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.”