“Dubai has always been our home base and foundation,” says Green Art Gallery director Yasmin Atassi. “This is where Green Art Gallery was born.” While the now Alserkal Avenue-located gallery’s nascent form, Ornina, was born in 1987 above a bookshop in Homs, formed by Atassi’s late mother Mayla and her sister Mona, it settled in Dubai by 1995, in partnership with Amna Dabbagh. Whether in its original Syrian home, its time as a salon d’art in a Jumeirah villa, or the intimate white cube space it now occupies, the gallery has always served as a vehicle for intellectual discourse and subtle, relevant art that pays its dues to its, and art history’s, past. Turning its focus to contemporary work, alongside its continued Arab Modernist programme, by 2010, Atassi promotes research and ideas, supporting artists hailing from across the MENASA region. In turn, the diversity of its roster – from Turkish Hale Tenger and Iranian Kamrooz Aram to Venezulan Alessandro Balteo-Yazbeck – reflects the cosmopolitan nature of its Dubai base. “It’s always been an important point of reference for us,” says Atassi. “I don’t think that Green Art could be anywhere. Its programming is international, but the roots are always here.” While being a Middle Eastern gallery is not a classification that holds as much weight as it may have a few years prior, Atassi remarks that the progressively global roster – including recent additions such as Brazilian Ana Mazzei and Iranian Maryam Hoseini – and collaboration with independent curators have contributed towards a public perception that has “people look at us for our programme, not where we are based or come from.”
Noting that the art world has quickened its pace, Atassi remarks that the gallery needed to make a decision to slow down and focus on its key priorities: the programme and artists. As of this year, this includes stepping away from the traditional six annual exhibition format to allow more time to work with its artists as they receive institutional attention. “Many artists have grown with us and are now getting several institutional opportunities, which requires our attention and support,” she says. “Coupled with the international fairs we do, we thought that it would be okay, and perhaps even better, to do four excellent shows rather than six not so good ones just to fill a calendar.” Fairs are a necessary tool which support the gallery’s goal to “push the conversation of art to our audience while staying relevant for both the wider regional and internationally,” says Atassi, admitting that it is a challenging balance. Observing the increasing relevance and value of ideas in and as art, Atassi reevaluated her exhibition methodology and honed in on tightly focused showcases. “I want people to leave the gallery thinking and learning something new. You can see this change in the last few years as the programme becomes demanding, but that is also because the audience is asking for it and responding to it,” she says.
Keeping its audience – collector or public – in mind plays into the gallery’s approach. While fair booths are typically dominated by group shows, Green Art proposes a different option, offering a fresh take by way of an old-school form. One such example was its Art Dubai 2018 booth, where it presented a concise retrospective of Chaouki Choukini works. The solo artist booth and sleek hanging was aligned with museum surveys, which received positive feedback. “This kind of presentation allows people to get into the artist’s world and to understand and appreciate the works in a deeper, more intimate way,” explains Atassi. “Visitors spend more time at the booth because they want to hear the story of the artist and familiarize themselves in less time than it would take at a museum.” Face time is critical – as is the awareness that in a sea of fair artworks, attention is fleeting, and this approach facilitates succinct but meaningful interactions. Its hook is smart, but also savvy – key museum figures frequent the fairs and opting for a format akin to theirs has proven successful in producing tangible results.
Participating regularly in fairs such as Art Dubai, Art Basel Liste, FIAC and Frieze London, “any young gallery getting to the level of international art fairs, or an artist getting a solo show at a museum or a biennale invitation is definitely an achievement,” says Atassi. “While there are fairs that you simply cannot not do, there are others that we partake in for strategic purposes, such as geographical location, networking or our programme fitting perfectly into the vision of that specific fair.” The high calibre of the events it frequents speaks to the quality of the programme Atassi has carefully carved out – one that ensures that the artists span the globe without being limited by a physical base in the UAE. “Art has to travel, and so we do,” she remarks, which forges new relationships and unexpected, interesting connections that has her confident about future growth. “A recent pleasant experience was Dallas Art Fair, which we decided to do due to Kamrooz Aram’s solo show at the Modern Museum of Fort Worth happening at the same time,” she recounts, specifying that they partake in one North American fair per year as it is important to extend their reach to that territory. “Before, it was a completely unexplored area and we are very happy we gave it a try. We were quite impressed by their strong social position to give back to the community and the incredible support and attitude towards the arts. We’ve learned a lot.”
Committed to documenting, archiving and historicizing artistic production, the gallery has publicly stated its desire to “extend its legacy of discursive and programmatic criticality.” Acknowledging an educational aspect, Atassi adds it takes particular prominence when traveling abroad for art fairs or at its artists’ institutional exhibitions, such as Seher Shah’s shows at the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Dhaka Art Summit; or her solo at Art Basel. “It’s important for us to evolve the knowledge of contemporary art in the Middle East and how it’s developing,” she explains. “The gallery is a commercial venture, but a lot of what we do is not, meaning that we don’t exhibit to sell art. Selling is a necessity, but more important is maintaining an interesting conversation with our audience and managing the careers of our artists.”
Garnering respect and appreciation for this emphasis, Atassi reinforces the importance of ideas and artwork integrity. “Artists must be given time and space to produce new work and challenge themselves,” she clarifies. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that artists are now producing new work for art fairs for three days and then it disappears. Most of my artists spend months, if not years, working on a project. I must give them that space to show work over a period of time.” That’s why, despite Green Art’s active presence on the international art fair circuit, it maintains that physical space. “Call me old fashioned,” quips Atassi, “but I still believe that a gallery space is the most important thing!”