Curators from the Middle East today are tasked with developing local art production that is also deeply rooted in – or related to – a global context, while also facing challenges created by disruptive socio-political events, lack of infrastructure, and the shrinking of civic spaces for art display and promotion. This in turn raises the question as to how museums, biennales, festivals and art fairs are promoting the circulation of art, and how they are responding to expanding spheres of production.
Based on an analysis of curatorial practices with Syrian artists and interviews with Syrian cultural managers and curators, this essay focuses on the emergence of a profession that has long been absent from the cultural landscape in Syria, and which today continues to struggle to exercise its vocation. It seeks to explain the importance of this profession for the Syrian art scene and its evolution. To what extent is the profession of curator recognised in Syria and by the Syrian artistic community? How do the training of curators, their institutional recognition as well as their historical roots in Syria contribute to the existence of the discipline, and what other factors hinder the development of the sector? Finally, how can the curatorial profession assert itself today as a lever for the Syrian art scene?
The Establishment of a National Museum: A Conservative Approach by Early Syrian Curators
In his book Khitat Al-Sham, written in 1925 by scholar Muhammad Kurd Ali, the creation of a national museum in Syria was mentioned for the first time. It had been instigated a few years earlier by a group of researchers, historians and scholars who had been actively advocating for the return of regional artefacts from the Istanbul Archaeology Museums (İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzeleri) and placing them in a museum run by the Syrian government. King Faisal approved the request and in 1919 the museum was created in Al-Madrasa Al-Adiliyeh along with smaller outposts in Aleppo, Tartus and As Suwayda.
The establishment of these museums required staff to run them and manage their collections, and it was in 1920 that Jaafar Al-Hasani was appointed by the Arab Academy of Damascus as chief curator and also granted a scholarship at the École du Louvre, where he studied museology and ancient languages. His activities – including translation of terminologies – were the beginning of a bigger project to research and write on art and art history in Arabic. His successor Salim Adel Abdulhaq took over in 1945 with an interest in translation and promoting findings from Syria, but also in expanding the museum's premises. In 1955 he set in place a plan to establish new departments, including a focus on modern art, for which his first acquisitions included works by Mahmoud Hammad, Rashad Ksaibati, Soubhi Shouieb, Alfred Bakhash, Naseer Shoura, Michael Kurche and Fateh Moudarres. Later, in the 1960s, works by Louay Kayyali, Asaad Orabi and others were commissioned for the collection by Hasan Kamal (department curator) and Afif Bahnassi (chief curator). However, the collecting of modern art was limited and conditioned by a tendency to favour works which reflected the growing Pan-Arabism of the time whilst promoting traditional cultural manifestations in the visual sphere. This approach was manifest during the early stages of the integration of modern art into the museum's collection and set the standard for subsequent generations of curators as to what works could be acquired and exhibited. For this reason, it was a struggle to develop official curatorial practices to respond to what was emerging in international exhibitions and the discourses around it. In addition, curatorial exchange was also limited to within the region's borders and rarely were international curators invited to work in Syria. Illustrating this point, in his text ‘Problems of Syrian Plastic Art’, published in 1961–62, Kamal reasons that the immaturity (undeveloped production skills, incomplete identity, rawness of concepts in works, etc.) of contemporary Syrian artists is one of the main reasons the art scene has such weak production and international reach, and encouraged artists and audiences to converge and discuss and reflect on the causes of the time to create a progressive unified artistic vision on a national level. Moreover, and most tellingly, the need for the development of the art of curatorial practice itself is not mentioned in his text.
Consequently, the exhibition-making field existed at a slow pace for decades, and the few official galleries that had been established favoured a classical style of art exhibiting and management in which the gallery acted predominantly as curator, leaving little room for experimentation or collaboration with external/international curators.
The Emergence of Private Art Galleries as a Catalyst for International Exchange
In tandem with growing artist-run communities, new art spaces supported the expanding reach and diversification of the art scene, providing it with anchor points of circulation and exchange. These early exhibition spaces were, for the most part, artist studios or dedicated spaces within larger organisations in which exhibitions could be held apart from the organisation’s regular activities. The Andalusia Forum for Painting and Literature (1940), Atelier Veronese (1941) and The Arab Association for Fine Arts (1943), among others, were amongst those which provided such support in education and the production of exhibitions. However, the majority of these artist-run spaces offer no documentation referencing whether they worked with external specialists (technicians, administrative support, archivists). One may therefore infer that curation must have been integrated as a part of the artistic practice itself. This approach to exhibiting was the norm for decades and the curator role only began to change with the opening of private galleries in the 1970s.
In 1960 the Gallery of International Modern Art (GIMA) was established by Muhammad and Mahmoud Daadoush and became the catalyst for progressive art exhibiting in Syria. The gallery’s programme was designed to connect different localised art scenes within the region and beyond. In addition, the gallery was fertile ground for the transformation of the plastic arts – arguably the marker of the beginning of a shift towards redefining the role of art practice in the Arab region. These changes were crystallised in a manifesto published by GIMA artists which also served as the inaugural call for the establishment of what was to become the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971. Perhaps the most significant impact of this was the subsequent establishment of a number of private art galleries which operated on a similar model, including more economically sustainable strategies while advocating for the repartition of roles, working with a wider pool of external contributors and thereby helping to define different art support roles within the commercial artworld ecosystem. In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of galleries were active in Damascus and Aleppo in particular, and the owners of these galleries were carrying out organizational and coordinating roles, which in most cases did not reach the role of the curator.
By the beginning of the 21st century, art galleries in Syria had reached a stage in their development that allowed them to support a secondary market for Syrian artists. By receiving critical attention and promotion through a network of galleries, artists began to have their works included in international auctions. Nevertheless, the existence of Syria-based specialised art curators remained negligible: the practice of art criticism remained beholden to inherited descriptive approaches which did not necessarily meet the requirements needed to contribute to a truly progressive discourse.
Curatorial Practice as Seen by Contemporary Curators and Cultural Workers: From Dispersion to Consolidation
The turn of the 21st century marked the confluence of new approaches to art – in its making, promoting and exhibiting – especially with the arrival of computers and advances in photography and videography. The transitional period of new media exploration between the years 2000–11 further expanded the horizon for curatorial practice as students, artists, researchers were gradually able to access more diverse resources, follow new trends around the globe and engage in international discourse.
Curator Delphine Leccas, who arrived in Damascus in 1998, witnessed these changes alongside a growing interest in photography during her first years working in Syria. She organised the annual festival Les Journées de la Photographie from 2001–07, which engaged young photographers as well as generating a space for the work of international artists in Syria. The festival's thematic foci each year varied from tackling ideas around the ‘city’ and belonging, to the exploration and questioning of artistic practice as defining one’s cultural identity. The development of this festival resulted in another, The Visual Arts Festival Damascus, held in 2010. Its offerings included digital works, video art and experimental hybrid formats along with more traditional photography and film screenings. However, with the uprisings in 2011 it took on the form of a ‘nomadic festival’.
The transitional period of new media exploration between the years 2000–11 further expanded the horizon for curatorial practice as students, artists, researchers were gradually able to access more diverse resources, follow new trends around the globe and engage in international discourse.
Adapting Curatorial Practice to New Technologies and Hybrid Formats
Today, curatorial practice as a premise within the Syrian art scene has expanded, fuelled by two main factors: the exile of Syrian artists and the wider accessibility to international platforms via the internet, which has emerged as a necessary tool for the dissemination and transmission of Syrian art.
As such, in order to provide a critical look at the tools and working methods of contemporary curation, this last section focuses on several Syrian practitioners who have been actively growing a curatorial perspective in their work. Based on their analyses, it presents the limitations that arise in the curatorial practices of Syrian art in exile as well as new possibilities being explored.
In 2017, Alma Salem launched the curatorial platform Syria Sixth Space as a continuation of her previous project, Syria Third Space. The non-physical platform is intended to be a roaming exhibition space for new media that illustrates the concept of 'no borders' and invites artists and audiences to re-imagine the 'real' vs the 'virtual' notions. The multidisciplinary team behind Syria Sixth Space has included Hassan Abbas (academic and writer), Rasha Abbas (writer), Ziad Adwan (theatre practitioner), Dima Al-Chukr (critic and writer), Abed Al-Hakawati (filmmaker), Abdullah Al-Kafri (playwright, executive manager of Ettijahat for Culture), Jumana Al-Yasiri (performing arts manager and researcher), Ibrahim Fakhri (graffiti/visual artist), Omar Imam (photographer), Hanan Kassab Hassan (art scholar), and others who all bring their own experiences and perspectives to their projects, which contributes to the diversity of the platform’s curatorial approach.
According to Salem:
"[Curation] is defined by the people who practice it. For some it is a space for selection and rearranging elements that already exist in the physical space, for others it is a journey, joining the dots to come up with new interpretations. But it is also the starting point of a process of analysing space and politics in multicultural contexts and how art can reflect and foresee possible futures".
This vision was translated into the touring project Kashash (2017–18), which combined a physical exhibition, online campaign and a graffiti toolkit to be used by the public as a means of engagement. Kashash suggested utilising the virtual realm to rearrange and challenge hindering cultural borders and create novel alternative realities benefiting from the transformative force of digital art. Featured artists included Ammar Albeik, Khaled Akil, Abdullah Hakawati and Khalil Younes. Salem is a proponent of using digital media in exploring the 'virtual realm' as an alternative, although she relies on a generation growing up in different parts of the world to probably be more comfortable with the use of new tools and “may be able to break through the limitations our generation is facing with that”.
This is echoed by a new generation of Syrian curators who have seized upon technological tools as a means to circumvent the impossibility of access to the works of dispersed Syrian artists, and it is reflected in the growing number of digital exhibitions of Syrian art. This demonstrates that the integration of technology in curation goes beyond the limits of its objective purpose and can contribute to the production of a more inclusive narrative.
Seeking a Collective Culture Between Actors in the Art Scene
Beside the individual advancements happening in different parts of the world amongst Syrians, the discourse created and the representations of the art scene itself are also facing the question of which narrative could be favoured. For the practitioners interviewed, working on the promulgation of a narrative that is in tune with the practices and subjects addressed by Syrian artists is a collective effort.
It was with this perspective that Jumana Al-Yasiri committed to the reorganisation of the narrative in her work as a cultural manager. Her practice intersects with the critical aspects of a dramaturg while paying attention to the construction of identity in exile and the geopolitics of the imagination. For Al-Yasiri, the change of discourse in the practices of Syrian artists is based on research, networking and the opening up of debate and criticism. She lists important factors: "One is to research and engage in what the major influential centres are focusing on today… gaining a connection with the people responsible for calibrating and promoting such discussions. Another is to carry out praxis and transmit the discussion into the art scene’s circles. Lastly, [one must] practice criticism, debate and objective conversations using the available platforms working on the Syrian cause."
Commenting on how the Syrian art scene still seems to be unstable and fluctuating in terms of narrative production, Al-Yasiri points out that the language adopted by some intellectuals active in the scene has unfortunately helped shape a stereotypical image on Syrian art, treating it in a journalistic mien as a refugee-based documentation of events, which in turn limits its exposure to influential circles in international art centres. This is a view shared by other practitioners, such as Alma Salem. Says Al-Yasiri:
"What we need to do instead of accumulating and repeating the same individual-based methods of representation is to create a space for new approaches that endorse multidisciplinary collectives to be formed, then re-imagine possible futures without being constrained by the bodies of work that have been shaped during the past".
Jumana refers here to the period of emergence of the profession in Syria which dismissed the work of certain intellectuals as well as that of the researchers, and artists who were not adhering to trends promoted by state art centres.
For Dunia Al-Dahan, working in a collective and developing relationships with artists has been the driving force behind her work. It is precisely the forging of close links with artists that has been the main reason for her interaction with curatorial practice, ever since the Arab Capital of Culture festival in Damascus in 2008. She collaborates with curators from different backgrounds to pursue connectivity and expand potentialities. It is with this perspective that Portes ouvertes sur l'art (open doors to art) was formed, which Al-Dahan co-chairs with European curators with the aim of promoting the integration of Syrian artists in exile.
Furthermore, Al-Dahan highlights the need for "a framework bridging the gaps between generations, and reinforcement of solidarity as an essential element to help bettering exchange and conduct clear effective steps towards forming a vibrant picture of the Syrian art scene."
The curatorial profession in Syria, whose development has long been hampered by political restrictions but also by its inability to renew or diversify itself, seems to be experiencing a new era. Curatorial activities are multiplying beyond national borders and are increasingly collaborative, interdisciplinary and international in form. In order to make their mark on this more competitive and complex international scene, Syrian curators must also broaden their horizons and methods by favouring collaborations with other related professions, such as researchers and writers. These forms of work thus favour the diversification of the themes tackled and media explored.
At a time when the Syrian art scene is dispersed, the challenge for the new generation of curators, who are often established outside Syria, is to maintain connections with artists in exile but also within the national territory. The geographical fragmentation of the Syrian art scene is also accompanied by the marginalisation of Syrian artists in Syria who still struggle to practice and exhibit their work.
 Muhammad Kurd Ali, Khitat Al Sham, Part I, al- Matba'a al- Haditha, 1925.
 Muhammad Kurd Ali, Khitat Al Sham, Part I, Chapter 6, p.173-175, al- Matba'a al- Haditha, 1925.
 However, the official opening took place in 1936 after the completion of the new sections.
 A language research, regulation and promotion association the museum was attached to.
 Makki Al Hasni, Prince Ja'far AbdulQader Al Husni, Arab Academy of Damascus, 2012.
 The Archaeological Annals of Syria, editions 11th-12th, Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, 1961-62.
 Hammad, Lubna, ‘A History of Art Associations in Damascus During the 20th Century: From Emergence Until the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971’, The Journal, Atassi Foundation.
 Lenssen, Anneka, ‘Ṣalat al-Fann al-Ḥadith al-Ālamı’ (Art Moderne International) (established Damascus, Syria, 1960). The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Modernism, Taylor and Francis, 2016.
 Anneka Lenssen, Beautiful Agitation: Modern Painting and Politics in Syria, University of California Press, 2020.
 Refer to Atassi Foundation’s Journal essay on Collectors and Gallerists on the following link: https://www.atassifoundation.com/ar/lmjl/l-dd-9-jm-w-ml-wglyryt
 Quoted from an interview with Alma Salem, July, 2022.
 Quoted from an interview with Alma Salem, July, 2022.
 Quoted from an interview with Jumana Al-Yasiri, August, 2022.
 Quoted from an interview with Dunia Al-Dahan, August, 2022.
Asalia, Noor, ‘The Archive in Art, Art in the Archive’, The Journal, Atassi Foundation, 2022
Bader, Anwar, ‘The Surge of Syrian Plastic Art: Syrian Painting from 1,600 Pounds to a Million’, Al Quds Al-Arabi, 2008
Bahnassi, Afif, Art Criticism and Reading the Image, Al Walid Publishing House, 1997
Bank, Charlotte, Art Education in Twentieth Century Syria, Drawing Education: Worldwide! Continuities - Transfers - Mixtures, 2019
Droubi, Hala, ‘A Story About an Artistic Dream that Travelled from Homs to Distant Places’, Raseef22, 2017
Al-Husni, Makki, Prince Ja'far AbdulQader Al-Husni, Arab Academy of Damascus, 2012
Kurd Ali, Muhammad, Khitat Al Sham, Part I, Modern Publishing Damascus, 1925
Lenssen, Anneka, The Shape of the Support: Painting and Politics in Syria's Twentieth Century, PhD dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2014
The Archaeological Annals of Syria, 11th-12th editions, Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, 1961–62