In the last few years, Damascus has seen remarkable development in the field of art. New galleries have been set up, private artistic and cultural initiatives are multiplying, and Syrian artists are increasingly present on the international scene. The old criticism that Syrian art is always looking to the past is nowadays only partly justified.
It was the shortage of exhibition and working space for non-commercial contemporary art that led Abir Boukhari to found All Art Now in 2005.
She describes it as a cultural, artistic and social initiative which is trying to create opportunities for young Syrian artists through participation in workshops abroad and the promotion of an open attitude in Syria towards contemporary media and art forms.
For the last year, All Art Now has been based in Damascus s old town. The space is unfinished and it needs decoration, offering a positive invitation to use it for experiments as part of the projects they run.
For example, for several months, the results of a workshop given by the Dutch graffiti artist Joost Eshuis for young Syrian artists could be seen on the walls of the building s courtyard. It gave the building a contemporary, urbane look, and provided a sharp contrast with the traditional old city environment.
The first exhibition in the new space was a project conceived by Abir Boukhari and the Swiss curator Rayelle Niemann, Here I Stand, which went on show in summer 2008. Artists from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan dealt with issues relating to the position of the individual in the urban context – between past, present and future, between belonging and alienation.
In a 2008 video, also called Here I Stand, Nisrine Boukhari, sister to Abir, explores how people define and distinguish themselves in relation to the other – whether that other is part of one s own personality or another person – and how they lay claim to space of their own, or an additional level of existence.
In May this year, All Art Now presented the project Magnetism, with artists from Syria, Romania, France and Britain. The artists from abroad wanted to take the center and its location as a starting point for their work, and this inspired the creation of videos and installations that dealt with such issues as chance, or personal wishes and desires.
A deceptively innocent and inviting white room by Nisrine Boukhari allowed visitors to choose which of three outwardly similar white powders in three glass bowls, placed between feather curtains and soft cushions, they would try. The bowls – allegedly – contained sugar, salt and poison.
The Syrian artists whom Abir Boukhari brings together in her projects work with contemporary techniques, although they all have a formal training as painters or sculptors since this is the only choice available to art students in Syria. They have to learn contemporary techniques in workshops abroad or by studying on their own.
That s one reason why cooperation with other artists is so important in All Art Now s projects: everyone can profit from the experience of the others.
The contact with artists from abroad, on equal terms, brings new ideas and approaches which is very important for the development of a serious contemporary art scene in what is a politically and culturally isolated country where the artists themselves rarely get the chance to take part in international events.
Abir Boukhari engages in tireless public relations work to try to enthuse the Syrian pubic about contemporary art. The first Syrian festival of video art took place in February, with participants from 42 countries.
Following the decision of a German cultural organization, the Goethe Institute, to support the project, it won the backing of the French, British and Dutch cultural institutes. Videos were shown not only in the organization’s own center, but also in cafés and restaurants in the city, so as to reach a wider audience.
The work of All Art Now is followed in Syria with interest, but often with incomprehension. In the course of a discussion one evening during the video festival, Turkish video artist Ethem Özgüven was met with the astonishing question from a Syrian television journalist: exactly what is meant by the term video art, and on what basis could it be called art ?
In spite of such incomprehension from press and public, Abir Boukhari still achieves remarkable results from her activities. The Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus has said it would be interested in making its rooms available to show videos at the next festival in 2010.
Even the Damascus city authorities are no longer totally opposed to the idea of allowing a graffiti workshop in the streets of the city.
Projects like All Art Now are of inestimable value in the development of a genuine contemporary art scene in Syria. And it s people like Abir Boukhari who have the potential to drive the development, so that art from Syria will no longer be seen as an anachronism.
Charlotte Bank studied Near Eastern archaeology, Assyriology and art history at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and is currently pursuing a PhD on identity symbolism in Palestinian visual art. For more information on All Art Now, visit www.allartnow.com.
This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the author. The full text can be found at www.qantara.de.