Intuition, Adventure, Challenge: An Interview with Mouna Atassi

When did you start collecting artworks, and why?

Crucial events happen that can change the course of one’s life – provoke and entice a new state of thinking and contemplating. In 1986, I was still living in the city of Homs. Local artists used to frequent the bookshop I had established there with my sister. One artist, Rida Hus Hus, visited me at home and said: “The house is quite nice, but why are the walls empty?” Actually, I had decorated the walls with commercial paintings – the kind usually sold at furniture shops – and not genuine artworks. Hus Hus accompanied me on a visit to meet artist Ahmad Draq Sibai, a kind and quiet man who had spent his whole life working in art. We sat on a chaise maurice set, the space was quite intimate. In that same visit, I selected one painting. It was the very first I acquired. Unfortunately, it is no longer in my possession. What I do remember is that it reflected his character: he had such class, and his ideals, as well his art, were immersed not only in aesthetics and techniques, but also in his own spirit. My artistic taste, at the time, was not yet defined, and I didn’t have an understanding of artistic culture and the necessary know-how. Draq Sibai’s milieu and rituals, however, influenced me. I discovered a new spirit I’m wasn’t used to in my surroundings and social circle. Back then, I was super happy to acquire my very first artwork.

This Homs phase between 1986 and 1993 was a period marked by a learning curve, curiosity and an eagerness to know more. Thanks to the proximity of Beirut, I managed to visit a large number of galleries in the Lebanese capital, including Samia Tutungi whose programme I really liked. In 1988, we [Atassi Gallery] approached the Social Forum, run by Mouhamad Barakat, and suggested they hold an exhibition dedicated to Syrian art in their gallery on Rue Clemenceau. It was a real gamble. The [Lebanese Civil] war was still raging, and the status of Syrians in Lebanon was troubling. Nevertheless, we assembled a collection of artworks by Syrian artists, including Mahmoud Hammad, Ghassan Sibai, Abdulkader Arnaout and Fateh Moudarres. Hammad’s painting never made it to Bierut. The customs official liked it and confiscated it for himself! We reached Beirut eventually and the exhibition turned out to be quite popular. Around a dozen Syrian artists travelled with us to attend the opening. On that day, the leading Lebanese collector, Mr. Ramzi El Saidi, invited us for dinner at his house. The invitation was not expected. We felt a bit wary – the exhibition on its own was a kind of adventure and a gamble. However, right after the opening, we headed to El Saidi’s house, and there we were dumbfounded by what we saw.

There were artworks everywhere, starting from the main entrance to each and every single corner. Works by Lebanese pioneers like Moustafa Farroukh, Hussein Madi, Saloua Raouda Choucair and others. The house was literally astonishing for us as we were not accustomed to such style in terms of design and content. Among the invitees were many prominent artists and critics, including Hussein Madi, Samir Sayegh, Joe Tarrab and Mohammad Rawas. We were met with a warm welcome. Lebanese artists already had friendships with some of their Syrian counterparts, like Abdulkader Arnaout, who was quite respected and appreciated. He played a major role in developing not only Syrian, but also pan-Arab graphic art. Arnaout had a courteous, light-hearted and witty character. I was influenced by El Saidi’s approach, and consequently started acquiring artworks. The mission was not easy. Building a collection took a long time and much effort, as my financial situation back then allowed me to buy only a few works and in a gradual manner.

At what stage did your role as a gallery owner insect that of a collector? And how did that happen?

There has been no intersection. It took, rather, a form of stages and alternating roles. As a gallery owner, I used to exhibit artworks, and didn’t have the [financial] means to acquire them. Collecting was quite modest, and not necessarily relevant to artworks showcased in my gallery. My main intellectual, moral and financial focus back then was to develop the gallery itself. I travelled to other cities in order to meet artists and be introduced to their works. Friends helped me a lot to widen my social and art circle. I started collecting earnestly in the early 1990s. There were mistakes, however. I became aware, over time, that the artistic value of artworks varies. Collecting art needs experience and the proper know-how, as well as for the person to be well-informed about the art scene inside Syria and beyond.

I collected works by Arab artists, including Hussein Madi, Dia Azzawi, Samia Halaby, as well as Syrian artists. Over time, I came to the conclusion that building an Arab art collection was something beyond my abilities, thus I decided to focus on building a Syrian art collection. Some acquisitions were mere coincidences – during my time in the gallery, I would be presented with artworks. In other instances, I acquired works after visiting studios of artists with whom I had rich discussions in intellectual and cultural issues that interested me. Truth be told, my core knowledge about Syrian art started in 1994 when I started working on the book Contemporary Art in Syria: 1898–1998. To compile this book, we assigned a committee to put forward an action plan and methodology for the narrative. Members of the committee included Elias Zayyat, Samir Sayegh and Nazir Nabaa. I started visiting museums in Aleppo and Damascus and was granted authorisation to photograph artworks in there. Through working with the committee, I was introduced to the pioneers of Syrian art, as well as the modern generation. Hence, my aspiration to collect Syrian art evolved, and I felt deep inside that I was on the right track. 

Intuition, Adventure, Challenge: An Interview with Mouna Atassi - Features - Atassi Foundation

Mouna and Shireen Atassi with Rida Hus-Hus during his show opening at Gallery atassi in 1996

When did the transition to promote and document Syrian art happen? Was there a specific turning point? 

Contemporary Syrian Art in Syria: 1898–1998 was a serious effort to document Syrian art, and I consider it an asset I am quite proud of. It is an asset related to discovery, professional development and cultural richness, much more than the mere number of the artworks in the collection. Deep inside, I felt that this book was just a start towards documenting and protecting Syrian art. It was an idea I had had since the 1980s when I was still based in Homs.

On one of my visits to Mahmoud Hammad (1923-1988) in Damascus, who was very well informed, I discussed with him my interest in publishing a book about Syrian art. His response was: “Daughter, this is a very nice project, but are you aware of the sheer amount of work and efforts it needs?” In fact, I didn’t know. Yet again, it was a gamble. I consulted Hammad because I trusted and believed in him. Unfortunately, the project came to a standstill with his death[1]. In the 1990s, and upon my move to Damascus, I went through the notes I wrote down on my visits to him and resumed work on this book. I visited Michael Kurcheh and photographed many artworks in his house. Back then, these masters were not in need of my patronage. Rather, it was I who was in need of their help. They are the founding fathers of the Syrian art movement. Personally and professionally, it was an extremely rich period for me, and for all the artists who showed great enthusiasm and extended so much support. Then, I became obsessed with collecting artworks, thus I honed my skill of selecting works, taking into account the importance of preserving them. Sometimes people from outside the art circle would visit me, offering me artworks they had inherited. In some instances, these were opportunities not to be missed. I also acquired some works from other galleries like Issam Darwish Gallery, George Kamel Gallery and Shoura Gallery. I’m still collecting to date. I think it is impossible for a collector to stop acquiring artworks.

Along the journey, you have had strong relationships with Syrian artists. Was there any one in particular which had more influence on you than the others?

I don’t think so. I got along very well with Fateh Moudarres, especially in regard to his problematic character and the existential state he lived in, which resembled mine to a great extent. I always met with new people at his place. In moments of revelations, however, we would engage in deep sentimental and intellectual exchanges. Sometimes, I would feel the aura of that state without being able to define it clearly.

Elias Zayyat, on the other hand, is an influential person. His presence, however, is quite different form the absurdity of Moudarres. Zayyat was a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts, a scholar and a serious researcher of art history. I also remember Nazir Nabaa. Actually, generations of his students remember him as an artist and art master. Those artists were my friends; they liked me genuinely and were glad to extend help and support to my project. In the 1990s, Ghayath Al-Akhras mentioned the name Marwan Kassab-Bachi. I didn’t know him back then. I wanted to organise an exhibition for him, and I added that to my calendar. Then there was a big disagreement between me and Al-Akhras, and communication stopped. Nabaa, Zayyat and others kept mentioning Marwan’s name. I had an urge to get to know him, so I flew to Berlin just to meet him. I visited his studio. I was not only amazed by his monumental works, I was in awe. I asked him to let me organise an exhibition of his works in Syria, and he accepted. He was not well known in the region back then because he was living in Germany and shipping his works was too costly – he kept in touch only with his friends and a handful of galleries. Later we organised several exhibitions for Marwan, some travelled to Darat al Funun in Amman, run by Suha Shoman who visited me in Damascus specially to see his works. We also took his exhibitions to Lebanon. The last one showcased big oil paintings representing all stages of his career. That exhibition travelled to Egypt as well. While he was in Syria, I had an agreement with him to partially finance a book he was working on. I, also, acquired two of his works back then.

Intuition, Adventure, Challenge: An Interview with Mouna Atassi - Features - Atassi Foundation

Mouna Atassi in front of a Marwan artwork in her gallery in 1996

It is said that art collections strongly reflect the owners and their personalities. What does your collection say about you?

There are factors that influence the process of acquiring art, mainly the characters of both the artist and the collector. From my personal experience, I can say that the character of the artist might not match his artworks. There are great works created by artists of simple or problematic characters that are not compatible with the artistic level of their oeuvre. In contrast, there are others whose art is derived from their state of mind, their life-long search [for answers], and from the human ideals they hold close.

If you ask me whether the collection matches the character of its collector, my answer is yes, mostly. Collections not only reflect the taste of the owners, but also their culture, history, interests and friends. The collection becomes the moving force behind the feelings of its owners, even if some works had been acquired to complete a certain historical context regardless of the artistic value. Sometimes, acquiring a piece might be done to fill a gap in the collection. In the end all artworks become so dear. There are, however, works of a high artistic value that enjoy a unique presence in one’s memory. I actually acquired artworks sometimes due to my admiration of the artist’s character, which applies to Fateh Moudarres. At some point, I had more than 50 artworks by Moudarres. Unfortunately, I sold many of them. I rarely visited him without acquiring a work. He would tell me: “You are the devil, and your husband is the merciful angel!”

Following intiuition and a sense of adventure and challenge are personal traits that have influenced my decisions and professional projects to a great extent. However, the decision to establish a collection that reflects the Syrian artistic map and pursue it to be comprehensive was the result of reflection, efforts and planned steps. The collection became richer by 2009 and 2010. Then things happened in Syria, the gallery stopped its operations, and the idea of establishing the Foundation was born. The importance of this collection is not predicated by the number of the artworks, but rather by my belief in its historical importance, its association with the political and geographical history of Syria and the history of people and their lives. This is what makes it unique. I don’t know whether this is the perspective of others towards the collection, but it is mine. The love to own what pleases us is an overwhelming human feeling. That was my motivation to acquire one day after another, and an artwork after another. This passion for art has led me to where I am now. It was the nucleus of this collection. I hope it will be preserved. It has been a spiritual and intellectual pleasure for me. The collection is my own history, and I hope it represents a part of the contemporary history of Syria. I, also, would like it to be a stepping stone for researchers in the field of visual arts in Syria, and this is a desire that is becoming a reality as several scholars and museums have already showed interest in collaborating with us. 

Intuition, Adventure, Challenge: An Interview with Mouna Atassi - Features - Atassi Foundation

Atassi Foundation launch show are Art Dubai 2016