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

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.”

Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

Twenty-five years later, director Jon Favreau has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. (Supplied)
Updated 18 min 34 sec ago

Interview with the director and stars of ‘The Lion King’

  • Jon Favreau, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen and Billy Eichner discuss Disney’s latest blockbuster remake.
  • ‘We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being,’ says Favreau.

DUBAI: There are few movies as resonant as Disney’s 1994 classic “The Lion King.” From its beautiful animation and memorable songs by Hans Zimmer and Elton John to its devastating emotional punch, the film has become a touchstone for an entire generation, one of the few films that unite nearly every person who has seen it across the world.

Now, 25 years later, director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book”) has brought “The Lion King” to life again for a new generation. Sitting in London, the first thing Favreau asks Arab News is whether we were part of the “Lion King” generation, and we were, mentioning to Favreau just how expansive the film still feels to us.

 Chiwetel Ejiofor, Director and Producer Jon Favreau and Donald Glover attend the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood. (AFP)

“That’s part of the challenge here! We’re trying to live up to people’s imagination of what they remember ‘Lion King’ being. We would watch it next to one another and there’s certain sequences that hold up incredibly well that we tried to follow shot-for-shot like (the opening sequence) ‘Circle of Life,’ but there’s other areas where we had the opportunity to update it and make it feel a bit more grounded in reality,” Favreau tells Arab News.

Remaking it for a new generation seems obvious, but — to borrow from another Disney classic — it was a Herculean task for Favreau and the huge animation team that supported him. This version remains fully animated, but uses cutting-edge technology to make the entire film photo-realistic. The characters, story, and songs remain, but the film looks more like a David Attenborough nature documentary than an animated movie.

It wasn’t just the technology that proved challenging, either. Making sure that audiences still connect with these beloved characters without the expressiveness of classic Disney animation was something that gave Favreau pause.


“I worked on ‘Jungle Book,’ so I had some experience in this area,” he says. “Pretty early on, we got to try some different things and when you go to human, you think it would make you feel more but it really feels kind of bizarre, at least to me. I was limited if we were to go photo-real. If you go stylized like Pixar it’s great, you can do whatever you want. If we go ‘Madagascar’ you can make them stick their tongues out. The minute you start hitting photorealism, you hit the uncanny valley when you push the performances beyond what the real animal could do. Part of what makes it look so real is we limited what we allowed the animators to do.”

To be sure that audiences would connect with the characters, Favreau relied a lot on the voices that supported them, bringing in an all-star cast including Beyoncé as Nala, Donald Glover as Simba, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar, and Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as Timon and Pumbaa.

“If you look at a character like Pumbaa, to me he’s the most fun example, because when people saw pictures of Pumbaa they were like, ‘Oh my god! That’s horrifying! That thing looks like a monster!’ But when you watch the movie and you hear Seth Rogen’s voice coming out of it and the way the animators animated his body and what the character represents and feels, you have a tremendous connection to it. It’s a testament to the power of using techniques that we borrowed from documentaries or other films, where we limit ourselves to not anthropomorphize the characters,” says Favreau.


Eichner and Rogen both tried to remain true to the characters, but also stay true to themselves. “My idea from the beginning was that Jon cast us for a reason,” says Eichner. “He could have cast pretty much any actors. Anyone would have killed to do these roles and be in this movie. It wasn’t the right time to try a new persona. It would have been very strange had I all of a sudden had a deep resonant baritone. I figured he wants Seth to sound like Seth and me to sound like me — or at least what our public comic personas sound-like — and hopefully they’ll complement each other, which they did. Our goal was not to try a new character but to be as funny as possible together.”

As funny as Rogen and Eichner are in the film, it is still aimed firmly at kids — something Rogen hadn’t really considered prior.

Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen at the World Premiere of Disney's "THE LION KING" in Hollywood . (AFP)

“It wasn’t something that even occurred to me until we were making the movie and I was performing the bully scene,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is for kids!’ I have never done anything that was ever trying to instill any wisdom into kids in any way shape or form.”

The film’s wisdom, like the original, is far-reaching, exploring truths not only of family and loss, but of the corrupting nature of ambition and power, which Ejiofor explored in his role as Scar.

“Often, when people are obsessed with power and status, they aren’t really worried about what they do with it, they’re just concerned about getting it. It’s not something that’s connected to any kind of nurturing aspect for a community or anybody else. It becomes about the nature of obsession — obsession with power and status, and maybe status more than power, even though they are related,” says Ejiofor. “That’s one of the things that’s engaging and fun about the film and its themes.”