A Message from Damascus

First and foremost, reality shows that the status of galleries during this period of catastrophe inflicted on Syria is sad and echoes the status quo of the country: artists still create art, and some galleries showcase their works, but in light of the crisis nationwide, the situation is more surreal than anything grounded in reality. 

Syrian visual artists, whose work I have had to chance to examine – either personally or through social media – could be categorised into three groups. The first consists of those who, despite years of this Syrian catastrophe, continue to create new works or at least variations on their previous production. And here, I’m not in a position to make a judgement on the humanitarian level. Each person has his/her own circumstances, convictions and visions. The second group is those artists who have been influenced to varying degrees by the Syrian tragedy. Some have experienced the violence in their surroundings, and some have had their internal worlds changed altogether – so much so that these catastrophic events dominate their art, introducing drastic changes to their approaches, and sometimes to their styles per se. The third and last group, which is the smallest in number, includes artists who have stepped away from the art scene due to shock towards the events. They are the artists who have opted for a ‘complete artistic silence’ for some reason or another. Artists of each of the three aforementioned groups have their own supporters and followers.     

Many visual artists have been forced to flee the country and live abroad due to the dire situation in Syria, while others have opted to stay within the country. These have retreated out of the art scene, ceasing to exhibit or even be present in the rare art activities that were held during the war. This led to a new phenomenon emerging, in which spurious artists took over the exhibition spaces of public galleries and state-run media. 

The decision to reactivate private galleries has been on a case by case basis. All have proclaimed it is too early for such a decision as people are still psychologically exhausted, and in a state of struggle – both economically and socially. Still, forced closure for some eight years and due to the desire to revive a sector of the cultural scene that in the past was once the most active nationwide, this hesitation has been overpowered, and some private galleries resumed their activities gradually. Because of objective circumstances, galleries based in Damascus were the most active.

As the battles faded, exhibitions came back to private galleries, in Damascus particularly. I organised the first exhibition at the Fateh Moudarres Gallery, which I run. On the same day of the opening a shell landed just 500 metres away from the gallery. That was among the last artillery shells Damascus had to witness. 

As the battles around Damascus came to an end in 2018, some galleries finally resumed their activities. Public attendance at openings was remarkable and showed a thirst for social gathering and an eagerness to appreciate art. It was a kind of dusting of people’s inner souls – souls plagued by solitude and fear for years. Such big turnouts were encouraging, both for galleries as well as artists. Strangely and surprisingly, some collectors too were in attendance. I believe their presence was related to a presumed hope that emerged after the sound of battles dissipated. Despite being modest in number, the mere presence of these collectors was enough to revive hopes. What followed, however, has been a further deterioration of the economic situation and living standards. This has continued from bad to worse until we reached a deadlock in terms of the art and its price from one side, and people’s incomes and priorities on the other.

Collectors in Syria today are different from those in the era before the war. Collecting has become an encouraging gesture by the rich, and an investment deal by others. This has been due to the low prices of artworks as the value of the Syrian Pound has collapsed. And since having a price tag with foreign currency is not allowed in Syria, we have become ashamed of pricing in the horrifying figures in the Syrian Pound while the actual value in dollars is quite small. Thus, due to the current situation, most Syrian artists prefer to sell their works abroad for three main reasons: the increasingly weak national currency, the scarcity of collectors in Syria as a consequence of a deteriorating economic situation, and the subsequent crises inflicted on Lebanon, which constitutes a good market for visual arts, as well as a transit hub for the GCC market.

We also should not overlook the war’s nouveau riche, who have taken advantage of the Syrian tragedy. This particular group of wealthy people don’t appreciate visual art – neither its intellectual nor its financial value. What remains is a very small group of collectors who have the ability to establish a link between the value of art and its great capacity in linking thought to beauty.    

Damascus 12 April 2021