Syrian art market rides wave of reform

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DAMASCUS, Syria — On a recent morning, a cloud of dust enveloped the Baramka section of the Barada river in downtown Damascus billowing from some 30 hard-at-work Syrian sculptors crouched over blocks of stone. The stone and work space were provided by the Syrian government as part of an initiative to bring artists of all ages together.

Kamar Aamer, at 22 one of the youngest artists involved, tapped vigorously on her chisel next to Mustafa Ali, a veteran sculpture, whose art is famous across the Middle East and who goes at his enormous block of stone with a noisy electric saw.

Until recently, such intergenerational arts initiatives were unnecessary in Syria. Its closed form of socialism meant that the state was the main educator in the arts and younger artists were tied to older ones through a state-sponsored system of tutelage. But for the past few years, Syria has been reforming economically — moving progressively away from socialism toward a more market-driven economy. This shift is having a profound effect on the country's artists and its contemporary art.

Read about how reform is bringing benefits to Syria — both in terms of economic growth and political openness.

Over the past five years, Damascus has seen several high-end contemporary art galleries open whose connections to affluent international collectors and auction houses have opened new channels for Syrian artists and brought about a major bump in the value of the country's collective works.

“Over the past four years, the average price of a medium-sized work has appreciated 400 percent. Today it would sell for between $10,000 and $15,000 a piece,” said Khaled Samawi, owner and founder of Ayyam Gallery, located on Damascus' chic Chile Street.

Ayyam is perhaps the most successful of Damascus' new galleries. Since it opened in 2006, it has increased its stable of artists from five to 20 and now has galleries in Beirut and Dubai. The changes Ayyam and the other galleries are spearheading amounts to a privatization of the Syrian art scene, once dominated by a government that regulated arts education and was, for many artists, the number one patron.

Now, collectors from across the Middle East are being turned onto Syrian art, bolstered by both a fascination for a country relatively isolated for decades and, more importantly, attractive price tags. Much of Syrian contemporary art still remains at about 50 percent below its proper value, Samawi says.

The Syrian art renaissance is underscored by a bump in the regional art market. Global art houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's opened up regional offices in Dubai in the past five years. This institutional commitment to the region is paying dividends, not least for young Syrian artists, who know how to deliver to the tastes of the increasing number of international collectors courting them.

“Money has helped me become more professional in my art because it gives me some comfort and time,” said Kais Salmam, 33, one of Syria's new generation of artists. In his spacious studio overlooking Damascus, he is working on a series of impressionistic portraits of women — a study of how women are being increasingly commodified by modern Syrian society, he said. Unlike his predecessors, the growth in the value of his art — it has risen 500 percent in value in five years — allows him to dedicate all his time to his art, without having to work a job on the side.

The opening night of his recent exhibition at the Ayyam Gallery in Damascus brought out with it the new gallery set of Damascus' upper crust. Women swanned around in furs and pearls, men in sharp dinner suits consulted the catalogues before making purchases.

“There are a lot of families now starting to buy art in Syria,” said 29-year-old Waref Arabi-Katei, a lawyer who was making his first visit to the gallery. He has yet to acquire his first piece but he is on the look-out.

“If I think something is really good here, I'll buy it,” he said with a grin.

Not everyone is happy with Syria's newfound arts gusto. The pick-up is indeed rapid, but it is entirely unregulated.

“What's happening to Syria is not necessarily a good thing,” said Samia Halaby, 73, a New York-based Palestinian artists and former art professor at Yale University's School of Art. “Syria is being forced open and in this process it could be raped.”

Those artists benefiting most from the changes are younger artists, like Kais Salman, with an exposure to art tastes and trends outside of Syria. Syria's older generation of artists, like watercolorist Etab Hreib, 54, says things have only gotten worse.

“Now the arts have become like a market,” she said, speaking from her damp, cluttered studio in Damascus, surrounded by piles of unsold canvases. “The galleries which are responsible for these artists don't care if the artist is good or bad. They don't care about art as a whole. All they care about is if it sells or not.”

As price-tags in Damascus skyrocket, the value of Hreib's art has remained the same over the past years and she is selling less and less every year. She has to work as an art teacher and a TV set designer to get by.

Khaled Samawi of Ayyam Gallery is unapologetic for the revolution in the local arts market that his and other small galleries have triggered. Syrian art, much like Syria, he said, was integrating into the larger, global market and those who were not happy with that would be left behind.

“What's happening now is the creation of contemporary Syrian art,” he said, “and it's very different from what the older generation is doing.”

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