Cultural Custodians: Khaled Samawi on the growth and future of The Samawi Collection

Ayyam Gallery was founded in 2006 in Damascus by Khaled and Jouhayna Samawi, followed just two years later by its expansive Dubai spaces in Alserkal Avenue and the Dubai International Financial Centre. The couple began collecting art during their time living in Europe in the 1990s, and it was upon relocating back to Syria in 2001 that they become immersed in the Contemporary Damascus art scene and the idea to open a gallery was born. Ayyam Gallery quickly established itself in the region and internationally with an identity that combined the promotion of Syrian art to a global audience via its commercial art gallery activities but also its grassroots support for artists via initiatives such as the Shabab Ayyam programme for emerging artists, publications, educational programming and several charity auctions.

In tandem to the growth of Ayyam Gallery has been The Samawi Collection, currently comprising over 3,000 works and collated by Jouhayna, Khaled and Khaled’s cousin Hisham Samawi. As one of the largest private collections of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art, with works by artists from as far and wide as Belorussia and China, it spans “a range of genres, from politically minded canvases to painting and sculpture that remain at the cutting-edge of global art with technologically driven approaches.”

While curated selections from the collection have been exhibited, The Samawi Collection does not yet have a permanent space. Khaled Samawi speaks to The Journal about the formation of the collection, its intersection and difference to the commercial and curatorial activities of the gallery, and the responsibilities that art patrons have in preserving and exhibiting the art they are custodians of.

Cultural Custodians: Khaled Samawi on the growth and future of The Samawi Collection - Features - Atassi Foundation

Ayyam Gallery in Damascus

How does your own personal collecting outlook intersect with the gallery’s curatorial vision? Which came first?

Khaled Samawi: Jouhayna and I started collecting Syrian and other art while still living in Europe, before the idea of starting a gallery was even on the cards. When we moved back to Damascus in 2001, where we then lived for the next five years, we began collecting works by Modernist artists such as Louay Kayyali and Fateh Moudarres. During this period, we were also introduced to Contemporary artists and it was through supporting them and the numerous friendships we formed that the idea for Ayyam Gallery was born.

These friendships must have given you a unique insight into the challenges faced by Syrian artists – especially over the last decade. How can collectors support contemporary Syrian artists in a long-term way?

I think buying their works is a great start. That being said, I believe that collectors have a further responsibility to promote the works of artists they collect. We see that with a lot of foreign buyers who bring their friends to the [Ayyam] gallery and help us place works by artists they like and collect. We see it much less with Middle Eastern collectors, who tend to be more private.

When it comes to The Samawi Collection, how have you built it up?

The majority of the collection has been curated by my wife and myself. After 30 years of marriage and collecting we pretty much know now what makes sense aesthetically when adding to the collection. The thread that runs through most of the works in it is activism in one form or another – both Jouhayna and I are attracted to art that has a strong message, whether than be environmentalism or human rights. If I had to boil it down, perhaps I would say that expressionism is at the heart of our collection – regardless of the artist’s origin.

How do the gallery remit and the Samawi Collection overlap (if at all)? 

The aesthetic and philosophy are very similar. However, there is a fundamental difference in that the gallery represents artists and is very involved in the development and wellbeing of these artists and their families. Ayyam Gallery pretty much exclusively deals with artists that have become friends and does not deal in the secondary market or with the art of Modernists. There is a large human aspect besides the artistic aspect. On the other hand, The Samawi Collection is more about the art than the artist, if that makes sense.  

Cultural Custodians: Khaled Samawi on the growth and future of The Samawi Collection - Features - Atassi Foundation

Ayyam Gallery in Dubai

Why build and expand The Samawi Collection? Why has this been important to you? As you already have an internationally successful gallery, what is the cultural cachet of the collection, for you?

Let’s start by saying that a collector begins a collection – as in, a coherent body of work to share and exhibit, as opposed to collecting for one’s own private taste – to satisfy their need to add value to the cultural spectrum. In our case, as the collection continued to grow, Jouhayna and I would ask ourselves: what works would enhance it, and add to the dialogues created between the existing art and artists in it? What is an artwork saying, and is it relevant to the themes within the collection? Is it relevant to the current times? Then, as the collection began to mature, the questions got bigger: what do we do with the collection and what does it encompass? What value does it add to the cultural and humanitarian scene?

There is also the financial value of the collection itself, surely? 

Of course – art is a generational long term asset class. It is by no means a speculative investment, but an important asset with both material and cultural value as a diversification of a wealth portfolio. That said, the financial investment should be the last thought on a collector's mind when purchasing a work of art: the aesthetic and cultural value is the immediate and permanent return.  

You have talked about the increasing weight of the questions you ask yourself as The Samawi Collection Grows. What is its future?

I have a dream of building a museum or foundation to house and permanently display the collection. I believe this will happen!

What’s stopping you?

At this stage, the big question is what the geographical location of the museum/foundation will be. I guess will leave that headache to my children!

This leads us to our last question: at what stage does a collector assume the responsibility of taking the private out to the public? Or is there such a responsibility at all?

A collector has the privilege and responsibility to take care of the art in his/her custody. It belongs to the public and will only be in one’s private collection for a short time in the long history and future of any specific work. No collector will outlive their collection, so while they are alive, they are simply a custodian. That is my belief.