Syrian artists cherish their cultural background

August 2009 -

The old city of Damascus counts dozens of ateliers and artists initiatives, especially in the Jewish quarter, which was neglected after most of its inhabitants emigrated to Israel. For example Mustafa Ali, the 'Syrian Picasso', bought an old house in this area. His professional success – last year he completed a giant installation on top of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and now he is crafting iron gates for the presidential palace – allow him to live as a patron of the arts. He organizes concerts and performances in the central courtyard, which along with the bar in the ancient cellars, rooms for visitors, friends and family and a gallery which sells his sculptures, make his compound a forum for art lovers.


Basic Instinct by Ammar al Beik

His art is influenced by the Syrian love poet Nizar Qabbani as well as artists he encountered during his years in Europe, such as Giacometti. But it is also firmly rooted in thousands of years of highly developed sculpting in the region.This also inspires the young photographer Ammar al Beik, who incorporates thumbnail representations of ancient goddesses displayed in the National Museum in many of his works. His giant and beautifully printed photographs are bound to conquer art markets worldwide.

 Mustafa Ali
'Three Princesses', H56 X W71 X D14 cm. Wood & Bronze Sculpture, Edition of 8, executed in 2008.

While young artists in neighbouring countries often command attention by the fury with which they try to get rid of stifling artistic traditions, Syrian artists generally seem quite comfortable with their cultural background. This may make it less appealing to Western curators who expect a radical critique of Islamic and/or Arab culture; but it gives a solid footing to the conceptual explorations by local artists in new media or unusual themes.

Similarly, Western misperceptions about the extent and nature of Syria's authoritarian regime make it difficult to appreciate the existence of the lively Syrian art scene, which is slowly but steadily becoming a presence to be reckoned with.