Collectionair Conversations: Shireen Atassi, Director of the Atassi Foundation

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Shireen Atassi is the director of the Atassi Foundation, an independent, non-profit initiative founded by Shireen’s parents – collectors Sadek and Mouna Atassi – to promote Syrian art and culture. Collectionair spoke to Shireen about the birth of the Foundation, the nature of its activities, the history of Syria’s rich art scene and the challenges young Syrian artists are currently facing in the midst of the violent crisis playing out in their homeland.

Could you tell us a bit about the Atassi Foundation and its activities?

Shireen Atassi: The Atassi Foundation for Arts and Culture was launched in March 2016 at Art Dubai and aims to promote and preserve Syrian art and culture. We work in partnership with institutions from all over the world. We have a modern and contemporary art collection that we use to elaborate exhibitions and enhance the global visibility of Syrian art. The Foundation supports research and publications, and promotes Syrian artistic production. So, put all of this together, the idea is that we want to give a different image of Syria. The Syria that you see in the news has absolutely nothing to do with any of us Syrians. Syria is a melting pot of ancient civilizations, ethnicities and religious backgrounds, and this is something we need to celebrate.


How did the Foundation come to life?

S.A.: We are an independent family foundation. My mom had been a gallerist since the 80s. My parents collected art for years, until they left Damascus in November 2012. It was towards 2014 that we started thinking about putting our private collection online to show another side of Syria and prove that we are a lot more than simply ” refugees” or “victims”. But then we decided that simply putting the collection online for everyone to view was very passive. So we started playing around with the idea of setting up a foundation, which was officially created in 2015.

We launched in 2016 in Art Dubai with a multimedia music and art project we called “A Syrian Chronology” where we presented the history of Syria from the 20th century to today using four different screens and using archival material from my mother’s gallery (newspaper clippings, videos, images, etc.). After this launch, we collaborated with the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on the exhibition “Syria: A Living History”, which covered 5000 years of civilization in Syria. We loaned the museum all the modern and contemporary pieces on show.

In March 2017, we curated the largest Syrian art shows in collaboration with the arts and design hub of Dubai, Al Serkal Avenue. The show, which was entitled “Syria Into the Light” was curated around portraits and figures in Syrian art and included over 100 artworks – primarily drawn from our collection – with a few loans. Along with this show, we commissioned research on portraiture in Syrian art, which went back to portraiture in Syria’s ancient civilizations.

Our next project, taking place on July 2nd, is a symposium entitled “Survival of the Artist” at the British Museum produced by Shubbak Festival and The Mosaic Room in London.

Archival image of the Atassi Gallery, founded by Shireen’s mother, Mouna Atassi, in the 80s.
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.

What is interesting about the Foundation is that, on one hand, you’re very much anchored in the contemporary art scene but also strongly committed to reaching into the past and archiving Syrian history.

S.A.: It is very important that we work with emerging Syrian artists because they are the future. They mainly live in diaspora (or in Syria) and we try to act as a link or a bridge between them and their audiences. The West does not know the masters of Syrian art. They know very few names, the ones that have been shown abroad. But you can’t summarize an entire century of artistic production in a few names.


Could you name some of the established and emerging syrian artists you have a particular interest in?

S.A.: We tend to talk of four generations of artists in Syria. The pioneers, active in the early 20th century, include Tawfic Tarek, who was one of the first Syrian artists to attend art school in Paris in the early 20th century, Michel Kercheh, who also studied in Paris, and Nazem Al Jaafari.

The second generation- the Modernists – includes names like Fateh Al Moudarres, Elias Zayyat and Marwan Kassab Bachi (who studied in Berlin), Louay Kayyali and Mahmood Hammad.

The third generation includes Youssef Abdelke, Ali Mokawwas and Ahmad Moualla. The two prominent female artists who are part of this third generation are Laila Nseir and Laila Muraywid.

Finally, the youngest generation includes names such as Nagham Hodaifa, Yasser Safi, Ghylan Al Safadi and Hiba Al Ansari.

Michael Kurcheh
Untitled, 1953
Oil on wood,  55 x 45 cm
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.
Louay Kayyali
Maloula, 1972
Oil on wood,  91 x 75 cm
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.

Are these four generations separated in a purely chronological way or is there anything stylistic that differentiates them?

S.A.: These four generations are very fluid and are used as our way to narrate the story of Syrian art in a chronological manner- so they are not defined stylistically.

Syria was a very introverted country, politically, economically, socially and in every other possible way. People did not really have the means to travel and see what was going on in the art world back in the 70s, 80s and 90s. So you won’t find cubism and surrealism, conceptual art or installation.

Things started to move forward in the year 2000 due to two factors. First, the Internet, which became widely available and played a big role in allowing people to see what was going on the international art scene. Second, because things were economically changing, people were able to travel a bit more, which was both a positive and negative thing for Syrian art.

The result of this is that Syrian art did not follow global art movements but kept a very authentic, Syrian identity. In terms of mediums, you’ll find a lot of painting, less sculpture and photography. After the 2000, we started seeing video art, installations, etc.


You mentioned “Syrian Modernism”. Are there specific characteristics to this form of Modernism?

S.A.: Historically, in the early 20th century, Syria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Once Syria got its independence in the mid 40s, it was one coup d’état after the other until the early 70s, when the current regime took over. Earlier Syrian art is realist and expressionist. In the 60s and 70s, the topics of interest changed. Artists started took an increasing interest in concepts related to the working class: public places, villagers… There were a lot of other movements happening at the same time, which led to a lot of soul searching within the population. Artists looked back into mythology and ancient civilizations. Fateh Moudarres and Elias Zayyat worked a lot on mythology.

Mahmoud Hammad
Untitled, 1984
Oil on canvas,  100 x 120 cm
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.
Marwan Kassab Bachi
Untitled, 1996
Oil on canvas,  50 x 70 cm
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.
Ali Mukawwas
Untitled, 2004
Oil on canvas,  100 x 125 cm
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.

Are younger Syrian artists doing the same “soul searching” today?

S.A.: Possibly. Contemporary Syrian artists are in a very difficult situation. Their issues are different. They’ve lost their home, their country…. They’ve lost a lot. At the same time a huge responsibility lies on their shoulders.


Today, because of the political situation, many Syrian artists are dispersed throughout Europe. Is this a threat to the cohesion of Syria’s art scene?

S.A.: The fact that we live in diaspora is a threat to Syrian society, artist or not. But from the point of view of the artists and their personal experiences, I think this dissemination can be enriching. However, this is very subjective and depends on the artist in question. I know quite a few Syrian artists in Paris who are doing or have just finished their PhDs and have done really well. So some artists are furthering their education while living abroad, and some aren’t and are just producing work.

I met with a Syrian artist in Berlin last summer who had only moved to Germany nine months before prior to my visit to his atelier. In nine months he was able to settle-in and also have his own studio, which I find admirable. He had been trying to get to Berlin for a couple years and when he finally did, he just picked up the pieces of this life and moved on. Artists like him give you hope.


It seems like these young artists not only have to process their emotions but are also expected to channel this pain into their work.

S.A.: We often say that artists are the mirrors of society. Syrians artists do mirror society, but how much mirroring can they do when their society is in such shambles? The energy in Berlin and in Paris amongst the Syrian artists is just mind-blowing. They exist, they experiment, and these things alone are acts of resistance.

Ahmad Moualla
People and Power, 2011
Oil on canvas,  300 x 1200 cm
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.
Laila Muraywid
All Masks Have Faces, 2009
Gelatin silver print,  60.5 cm x 50 cm
Courtesy of the Atassi Foundation.

What are the specific tools that the Foundation has put in place to foster the work of emerging Syrian artists?

S.A.: I can’t say that we have a formal platform, but whatever we do is primarily focused on presenting the work of the newest generation of Syrian artists. For the exhibition we presented in Dubai, the younger artists were the main focus. The best compliment I got during that exhibition was when people asked for the artists’ phone numbers because they liked their work.


How are you using digital tools to spread the works about your foundation and about Syrian art in general?

S.A.: Well, first of all, we as a foundation do not have a permanent home for people to visit and the Internet is our primary way of reaching out to our audiences in between events. For example on our website you can find a video of the exhibition “Syria into the Light”, installation shots of the show, you will be able to read the research we commissioned, the catalogue we published and even listen to the panel discussion we organized – as if you were physically there. We’re currently working on programming other streams of activities online and we hope to go live with these before the end of this year.


You mentioned that the Foundation doesn’t openly take a political stance, but do you feel like, in a way, it positions itself against the current situation in Syria?

S.A.: The Foundation’s stance is not political, but it does affirm who we are as Syrians. We’re a family foundation and our primary goal is to use art and culture to represent us Syrians. We aim to act as a link and bridge between artists and others, and we hope to make a point against violence.

One of the positive impacts of the uprising is that it has eradicated a lot of taboos, whether they be social, sexual, religious or political. It has eliminated the taboos that made a lot of people feel like prisoners on a daily basis. And I can only cheer for this. I don’t cheer for violence, but do I cheer for change? Yes.


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