Syrian artists find bittersweet success in exile in Beirut

by @aliamalek November 15, 2014 5:00AM ET

In Lebanon, they encounter patrons, markets and buyers but it's still not home

Syria's War
"Je Suis Con" 2014 by Khaled Takreti
Courtesy Ayyam Gallery
A couple looks at Takreti's "LOL," 2014
Elie Nohra for Ayyam Gallery

BEIRUT — The opening of artist Khaled Takreti’s new show in Beirut has all the hallmarks of a see-and-be-seen event in the Lebanese capital. There’s location, with a gallery tucked behind the Four Seasons. There’s money, with paintings starting at $30,000. There’s people-watching, with a number of impossibly beautiful women gliding around the slick white space on improbably high heels.

Arabic, French and English are all being spoken interchangeably, though frequently with the elongated syllables of the Syrian drawl. Yes, Paris-based Takreti is himself Syrian — but his talent is revered far beyond Syria or the Middle East, a transcendence that means he can draw a crowd from anywhere.

But even with Syria’s war decimating everything in its path, including the nation’s great ancient artistic heritage, its contemporary art scene is thriving here. The galleries, patrons and many Syrian artists themselves — like at least 2 million other Syrians — have found refuge here in Lebanon.

Even in a new country, they have been working hard to build on the momentum they had been rapidly gaining in the immediate years before Syria began to come apart. In this exile, Syria’s artists — mostly unknown to the world — are having greater access to markets, buyers and renown than ever before.

While Takreti’s first two collections after the war were, as he describes, “very dark,’’ the new show, titled “LOL,’’ is anything but. The canvases are deceptively cheery, their bright pop-style camouflaging a scathing social critique of vanity, consumerism, gluttony and, even if not readily apparent, the Syrian conflagration.

Takreti’s satirical paintings, which have the exactness of photography or digital art, burst with neon-colored exuberance. This new palette is intentional, as the war has gone on longer than most wanted to believe was possible.

“From when the problems started, the colors left me and my work became white and black and very sad. I became depressed,” says the 50-year-old artist.

The colors in “LOL,’’ he says, were an attempt to “to allow happiness into my heart.”

Khaled Takreti's "Bang, Bang, Bang," 2014
Courtesy Ayyam Gallery

Many of those in attendance here tonight at the Ayyam Gallery are other Syrian artists in exile, cleaned up for the event and aspiring to similar success. Some queue to introduce themselves to Takreti, while others hang back and sip on glasses of Lebanese wine.

Ayyam had its last show in Damascus in early 2011, after opening there in 2006, drastically changing the selling power of Syrian art. In subsequent years it expanded to Dubai, Jeddah, London — and Beirut.

The Syrian-Swiss founder of the gallery, Khaled Samawi, says the tragic headlines from Syria “piques people’s curiosity” as to what Syrian artists might have to say. But the crowds here for this show are for Takreti, who is a giant to other artists in this region, and the opening of his show has been greatly anticipated.

If spectators were expecting a more direct confrontation of the war, they won’t find it on this night.

“I don’t like to take advantage of a situation to be noticed,’’ says Takreti. “And I think that what is happening is much bigger than the art; it’s too difficult, important and upsetting — we have to keep art far from it.”

While a serious collection of the ancient world isn’t complete without mosaics, statues, or pottery from civilizations that once flourished in Syria, European and American museums rarely collect Syrian works for their contemporary art collections. Their absence would suggest that Syria exhausted its artistic potential at some point centuries before the modern era.

But Syria, in fact, has a robust contemporary tradition, rooted in part in its strong fine arts education system, with its heavy emphasis on technique. The country’s best program was the government-funded Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus, where, according to Maymanah Farhat, artistic director of Ayyam Gallery, the selection process was quite rigorous. Each entering class came from across Syria and had students from varied socioeconomic backgrounds, a diversity that in turn has fueled a dynamic creative scene.

Yet until the late 2000s, the vast majority of Syrian artists’ works did not fetch the sort of prices that would allow most artists to earn a living.

Butayhi shown with paintings from his 2013 solo exhibition, “Women in Canvas,” at the Beirut gallery Art on 56th.
Bernard Khalil for Art on 56th
"On the Coffee Table," 2013 by Tarek Butayhi
Art on 56th

“There would be exhibitions, but a painting was cheap; the sales wouldn’t feed bread,” says Tarek Butayhi, a 32-year-old Syrian painter who left Syria two years ago after his studio was destroyed, and who now is based in Beirut. (Today the gallery, Art on 56th, represents him, and his paintings sell for at least $3,000.)

Things began to change after several developments helped expand opportunities for Syrian artists. Modest reforms in strictly controlled Syria opened it up to outside visitors and created spaces for local initiatives, both commercial and nonprofit, to support artists and promote their work. Artists from the Arab world in general became more visible, when, like other businesses and consumer trends, art was also globalized. And after 9/11, with the Arab world thrust in such ugly manner into the world’s consciousness, global curators and artistic institutions became curious about what beauty the region might have to offer.

Christies and Sotheby’s opened in Dubai (2006) and Qatar (2008), respectively, catapulting the market in Middle Eastern art. Ayyam Gallery also opened around the same time in Damascus, selling Syrian paintings at prices unimagined by most local artists.

“For us Syrians, the prices were crazy,” says painter Butayhi. “Or we knew nothing of what we were worth.”

Ayyam framed the talent of Syrian artists as the region’s best-kept secret, emphasizing their finer technical skills in comparison to other Arab artists, though its pricing model was also controversial in some quarters.

“Prices doubled after him,” says Noha Wadi Moharram, artistic director of Art on 56th, referring to Ayyam founder Samawi. Her Beirut-based gallery represents several Syrian artists.

As art became more lucrative in Syria, Butayhi felt he had a future as a working artist, though how long it would have taken to make it, he’s not sure. People were producing, he says, and beginning to connect with galleries outside, and seeing their work sell.  

“We didn’t know where it was headed, it could have stayed 10 to 20 years like that, or….” he says, trailing off. “But now, we’ll never know.”

Despite exile, the Syrian artistic community has managed to stay cohesive, thanks to social media, which has alleviated any geographic separation and the “all at once” emptying of the country.

“It is really extraordinary what Syrians have done in preserving that momentum,” says Ayyam artistic director Farhat. “They all have different political views, but for the most part, they have greater goal in mind: to maintain it, preserve it, to sustain it.”

A large part of this effort has come from gallery owners and others from Beirut to Dubai who have sought to ensure the well-being of Syrian artists, whether inside Syria or throughout the Arab world. Ayyam shipped all 3,000 of its artworks from Damascus to Dubai and moved most of its artists from Syria to the UAE, Lebanon and France. After the moves, Ayyam worked closely with its artists to find proper studio spaces.

Art Residence Aley artist Heba Akkad, left.
Art Residence Aley

One Syrian patron, Raghad Mardini, has created in the hills above Beirut on Mount Lebanon the Art Residence Aley specifically for artists from her country. In Lebanon, where she restarted her own life after the crisis, she rebuilt a 19th-century horse stable destroyed in part by a mortar that fell during the Lebanese war. She converted the stone structure and its surrounding land into a refuge for two visiting artists to work each month at a distance from the war in Syria. Since it opened in March 2012, it has hosted 41 artists.

“When my life was in turmoil, art kept me balanced,’’ she says. “I feel like I have a responsibility to art.”

She adds, “They are the buffer of society; they are the safety valve where they can help us to cure in the future.”

Disruption and displacement means that artists, like many other Syrians, are trying to patch lives together in new countries. The psychological cost, the new settings, even logistics, can have an effect on the work being produced. Farhat talks of artists who used to paint large canvases now drawing in notebooks, because they no longer have their studios. Contemporary formats such as video, installation and digital media are beginning to be explored.

For the artists, the most significant — and, to them, surprising — effects have been the ease of finding representation and the money they have been able to earn.  

“We didn’t know how talented we were because our country didn’t give us the same opportunities, ” says Saoud Abdallah, a 38-year-old former teacher at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus who paints with undyed Syrian sand, to sublime effect.

Abdallah shown with works from his 2014 exhibition “Spot in Memory,” at the Beirut gallery Art on 56th.
Bernard Khalil for Art on 56th

Both gallery owners and artists acknowledge that to some extent, the war in Syria has meant more attention to their work.

“Syrian art is in en vogue now, everyone wants to see and study it,” says Moharram of Art on 56th. “Local and regional art collectors knew about Syrian art before, but for European or international collectors, only because of the conflict are they learning.”

Syrian artist Fadi al-Hamwi, who was in residence at Art Residence Aley, bristles at the idea that war has created a moment for Syrian art. “It’s dangerous to say this; we don’t need a war to spotlight Syrian artists. It’s not like nothing was already happening — there was much before this tragedy.”

Ayyam’s founder, Samawi, believes the art speaks for itself. “The origin doesn’t affect what sells,” he says. “They are buying great art. The fact it may have come from the Middle East is just an added advantage.”

Abdallah, the sand painter, says he can’t do anything about the fact that some might be coming to his work because of what his happening to his country.

But any recognition he or Syrian art might be receiving now, he’s quick to point out, is bittersweet success.

He says, “I want to tell you, [for an artist], any success outside of his country, something is missing.”