Syria: Into the light
Concrete, at Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, UAE
To see Syria, one must go through darkness to come into the light. Literally. Organised by the Atassi Foundation for Arts and Culture, Syria: Into the Light was its first exhibition in the Middle East, and its largest to date, since it was founded just over a year ago. Featuring portraiture and figurative works by over 40 artists, the 60 something pieces sought to present, in the words of the foundation’s Mouna Atassi “the true, civilised face of Syria.” However, to enter, one first had to come face to face with a stand-alone black wall.
Syria: Into the Light was somewhat unique as it also marked the launch of its hosting venue, the new multi-purpose mega-structure Concrete. Managed by Alserkal Avenue and designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) it is intended to provide a space for museum-grade exhibitions within the region. Concrete’s imposing black façade resembles some sort of citadel. The interior is all smooth light grey concrete walls and gigantic ceiling runners on which walls can pivot and move to create endless iterations and formations, from vast open halls to smaller rooms. The reutilised warehouse space covers 600 square metres, and can be entirely opened up at the front through folding translucent polycarbonate walls. “We were so lucky to have been offered this chance by Alserkal,” says the foundation’s director Shireen Atassi. “It’s a museum-quality, gorgeous space, and the challenge for us was to ensure the works did not overshadow the space, though it was more likely to be the other way around, which is why we organised works in clusters.”
Perhaps that’s why that modest black wall was so important. The facade of Concrete stands at nearly nine metres tall, so it provided a focal point through which to access the show. Inset within it were a pair of 18th century Aleppo icon panels, there to correct the misconceptions that art from the ‘Islamic lands’ is prohibited from depicting people, and, more importantly, that the art of portraiture was a concept borrowed from the West. “We wanted to show that imagery is not new in Syrian art,” says Atassi. “It was not imported from Europe and it didn’t arrive only in the early 20th century. The art of the portrait has always been present in the Levant, from Palmyrian statues and frescoes right back through the ages, thousands of years BC.”
The focus then, was on the ‘face’ of Syria: through its people, depicted by four generations of artists working through political and social turmoil, moments of peace, nation building and identity-seeking. “We wanted to be mindful with the theme of our first show,” says Atassi. “It would have been easier to simply put on a show about war, but that’s not what we’re about. We wanted to look at Syria through its people.” Syria: Into the Light spanned four generations of artists, starting with the first half of the 20th century, a time when the country was under French mandate, and artists studied at the great arts capitals of Paris, Rome, Sofia, Berlin and Cairo.
With Syrian independence in 1945 came a new chapter of upheaval as the country sought to define its new nationhood, and coup d’état followed coup d’état until the early 1970s. “This was a time of a lot of soul searching,” says Atassi, “and the question of identity was very prominent.” Themes include socialism, pan-Arabism and Syrian nationalism and subjects are no longer prominent figures in society, but common people. The show also highlighted how this period was significant for the establishment of the Academy of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1960, as art education became home grown. The current generation’s work was hung along the sides, dating from the turn of the millennium onwards. It also marked a break – where older generations relied more heavily on a language of metaphor and allusion, today’s artists confront the reality of a broken Syria head-on, a desperate cry in the dark.
The highlight, though, was Ahmad Moualla’s (b. 1958) 12-metre painting People and Power (2011), perfectly placed within the cavernous space of Concrete: at three metres high, it dominated a central wall, yet its myriad figures make it seem intimate, a fitting vision of the Syrian people. “I can’t claim to be able to tell the entire story of Syrian art here,” says Atassi. “I can only tell small stories, and one at a time. However, the more venues and channels I get through which I can tell these stories, then slowly, the foundation will be able to start preserving them.”