This is the final in a series of issues that have focused on different cities with strong Syrian artistic representation such as Berlin, Paris and Beirut. Today we are proud to focus on art in our home country, through the lens of the visual arts scene in Damascus. Needless to say, it has been a difficult edition to put together. How does one talk of art in a country that has been ravaged by violence? How does one even begin to talk about Damascus? Mother of civilisation. Child of war. A city suspended between the living and the dead.
While preparing for this issue of The Journal we wanted to present a variety of features that cover our past, our present and our future. Khaled Khalifa sets the scene for us with The Naked Walls of Damascus, a haunting and evocative picture of the art scene today, before we delve into the history of art associations in the city in Lubna Hammad’s Atassi Writing Competition winning essay. Drawing on extensive archival materials, she charts how art societies have played a key role in the support and encouragement of Syrian artists, focusing on the period from the end of the 19th century up until the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971.
We also interview Omran Younis on his powerful, visceral paintings and he tells us how his work traces fear and the symbols and inhumanity of war. We are also honoured to share an interview of Youssef Abdelke by his close friend and fellow artist Fadi Yazigi. Taking the form of a dialogue, it is like sitting in the studio with them as they discuss the impact of light on Abdelke’s work, the influence of Expressionism and the intense effect of the current situation on an entire generation of emerging artists. Says Abdelke: “There is no doubt we will see over the coming years magnificent and deep works by Syrian artists in response this seismic event that has stuck our country and the whole region. This is something that needs reflection upon, and time to materialise.”
Abdelke’s words raise the question: how does one develop as an artist, living in Damascus? Alaa Rashidi offers some insight, as he charts the changes in the visual arts scene since 2011 in his essay. The truth is, that it is impossible for an artist to remain unaffected by their surroundings, and we see this through the intimate views of Damascus shared in a poignant and poetic photo essay by Reem Khatib, a feature on sculptors Safaa Alset and Yamen Youssef, as well as interviews with painters Tarek Butayhi and Houssam Ballan. We hope, through the works of these artists and the revealing pieces by Khaled, Hammad and Rashidi, that you have a small glimpse of the pleasure and pain that currently encompasses Damascus.
The beating heart of any arts scene is its artists, and we are also proud to have launched the first Contemporary Syrian Art Auction, in collaboration with ArtScoops. You can see the catalogue here. We were also overwhelmed with the response to our Atassi Writing Competition and grateful for all the wonderful and diverse entries we received, so stay tuned for the next one.
Shireen Atassi & Anna Wallace-Thompson