The reasons that have driven Syrian artists to travel to Paris have been numerous. At the turn of the 20th century, when the first generation made their way there (including Tawfik Tarek and Michel Kerche), it was the remarkable artistic renaissance taking place in the city that called to them. Freedom of expression and artistic openness contributed to making Paris such an attractive destination in which to pursue their studies. This first generation returned to Syria upon graduation, while some of the artists of the second wave decided to settle down in the city of art; these artists include Asaad Arabi, Laila Muraywid and Ziad Dalloul. Today, the attraction of Paris endures, and the city beloved for its architecture, beautiful bridges, schools of art and reputed universities has recently welcomed its most recent wave of Syrian art students: those who arrived to study at the beginning of the new millennium, including, among many others, Nagham Hudaifa and Nour Asalia [who writes about these earlier generations in more detail in her companion essay, which you can read here]. Because Paris was – and still is – a safe haven for those fleeing terrorism and tyranny, many artists forced to leave Syria in the wake of the 2011 Revolution have also sought refuge there, such as Alaa Abou Shahin and Khaled Dawaa.
In fact, not only did Paris open its doors to Syrian artists, embracing them and their art, it has also fostered collective initiatives such as Caravane Culturelle Syrienne and Portes Ouvertes, both of which are highlighted here. While they both have been credited with supporting Syrian art and artists, they differ in terms of their founders and the mechanism of their work, yet are united by similar visions.
Caravane Culturelle Syrienne
In 2014, Syrian artist Mohamad Al Roumi, along with a few of his artist, and cultural worker friends founded the Caravane Culturelle Syrienne with the aim to share a ‘real’ reflection of art and culture in Syria, particularly when the focus of Western society (vis-à-vis the Middle East) at that time was almost wholly on the spread of ISIS. Its activities encompass all kinds of media, from painting to performance art, music, singing, theatre and film, as well as seminars and lectures by several international thinkers specialised in the Syrian issue (such as François Burgat and Yves Aubin).
 These comprised friends residing in Paris, such as Wala Dakkak, Walid Al Masri, Khouloud Zghayar, Amelie Duhamel and Waddah Karaman as well as those still living in Syria at the time, such as Yasser Al Safi and Iman Hasbani, and in Spain, such as Assem AlBasha.
The beginnings of the Caravane Culturelle Syrienne date back to July 2014, to a very literal caravan – that is, a camper van which roamed France, transporting Syrian artists and their artworks to various artistic and cultural events, including street exhibitions. Its mission was to make Syrian art accessible to all, not just to a small coterie of individuals already interested in art, and the French public engaged extremely positively with it, finding the idea of a roaming art caravan both exciting and appealing. So warm was the welcome, in fact, that participating artists spoke of being able to affirm their artistic identity through their participation. It also gained widespread media coverage, including a special, dedicated issue on Syrian art by Art Absolument.
Undoubtedly, the Syrian revolution played a major role in stirring public opinion and rousing the curiosity of a Western audience to learn about this new art, for, by 2015, official invitations from artistic and cultural organisations in France and other European countries started pouring in. These facilitated the working mechanism of the caravan’s team as they were granted official approvals and residencies as well as access to a diverse audience from all walks of life. Prior to this, the members of the Caravan team had had to juggle the production of their own art as well as the various time-consuming administrative duties involved in running the Caravane Culturelle Syrienne and getting permissions for its activities.
 The caravan extended its activities to also reach Spain, Italy (Naples and Florence), Belgium and Norway.
For Al Roumi, one of the events that allowed the team to fully realise their original goal of introducing Western audiences to Syrian art in all its forms was through its cultural journey to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where, over a period of four days, it organised a variety of cultural shows, including a film screening, debates and lectures on Syrian art and literature. Another successful event saw them invited to San Sebastian, the 2016 European Capital of Culture.
The many activities and partnerships organised by the caravan succeeded in creating new links and bridges between Arab and Western audiences. This may be down to the focus of the project: which was not to showcase any particular, specific kind of art, but simply to manifest a truthful image of Syrian art. The Caravane Culturelle Syrienne thus hosted, in addition to Syrian artists such as Khaled Al Khani, Najah Al Bekai and many others, several famous French artists like Ernest Pignon and Florence Aubin.
Founded in 2016, Portes Ouvertes brought together three members of the soon to be defunct Maison Rouge museum (Paula Aisemberg, ex-director of the museum; Véronique Pievre de Mandiarg, director of its membership programme, and Pauline De Laboulaye) and Dunia Al Dahan, along with Syrian artists: Randa Maddah and Oula Abdulla. Portes Ouvertes seeks to help the French public understand the Syrian reality via its artists and their works. Moreover, it also hopes to provide those artists with the chance to reach new audiences. In order to achieve this, each of the six founders has undertaken one essential role in the endeavor. Explains Al Dahan: “The encounter and the dialogue between us were the basis of our working model. We are also united by a vision that understands the necessity of introducing Syrian artists to French society, and the latter’s need for that introduction. These are the foundations that brought us together.”
In its first phase, Portes Ouvertes organised monthly group visits by inviting individuals interested in the world of art (experts and art institutions, as well as the media) to discover for themselves the young generation of Syrian artists living in Paris, of which about 20 took part over the course of 2018. This resulted in participating artists receiving invitations to hold art exhibitions. Some of the participating artists included Hammoud Halabi, Khaled Takreti, Mohammad Omran, Bissane Al Charif, Reem Yasouf, Omar Ibrahim, Mounif Ajaj, Dino Ahmad Ali and more.
Al Dahan contributed in the organisation of these visits, starting from defining the needs of the Syrian artists and taking into account the capacities available to the group. The aim was to allow the artists to connect directly with these visitors, as well as to provide a clear vision of the reality of life in Syria through the artists’ works, and away from the distorted and sometimes malicious media. Resulting proposals from several institutions to collaborate with them included Le Premier Regard gallery and the Center of Contemporary Art in Malakoff, where a group exhibition featuring 21 Syrian artists was held. Some artists even came from Austria (Akram Halabi), Germany (Khaled Baraka, Sulafa Hijazi, Tammam Azzam and Diala Barasli) as well as those residing in France (Al Charif, Takreti, Wala’ Dakkak, and others). Where is my Friend’s House was met with huge success and was extended for three more months.
In collaboration with Le Premier Regard, Portes Ouvertes then organised another group exhibition for Syrian and international artists, choosing curators from around the world in order to create an opportunity for acquaintance and rapprochement between nationalities and to bring artists together without limiting expression through national origins. To break down these barriers was integral to the founders’ belief that the alternative gives rise to prejudices that would retain artists in limited spaces and thus restrain creative freedom.
This institution provides artists with opportunities to meet people in the arts and share their experiences with them. This, they believe, creates the right atmosphere for artists to have their art and feelings parsed by generating links between them and art curators in France. In one way or another, explains De Laboulaye, it facilitates the artist’s entry once again into an artistic scene, which they had always been a part of when home in Syria.
When Portes Ouvertes was first launched, the public’s curiosity was primarily linked with the Syrian situation. However, over time, the significant endeavors of its participating artists have successfully translated that curiosity to another level and to a communication separate from the Syrian Issue.
Thus, Syrian artists have been able to prove themselves through their work in the Paris art scene; transcending the borders of country, origin, suffering and current situation. This, in turn, has helped the French audience to examine them neutrally, as they would with any other artist. Freed from pre-conceived prejudices and clichés, it has allowed audiences to understand the position of these artists and fairly evaluate their artistic production.
Undeniably, it is hard for French audiences to disassociate themselves entirely with the image given to them in the media, particularly when contemporary Syrian art is so little known to them. This is why, in 2019 in collaboration with the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Portes Ouvertes organised a Symposium which hosted many artists, art curators and researchers for the purpose of displaying and sharing their experiments.
In spite of initiatives such as this, however, the struggle remains real for Syrian artists in France seeking to accomplish the process of integration within this new society and find a sense of balance within a city that attracts artists from all countries and nationalities. Challenges include the difficulties of learning a language, followed by numerous administrative and bureaucratic formalities, as well as the more quotidian but no less urgent issues of daily life such as cramped – or even nonexistent – ateliers. One also must not discount the existential crises that devastate some of these artists, as they are torn between feelings of guilt for having to leave their motherland, worrying about family members who remain in Syria and a total willingness to be open to a new civilisation and artistic space without breaking away from all that is past to find new sources of constant inspiration and motivation. In this aspect, says Al Dahan, “I think the new focus of Portes Ouvertes’ upcoming phase is to continue working, researching, developing and experimenting. That will definitely lead to positive results.”
Furthermore, Portes Ouvertes is publishing a book, the first of its kind, on Syrian artists; their lives, their history in Syria and their art experience in France. The book also contains an essay written by the French art critic Corinne Rondeau along with numerous pictures of the artists’ works.
In conclusion, in spite of the many challenges faced by artists and the initiatives that support them, it is safe to say that the storm which displaced these artists did not obliterate their ability to create. What it has done is generate pure genuine art from the core of their suffering on all levels; literature, music or fine arts. Consequently, the Syrian artist’s need for creative expression remains the same, no matter the destination or place of residence, whether in Paris or in Beirut or Berlin. Syrian artists will continue to enrich the artistic scene and present, in the face of this tragedy, a fine production which certainly surpasses all personal histories. Thus the day will come when Syrian art will definitely assert itself in France.