exhibition’s pristine display cases will be donated to the DNM when it packs up and leaves may offer critics some comfort. Furthermore, the V&A exhibition is providing Syrians with the chance to learn about their own ceramic traditions. Standing alongside the V&A’s own precious ceramic artifacts at the Khan As’ad Basha are a dozen rare 12th and 14th-century pieces from the DNM. Mamarbachi said these artifacts were being showcased to highlight the “great contributions of Syrian and Islamic potters to the history of ceramics”.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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