The Atassi Foundation offers a different perspective on Syria

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Elias Zayat's ‘Zenobia/Palmyra,’ from 1990. (Supplied)
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‘Untitled’ (1965) by Fateh Moudarres. (Supplied)
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Shireen and Mouna Atassi. (Photo supplied)
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‘Untitled’ by Tawfik Tarek. (Supplied)
Updated 22 April 2019
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The Atassi Foundation offers a different perspective on Syria

  • The foundation refuses to be “sucked into the cycle of hatred and violence,” says director Shireen Atassi

DUBAI: “We need to tell the story of Syria in a very different way,” says Shireen Atassi, the Dubai-based director of the Atassi Foundation. “A way far from the destruction, which is not us and does not represent us.”

A family-run, independent, non-profit initiative, the Atassi Foundation was established in 2015 with the core objective of promoting Syrian art through the expansive collection of Atassi’s parents, Mouna and Soudki.

Encompassing a wide spectrum of narratives and themes, the breadth of the foundation’s collection is remarkable; comprising nearly 500 artworks produced by over 80 modern and contemporary artists, including Fateh Moudarres, Mahmoud Hammad, Louay Kayyali, and Tammam Azzam. The Atassis began their collection of paintings, sculptures, and photographs — which is predominantly from Syria, but includes works from neighboring Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq — in the 1980s.

They relocated to Dubai in 2012, following the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, and managed to ship the entire collection out of their homeland — a “painful process,” according to Atassi.

Her own appreciation of art began at an early age. “During the 1980s, my mother was a gallerist and bookshop owner in Homs,” she explains. “I was a pre-teen then and so, I lived with all this art. Painters and poets like Fateh Moudarres and Adonis visited us at home and I enjoyed listening to their conversations.”

So it made sense that, despite spending more than two decades working in the corporate world, Atassi would head up the foundation. “It was not an easy move from the corporate to the art world, but I made the leap and I have never been happier,” she says.

Since 2015, the foundation has organized four exhibitions, commencing with its inaugural debut at Art Dubai in 2016 when a selection of vibrant, folklore-inspired glass paintings by Damascus-born Abu Subhi Al Tinawi (1888-1973) was showcased in “A Syrian Chronology.” The next two exhibitions were hosted by Dubai’s contemporary arts hub AlSerkal Avenue: “Syria: Into The Light” (2017), focusing on portraiture and “In the Age of New Media” (2018), displaying emotionally charged works that provide insight into how contemporary Syrian artists portray classical themes in a modern manner.

The Atassi Foundation’s most recent exhibition, “Personal Revolutions: Women Artists from Syria,” which ran at AlSerkal until April 8, was timed to coincide with Women’s History Month and pays homage to Syria’s unsung female artists, with works that date from 1950 until today. It depicts the evolution of how female artists have expressed themselves and the ever-changing world around them. Inspiring, diverse, and often confrontational, the artworks start with charming traditional portraiture by 20th-century painters including Hala Kouatly, Asma Fayyoumi, and Dorrieh Fakhoury Hammad and end with bold, contemporary works by multidisciplinary artists Alina Amer, Laila Muraywid, and Randa Maddah, among others, tackling the complexities of war, memory, and the female body.

“The inspiration behind this show was to celebrate Syria’s female artists, many of whom were not celebrated during their lifetime. Usually, in the modernist era, their male counterparts — like Fateh Moudarres and Elias Zayat — took the lead. We were asking ourselves, ‘Where are the female artists?’ They were as productive as their male contemporaries. We also wanted to tell the story of how today’s young generation of female artists managed to revolt through their powerful works,” Atassi explains.

Aside from educating audiences on Syrian art and history through exhibitions, the pursuit of research remains another major focus of the Atassi Foundation, commissioning professional scholarship and archiving rare, endangered documents and materials related to Syrian art.

“As a foundation, whatever we do needs to tick a number of boxes,” Atassi says. “We need to preserve, and we need to tell stories that have not been told. The world has just discovered Syrian art, thanks to Christie’s Dubai and Arab-focused galleries like Ayyam Gallery, who have done a wonderful job bringing Syrian art into the light. But more can be done, and so what we do is dig deeper through long-term research as the basis of our exhibitions.”

It is a delicate process to promote Syrian art and culture after all the tragedy the country has endured since 2011. But Atassi believes that visual art can allow Syria to be (re)observed in a more hopeful and refreshing way. “I think it was a way for us to resist what was going on in Syria,” she says. “It was our refusal to be sucked into that cycle of hatred and violence of the war. We felt the responsibility because we had the resources, the artworks, the knowledge and the network to tell the story of Syria in another way. Syria is not entirely about the war, (Daesh), or Bashar Al Assad; we also have a variety of narratives that can be told through art history.”

A number of exciting projects are in the pipeline too, she says: A potential show in Europe, and the upcoming online launch of MASA (Modern Art of Syria Archive).

Atassi simply hopes that the foundation’s ongoing endeavors will encourage enquiry into Syrian art and culture.

“The most beautiful encounter I can have as director is when a curator or an enthusiast visits our exhibitions and asks to get in touch with our exhibiting artists,” she says. “Building connections is important to me, and since I don’t sell any of our artworks, my role is to work as a (conduit) for researching and showcasing the essence of this nation and its history.”


Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

Updated 22 May 2019
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Cannes Diary: The world’s glitziest film festival through the eyes of an industry insider

  • The director says Cannes is more than just a movie festival
  • Attendees wear color-coded badges, which specify their title and occupation

Film director Hadi Ghandour takes us behind the scenes at the Cannes Film Festival with his revealing diary entries.

Day 1

I am on a train from Paris to Cannes. A middle-aged woman maneuvers her way around my legs and sits beside me. She is on her phone, making sure to loudly telegraph to the entire train that she is attending the festival. “I hope Xavier Dolan doesn’t disappoint me like last time! And can you believe that Alain Delon is being honored? What a travesty!” We are all supposed to be impressed. My festival experience begins before I get there, it is a preview of things to come. I am forced to endure her pontification for the next five hours.

The train arrives on an overcast afternoon. The first thing I do is pick up my badge. Without it you are considered a third-class citizen. I inch past the security blocks that barricade the Croisette like a fortress and make my way to the Grand Palais.

What makes this place so distinctive and often daunting is the sheer amount of stuff going on. It is not only a film festival, but a massive market, an annual industry meet-up, a sprawling seminar, a paparazzi hunting ground, an awards ceremony, and an everlasting party.

Cafes, restaurants and hotel lobbies turn into networking hubs and industry meeting grounds. TV screens that usually broadcast football matches or music videos air live feeds of press conferences and red carpets. Beachfront apartments are transformed into movie company offices, with their logos hanging from the balconies and the harbor morphs into international pavilions for global cinema.

I often find that the most interesting films play at the Director’s Fortnight. It is late in the evening. My friend has snatched up a couple of priority invitations to Robert Eggers’ latest picture “The Lighthouse.”

Envious eyes watch us zip through the interminable line that wraps around the JW Marriott.

I sink into my chair but, within moments, a sense of dread washes over me when I hear the shrill voice from earlier today. It’s the woman from the train. The festival may be larger than life, but it is still a very small place.

“The Lighthouse” is hypnotic, terrifying and has remarkable performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. It is guaranteed to give me nightmares later.

Willem Dafoe stars in The Lighthouse. (AFP)

Day 2

I am having a breakfast meeting by the shore. A seagull swoops in and boldly pilfers a piece of bread from the basket. Even the seagulls here are fierce and determined.

 A 50-something gentleman interrupts our conversation and humbly introduces himself as a filmmaker from Saskatchewan who has been in the business for years.

He slides over a heap of DVDs. Films he has written, directed, produced, edited, shot, acted in and composed. He points at one of them, which is enveloped in a half-ripped cover. “This one here is my masterpiece,” he tells me.

Everyone has something to pitch. The whole town is like a never-ending speed date. Shifty eyes dart around mid-conversation. First, they land on your color-coded badge to decipher your title and worth, then swiftly onto the next person.

Ideas float around with the heft of low-hanging clouds over people’s heads. You can almost see them. The movies in competition may be front and center, but the energy is already directed at the future.

I swing by the Marche Du Film, the festival’s film market. Located in the Palais basement, it is a maze of industry booths where deals are negotiated and struck. It is not only the least glamorous part of the festival, but the least glamorous place you could ever visit.

The market begins to suffocate me so I decide to watch a movie, “Lilian” by Andreas Horvath. Waiting in line at this festival is a rite. You must always add an hour and a half to a movie’s running time to gauge your overall time investment.

The sun is setting and the sea is iridescent. A nighttime chill begins to emerge. One of my favorite things to do at the festival is to watch a film on the beach. There is something wonderfully primal and peaceful about it. A bunch of strangers gathered on a sandy shore beneath the moonlight, watching and listening to a story unfold.  A documentary is playing, “Haut Les Filles” by Francois Armanet. Everyone has sunk into their chairs and are wrapped up in blankets to protect them from the gusts of wind. They look so peaceful and vulnerable, a poignant end to the vicissitudes of their day.

A woman checks her phone in the Marche Du Film. (AFP)

Day 3

It is 7:30 a.m. and I make my way to a film screening — “Frankie” by Ira Sachs. On my way there I spot a group of people, one of them is in a wrinkled tuxedo that has lost its respectability. Last night hasn't yet ended for them. 

The film dips me in and out of a light and pleasant sleep, but I somehow suspect this could be its intended effect.

I walk out of the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The glare assaults my eyes and brings me back to the real world, which suddenly looks more mundane.

I begin to exit the Grand Palais when I am approached by a festival attendant. She randomly offers me a seat at the press conference for “Young Ahmed,” the latest movie by the Dardennes brothers. Perhaps she liked my countenance, but most likely she needed to fill a few empty seats. 

Things are in overdrive today. It’s the Tarantino film premier and everyone seems to be seeking access to the screening. I overhear a woman pleading for that golden ticket. “My son is diabetic!” she says. What in the world does that have to do with getting a movie ticket?

After lunch, I glance at my watch and realize I’m about to miss my train. I run to the station and just barely make it. 

Three days in Cannes feel like a week. It is a cycle that ebbs and flows between the mad rush of the movie business and the peace and refuge of movie watching. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. But it’s all about the movies, so who can really complain?

Quentin Tarantino premiered ‘Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood’ in Cannes. (AFP)