Thursday, March 20, 2008

SYRIAN ART: The Ayyam Gallery - Damascus

Detail from Safwan Dahoul's 'Reve' series

Aishti magazine

There was never much business in the Syrian art business, and the art world knew little about the insular world of contemporary Syrian art. But this has all begun to change as Syrian art becomes a hot commodity, from Dubai to London to Hong Kong.
At the forefront of this renaissance is Khaled Samawi, whose Ayyam Gallery in Damascus has brought both business and the world to the Syrian art scene.
Samawi, a former private banker in Switzerland, had retired to Damascus with his collection of 300 mostly non-Arab paintings. “I got back, played golf, and then got interested in art. I didn’t realize the wealth of art here or the price,” says Samawi. “Artists were de-valued because people didn’t know about them.”
With an empty building, and no desire to have tenants above his own residence, Samawi decided to open a gallery in late 2006. “I was convinced of the strength of the art,” he adds.
Samawi hasn’t been proven wrong, with the price of Syrian art up 500% since the Ayyam Gallery opened.
“January was our best month, with 40% of sales to Lebanese. People come with their interior decorators and before they know it their whole house is full of Syrian art,” he says.
“And in international auctions we’ve seen that the Syrian section used to be the smallest, but now it’s the biggest along with Iran.”
Samawi has brought his business acumen to the sector, but his passion lies in promoting art and providing stability for artists.
“We are probably the first gallery in the Middle East to sign contracts with artists. Most artists go to galleries and then take their junk and leave. We work for artists as managers, to allow artists to concentrate on their art,” he says.
Ayyam currently represents some 20 artists – including Safwan Dahoul, Ammar Al Beik, Youssef Abdelke, Fadi Yazigi, Mouteea Murad, Louay Kayyali, Mouneer Al Shaarani, Asaad Arabi and Asma Fayouni - displaying work through 12 exhibits a year and at international art fairs in the Emirates, New York and Hong Kong. Samawi is also planning to open a gallery in Dubai.

Detail from Ammar Al Beik's Museum Warden

Youssef Abdelke: Untitled, charcoal on paper (2008)

Ammar Al Beik's The Strong Believers

The Ayyam Gallery started showing art from the last 20 years, but is now looking at 2006 and onwards. “We started with pioneers and the established, and now focus on established and emerging artists,” he says.
To encourage emerging young artists, Ayyam Gallery carried out a competition last year called Shabab Ayyam where 150 artists vied for $10,000 in prize money. Three winners were awarded and 10 artists picked to be promoted by Ayyam.
“It was very satisfying. Some of these kids were part-time artists, part-time taxi drivers,” says Samawi.
Indeed, galleries have become an important space to introduce Syrians to contemporary art, with the Ayyam Gallery attracting between 500 to 1000 students to each gallery opening.
But one notable trend is that Syrians are not buyers. “Syrians traditionally collected carpets, antiques and silverware. Now with Syria opening up, more are interested in buying cars, jewellery and haute couture, but when done people might start collecting modern art,” says Samawi.
But what makes Syrian art so attractive to international buyers? “If you look today at the Middle East, Syria and Iran have the best art. The art is unique and strong because they’ve been closed to contemporary art. The artist is not doing it to sell it – he hopes it sells – but doing it because he believes in it,” he says. “The best thing the Syrian government ever did for art was not to interfere, they left it alone.”
However, Syrian art did raise eyebrows at last year’s ArtParis exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
“At ArtParis people said why’s your art traditional, not contemporary or installation? But I said a woman with a veil and a vibrator, that’s not Syrian art, or what we represent. You can’t ask an artist to do derogatory art, he should do his own art.”

Detail from Safwan Dahoul's 'Reve' series


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