An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body

This paper attempts to present a picture of the feminist presence in contemporary Syrian visual art, part of my own interest in the category, and what I believe to be one of its most important current issues. There are different roles women play within this sphere: as artists, as patrons, students of art, as inspirations for artistic production (as models), and finally as a subject in themselves in art (by both men and women). This paper will, however, mainly focus on the feminist interests of Syrian women artists through examples of those who have raised issues related to the feminine entity and feminist topics – whether with regard to personal stories, public issues, or ideas related to women’s freedoms and rights. It should be noted from the start that the presence of Syrian female artists engaged in creative work – and solely dedicated to it – does not by default make them feminist activists or adopters of a specific ideological discourse. Additionally, the reason this paper will focus on these artists and not address the remaining segments touched upon above (women as patrons of art, theorists or muses) is the diversity of examples, especially when considered within the framework of social, religious and political factors, which makes it difficult to summarize their relationship to the thesis presented here within the limits of this paper.

One may assume that it is still too early to define a full-fledged feminist discourse in Syrian art, as history has witnessed a great marginalization of women in the creative fields. That is, a discourse related to all the principles of recognizing women’s freedom, and having the full right to decide their professional and personal choices as well as achieve equality with men with regard to the value of their creative work and available opportunities. This paper will inquire about the possibility of forming a part of this discourse through visual language and the artistic product, in addition to the role of female artists and critical narratives. We will try to show how feminism is represented in Syrian art, and extrapolate the shifts of concerns across generations. Thus, examined in this essay are the work and activism of artists Laila Nseir, Laila Maryoud, Buthaina Ali, Bissan al Charif and Nagham Houdaifa.

The challenges of Studying the Activity of Syrian Female Visual Artists

Before embarking on an examination and analysis of feminism in contemporary Syrian visual art, it isnecessary to mention some of the obstacles that make it difficult to probe all the depths of this situation and closely grasp its facts. These challenges are represented by the following points:

Technical difficulties: When delving into the exploration of the role and status of Syrian women in intellectual fields, we encounter a lack of systematic documentation or any recent interest in this role. In fact, until relatively recently the field of contemporary visual arts in Syria has been peculiar for its lack of documentation. The visual arts are considered newly established in Syria. In other words, practicing, supporting, exhibiting and marketing the arts, by virtue of their very novelty, have presented challenges to both men and women alike. Against a historical context intertwined with social, religious and national issues that have prevented the development of these arts and kept them simple and limited to the imitation of Western trends for years, it must be recognized that these factors have played a role in restricting women's ability to continue working in art. Furthermore, the first gallery for modern and contemporary art was only established in 1961 by Muhammad and Mahmoud Daadoush, and the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus a year earlier in 1960. We are also faced with the fact that Syrian artists have been scattered around the world over the past 10 years, which makes it difficult to keep track of everything that is currently being produced. In reality, we do not have a comprehensive museum collection in Syria either, which would have established the cataloging and documentation of modern and contemporary artistic production. This is vital if there is to be a reliable reference centre for research – without underestimating the importance of private collections such as those of Atassi Foundation, the Samawi Collection and the Kalimat Foundation. It is true that because of this dispersion, virtual groups and accounts on social media have emerged, specialized in displaying Syrian art[1] – which presents the work of more than 500 art practitioners ­– and the Syrian Creative Memory[2] website, but neither of them follow a critical methodology that distinguishes between art as a profession and art as a creative and intellectual product.

There are also cognitive difficulties related to the formation of a feminist discourse in Syrian art. For example, in an article published in 2020 on the site Hypothèses and entitled Un carnet genre et histoire de l’art(A diary of Genre and Art History)[3] by researcher Eva Belgherbi, the writer single-handedly shares the names of dozens of important foundational references for the feminist discourse in art, while Arabic studies that deal with – and specialize in – this aspect, remain few. Although we have witnessed a growing interest in feminism as a human rights and cultural issue in the Syrian context in recent years – for example, by the Syrian Feminist Lobby[4], the Syrian Women's Political Movement[5], the Syrian Female Journalists Network[6], or even the special edition of Kalamon magazine, dedicated to Syrian feminism[7] – visual art is rarely mentioned.

Finally, we have difficulties related to the phenomenon itself and its particularity. The number of Syrian women sculptors from the beginning of the 20th century to date, for example, is still very small compared to women painters, engravers and designers for installation work, for reasons we will point out. Also, one of the most prominent difficulties facing the analysis of the role of Syrian women in art, and exploring the realities of this role, is whether one is to consider handicrafts as artistic acts – such as sewing, embroidery and weaving.

An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body - Features - Atassi Foundation

From Personal Revolutions Exhibition, 2019

The Beginnings: Establishment in Syria

At a first glance at the history of Syrian art – as mentioned earlier, an archive to which research works have been devoted only recently – one notices that, though faint, the feminist voice has been there from the beginning, whether in the form of artists or as patrons of art. In a book issued by the Atassi Foundation in 2019 accompanying the exhibition Personal Revolutions: Women Artists from Syria, which was devoted to presenting the experiences of Syrian artists, researcher and art historian Nagham Houdaifa carefully examined art historical junctures that had had an impact on the presence and status of women in the Syrian art scene. She writes: “To examine the relationship between females and art in Syria, we must go back to the second half of the 17th century, during which time there were many female Armenian artists in Aleppo. These included Hilda Kassis Ajamian, Maral Haira Bidian and Anahid Shahinian, who have contributed to the artistic movement since the 1920s.”[8] In an article entitled ‘Cultural Activity in the Arab World, Syria develops the Artistic Movement’, published in the first issue of the Literature Journal[9] (Al Adab) in 1953, the magazine’s correspondent in Damascus refers to the annual exhibition hosted by the Ministry of Education at the National Museum in Damascus to support artists, which took place for the first time in 1950. He points out that “these exhibitions in Syria came a little late. Indeed, artistic life itself did not have much room until recently.” He also draws attention to the modest presence of women, writing: “One of the phenomena that draw the viewer is that some of our ladies are participating in this activity. Ms. Morah Lee (Munira) from Damascus is exhibiting five beautiful paintings.”[10] Furthermore, in the book Monataf Al Settinat fi Tarikh al Funoun al Jamila fi Souria (The Turn of the Sixties in the History of Fine Arts in Syria), Dr. Abdel Aziz Alloun writes:

“Women’s efforts appeared in the field of visual arts in Arab Syria in the 1940s, and we noticed that the first installation exhibition in Damascus, which was held on 15 August  1947, included works by Catherine Massarra, Ramzia Zanbarki and Muti’a Shura, who exhibited oil works. The emergence of women's art at that time was considered an important social event, after which great works by female photographers and sculptors followed in the exhibitions of the 1950s and 1960s, until it no longer came to one's mind to distinguish between the art of the two sexes, and we now count some young female photographers of the late 1960s along with the brightest producers of photography.”[11]

 Alloun also addresses the event of choosing a female inspiration (a model) for artists in 1961, through a committee consisting of six people which featured only one woman, the artist Dourriya al-Fakhouri Hammad. He writes: “The phenomenon of the female inspiration in the history of art between 1961 and 1962 was an unusual event with great connotations, such an event was neither preceded by another, nor was it ever repeated, despite its feasibility and [the] benefits for the artists and the public.”[12]

In the aforementioned book, through photographs and other records from the writings of art exhibition notebooks and critical notes Abdel Aziz Alloun documents a feminist presence in the field of arts, whether as an audience or as actors in support or sponsorship roles as well as artistic practice. itself He mentions the valuable presence of artists such as Munawwar Moreh Lee (b. 1912), Dourriya Fakhoury Hammad (b. 1930), Hala Mahaini (b. 1947), Shalabiya Ibrahim (b. 1944) and Loujayna Al-Aseel (b. 1946). Out of the 40 names that he documents individually, only five female artists are mentioned: Leila Nseir (b. 1941), Iqbal Karsli (b. 1925), Asmaa Fayoumi (b. 1943), Laila Orfali and Violet Obaji[13] – this is reflective of the proportionately small number of practicing female artists compared to their male counterparts in that period between the 1960s and 1970s, when social restrictions stood in their way.

An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body - Features - Atassi Foundation

Catalogue of Leila Nseir exhibition in 1972

In an interview conducted by the writer Monzer Masri with the artist Leila Nseir, who graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo in 1963[14], the artist is asked whether her upbringing contained anything related to painting. She responds that her mother Wadi'a Rabahiya had the greatest impact on her, due to her interest in art and literature, while her father did not have this orientation, and with this assertion, she upholds the mother's role in her artistic upbringing. In the same interview, asked about her rebellious stance against social restrictions, Leila comments: “I refused the labels: a ‘male artist’ and a ‘female artist’. I was the first woman in Syria who wore trousers, and I used to sit at the Al Rawdah Café wearing my very tight trousers. I was bold, reckless, and out of the ordinary in the whole Arab world. My main concern was to open doors for others.”[15] In fact, this emphasis on appearance is not secondary. If the artist considers it a door that opens to others, she means paving the way for freedom of dress and appearance in society and standing against its restrictions. In the book Feminist Art, to which several female writers contributed under the supervision of researcher Helena Rickett, we read: “The increasingly visible presence of women in the art world during the 19th century was enhanced by how they promoted their image.”[16] However, Nseir’s position is not limited to daily practices, as she is well aware of her pioneering role on the creative level, among others from her generation who set the foundations for art dedication in Syria: “Before us, there were the painters who studied, for the most part, in Italy… They were pioneers, but it’s true that those who studied in Egypt started the [Syrian art] renaissance”.[17] Nseir’s oeuvre draws inspiration from myths and national issues, and while she has explored subjects such as guerrilla soldiers, she has also painted pregnant women and children. Though she herself has no children, the issue of motherhood appears to her as a human issue, related to her strong sympathy for all children, especially in light of what she witnessed on a daily basis – children made homeless, and, later, made weary by war. Nseir embraced these people in her studio, and they became live models for her. Today Nseir is still resisting and trying to work in her studio in Syria, despite her advanced age, as art is her safe haven.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the number of female artists increased, and many moved abroad, followed by the decision to settle permanently in the countries of their emigration. These include Hala Al-Faisal in Moscow and Rafif Rifai and Laila Maryoud in Paris. During this decade anxiety and fear engulfed cultural circles in Syria, especially after the Hama massacre of 1982, in which the Syrian army, led by Rifaat al-Assad, laid siege to the city of Hama under the pretext of combatting extremist Islamic expansion there. However, thousands of non-Islamist civilian citizens were killed and today there are many testimonies documenting the violence and absurdity of that event, such as that of the artist Khaled Al-Khani, whose father, an ophthalmologist, was massacred during the event. Considering the fear evoked by such bloody events – random arrests and religious apostasy – in addition to already-existing social obstacles that involve a preconceived image that putsartists in a position of disapproval, many Syrian intellectuals – including male and female artists – have sought refuge in the diaspora in search of freedom of expression. Researcher Majed Skeker has devoted her work to documenting social conditions and their impact on the work of female artists, and the subsequent decline or increase of their activity according to historical periods. Her paper ‘The Social Reflection in the Art Works of the Syrian women Artists’ cites an investigation conducted by Naima Al-Ibrahim on women’s visual creativity, and how some critics, such as Abdullah Abu Rashid, acknowledge the presence of women in art yet denounce the classification of ‘feminist art’, arguing that “there is no feminine ‘feminist’ visual art, in the literal and academic sense of the word,” and that these classifications are “verbal classifications that are launched, at times, within the framework of the linguistic metaphor, and in the context of the learning mechanisms borrowed from foreign cultures, that are propagated by the divisions of the globalized West, at other times.”[18] This rejection indicates the difficulty of the path that women have taken in order to achieve a feminist voice, and is exclusionary of their desire to strengthen their artistic entities through art.

An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body - Features - Atassi Foundation

installation shot from Personal Revolutions exhibition, 2019

Features and Issues

The expression used by Dr. Alloun, "until it no longer came to one's mind to distinguish between the art of the two sexes,” cited earlier in this essay illustrates the absence of an anti-feminist discourse. Yet, while artistic education in Syria at the College of Fine Arts – which was not established until 1960 – was open-minded, as most of these early founders were enlightened artists, society simultaneously  placed obstructions on the movement of women in art. Freedom of expression in photography and figurative art, for example, faces challenges due to the dominance of religious influence, and in a Middle Eastern context, this societal rejection forms a real obstacle for creative originality – something admittedly faced by both male and female artists. However, starting in the year 2000, the artistic activity of women in Syria began to expand in terms of numbers and specializations. One of the most important factors behind this change was the use of the Internet, which made it possible to access the experiences and theories of contemporary artists of both sexes.

Hence, we can say that the expansion of the feminist role is relatively recent, and that comparing it to international movements in this context will clarify the difference. At the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893[19], a pavilion was dedicated to displaying the output of female artists, where works by notable names such as Mary Fairchild and Mary Cassatt were exhibited.[20] Indeed, since the late 1960s, as a pioneering incubator of exhibitions, America has been the bastion of the beginning of a systematic feminist theorizing that is specialized in art. As such, professor and art critic Linda Nochlin (1931–2017) is considered one of the most prominent founders of the idea of feminism as an issue in art. By questioning feminism itself, she examined the extent to which the question of gender is related to the status of women artists. The strength of Nochlin’s feminist discourse lies in her questioning of ready-made formulations derived from other disciplines. In her article ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ published in 1971, she wrote: “While the recent upsurge of feminist activity in this country has indeed been a liberating one, its force has been chiefly emotional – personal, psychological, and subjective – centred, like the other radical movements to which it is related, on the present and its immediate needs, rather than on historical analysis of the basic intellectual issues which the feminist attack on the status quo automatically raises.”[21]

This prompts us to ask: what are the dimensions and representations of feminist thought in the Syrian context? In an article by Katie al Hayek, a professor at the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, entitled ‘Intersectional Feminism, and How It Can Be Applied to the Syrian Situation’, published in 2018 in Jadaliyya, the author notes that: "'Intersectional feminism' emphasizes the need to develop programs that respond to the realistic needs of women, instead of imposing ready-made programs, that treat all women as a homogeneous mass with a single experience, with no distinctions or differences between them, as per the intersection of different factors, such as gender, race, social class, religion, national origin, disability, educational level, and sexual orientation.”[22] In fact, this analysis can also be applied to the model of feminism in contemporary visual practices in Syria. For Syrian female artists, devoting themselves to artistic work involves a set of gender struggles, liberating, anti-class. Perhaps this analysis is a basic starting point in understanding the data, dimensions and manifestations of the feminist spirit in Syrian art.

First of all, some issues affect certain types of art more than others. For sculpture, for example, apart from the physical challenges related to materials, tools and scale, artists face issues of prohibition.  Along with figurative painting, freedom of expression in sculptural practice faces challenges in contemporary Arab thought. Combined with conditions of poverty and difficulty in accessing schooling and artistic education for all, the end result is an estrangement between the Arab artist (both women and men) and their society. In a lecture entitled ‘Islam and Images: A Complex Relationship’, art historian Silvia Nayef, a professor in the Arabic Studies Unit at the University of Geneva, reminds us that statues were forbidden, seen as idols, or representations of the deity before Islam.[23] She also confirms that the word taswir (imaging), in the linguistic and Quranic context, includes what is painted and what is carved. She supports, according to linguistic and cultural analyses, the absence of clear evidence of an estrangement with the 'image'. She also examines another aspect of limitations imposed upon the act of creation. Indeed, the biggest limitation in the growth of sculpture as an art form was applied jurisprudentially to the act of creating itself: based on the literal interpretation of Quran, the human maker must not resemble the Creator, which is why the prohibition of sculpture has been more severe even than the prohibition of drawing. Today, these ideas have become widely present in Syrian society, even among the non-fanatically religious.

In addition to this impediment, artistic work, by its nature, is not an ordinary work. Rather, it may be stressful when it stems from high cases of honesty and unification with public and private issues. In both cases, the artist must formulate what is inside themselves in order to present what is new. It is their vision and interpretation of an event that distinguishes their work, and not the event itself. In general, we can notice that the art produced by women has distinctive features, in terms of the topics covered, morphology and visual qualities. A cultural – as well as a biological/gender – difference greatly influences the creative process, as it does the formulation of projects, ideas and artistic themes. The combination of the hardships of artistic work with the difficulties of a woman’s life – and her psychological and physical composition – increases the difficulty of certain artistic tasks, as well as her ability to maintain continuity. Therefore, we always witness, in different societies and cultures, the presence of male artists more than female artists. It is true that some theories link motherhood itself with the question of gender identity, as we read in the book Feminist Art: “Motherhood is not a simple biological fact related to reproduction, but rather what makes us associated with a specific type: the female gender.”[24] However, the choices of motherhood make it more likely that women will withdraw from artistic work, especially in the absence of support. In the case of Syria and specifically in recent years, due to the exacerbation of a scattering diaspora, most young mothers, artists and non-artists are engaged in a daily struggle having lost the chance to share the burden of motherhood and its domestic chores with family or close friends.

In addition, from a psychological point of view, there is no doubt that the fluctuations caused by the physical nature of women have an impact on their artistic production. This is arguably reflected first in their sensitivity to certain topics and their interest in themes that may not attract the attention of the male artist, and secondly, in their sensitivity to materials. In their daily lives, women experience highly sensory-stimulating textures, fabrics, consistencies and organic materials. This organic interaction expands their capacity for expression and imagination, for a highly sensitive physical representation. However, one should point out that these modes of expression could be considered ‘feminine’ ways of expression, regardless of the gender of their creator. Therefore, Giovanna Zapperi in her book The Artist is a Woman adopts the theory that: “Marcel Duchamp deconstructed the artist’s type, in other words, his masculinity.”[25] This consideration is based on the practice of Duchamp through his creation of the character Rose Sélavy, in whose name he signed many of his worksand the most famous of which is his embodiment of the character in Portrait of Rose Sélavy executed in 1921 by photographer Man Ray. This perception, which calls for the feminization of art, does not seek to indicate the superiority of one of the sexes at the level of creative value, as both of them undoubtedly seek to create distinguishably, but it calls for a reconsideration of the prevailing theories that the creative act is a masculine act.

On the other hand, not all female artists specialize solely in feminist issues, but here we would like to refer to examples of works by Syrian female artists who hold a point of view towards the status of women and their performance in life and art. As Laila Nseir represented the struggle of the founding generation, the experience of Laila Maryoud represents the unrestricted revelation of the feminine body in art, Noha Ali opposes the social stance against women, Bisan Al-Sharif questions issues of sexual freedom, Nagham Houdaifa immerses herself in a dialogue with her feminine memory. Here, we will try to explore these examples, and probe the depths of feminist thought in them, through topics cherished by female artists: the body and the self through memory.

The Body and the Self Through Memory in the Work of Syrian Female Artists

In her article ‘Writing and Reading Memoir as Consciousness-Raising: If the Personal Is Political, Is the Memoir Feminist?’[26] the feminist theorist Helen Bannan writes: “Self-disclosure has always been important in feminist pedagogy, and insistence on a writer’s clarification of her standpoint is a hallmark of feminist scholarship.”[27] Starting from the self and personal views of existence, the world – and human issues – is one of the most prominent features of feminist art globally. Personal experience, daily living and events in the artist’s life are a source of inspiration for artists of both sexes, and since the feminist struggle thinks about these daily challenges and questions society’s behavior towards them, then it is not surprising that Syrian female artists start from themselves, and the image of these selves in their morphological aspect represented by the body, its mental tendencies represented by memories and ideas. In the same article, Bannan refers to feminist writer Maureen Murdock, saying: “Murdock emphasizes the fragmented and selective nature of memory, which, though not always factually accurate, conveys an emotional truth that is crucial in identity development.”[28] Therefore, a search for gender identity appears frequently in the work of female artists, through a search of the self and its parts. In addition to that, and apart from general issues, this research includes an immersion into intimate aspects and their relationship with the body, and what puts the body in an intimate mood, such as clothes, beds, jewellery and more.

An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body - Features - Atassi Foundation

Laila Muraywid, Quand le Silence a des Milliers d'odeurs, 2013

Body and Jewellery, Photography and Sculpture

In the exhibition catalog for The Body Uncovered, held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in 2013, we find the following explanation by Laila Muraywid:

“The identity of women inhabits their bodies. Dual existence and appearance. Real women adorned with bandages, jewellery, prisoners of a social mask, visible or invisible, prisoners in the role of the mother icon and silence. (…) In their look, we detect their profound entity, their pains, their joys, their resistance, their strength and their fragility.”[29]

Laila Muraywed (b. 1956) has lived in Paris since 1981 and is a full-time artist. When she came to study in Paris, the artist was not fluent in French and this motivated her to explore ways in which to communicate outside the boundaries of language. Maryoud has a clear, humane feminist orientation, and her artistic vision carries deep concepts related to the status and composition of women. Through these contradictory binaries, Muraywid presents an embodiment of the condition of women, regardless of their geographical affiliation, and of the fluctuations in which they live, which are forced on them by a siege of social stereotypes, including an obligation to the purity of motherhood, and subsequent stifling prejudices. In this way, Muraywid's works form spaces in which the feminine body is expressed in its complete freedom, opposing any compulsion or restriction. Muraywid has always been involved in experimentation without boundaries, using photography, drawing or sculpture, as she creates a special world in which we see the human body itself become the raw material of the artwork, and in which jewellery becomes a method of sculptural formulation. She then freezes the moment through photograph. In doing so, she brings to the fore the constraints set upon women, and the jewellery and poses seek not to show the beauty of women, but rather, the ways in which they are constrained by society.


An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body - Features - Atassi Foundation

Buthaina Ali, Don't Listen! She's Only a Woman!, Installation, 2010

Feminine Identity Through Women's Personal items: She is Just a Woman

Don't Listen! She’s Only a Woman!, a work from 2010 by artist Buthaina Ali (b. 1974) features two iron cabinets, 210 cm in height each, with multiple layers. The artist explains:

“Inside each unit there were bags containing personal items belonging to different women... Each locker included an mp3 player which had recorded on it a woman’s voice speaking about her daily problems, and talking about her life in general, concerning mainly the men in her social circle. I chose women from different countries, with different backgrounds… so in total there were 30 bags and 30 mp3 players for 30 women. When the unit is closed, the viewer can hear the sound and a light is on, and when the viewer opens the unit, the sound and light turn off.”[30]

Thus, each bag represents a woman’s private life, and each one is in a room that hides from the outside world. As soon as the door is opened, it disappears, as if opening the door is an invasion of her privacy, and she vocally tells her story only when she wants to. The idea of the bag's contents touches upon conversations around gender identity, as within each of them there are indications of its daily requirements, of elements that accompany it that may be linked to memories or to the present. Using the voices of women in this work indicates a desire for a stronger presence for women: if their image is absent, their voice will be present, and this is a concept also explored by Bissan al Charif in her installation I Once Entered a Garden.

An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body - Features - Atassi Foundation

Bissan Al Charif, from the video I Once Entered a Garden, 2019

I Once Entered a Garden, Memory and Self

To establish her project I Once Entered Garden, Bissan al Charif (b. 1978) started from personal questions about the fates of Arab women in light of war and the violent conditions that Arab countries have experienced or are still experiencing. Presented for the first time in Beirut in 2019, the project included a group of interactive installations representing the personal stories of women recounting memories or transformations in their personal lives. Among them is a video that focuses on a picture of the Syrian singer Asmahan, considered a symbol of liberation, feminist rebellion and of leaving the heavy masculine authority of her family. In this video, the image floats on a shallow water surface. It is an image printed on paper that dissipates gradually as the video progresses until the color scatters and disintegrates, and then fades with a splash of water. This visual aspect is accompanied by the voice of Christelle Khodor, Al-Sharif’s artistic partner on this project, as she explains that Asmahan's song – which lent its name to the project – tells the same story as that of Bissan herself. In the exhibition’s artistic statement, we find the following:

“The questions focused on the intimate memory of the witness, her first sexual experiences, and the transformations that occurred in those experiences during wartime. War is a time when all forms of censorship fall, barriers of social class change, and private space is restructured, affecting the body and awareness of the sexual experience.”

What distinguishes this artistic experience is its reliance on emotional and mnemonic repercussions, and its avoidance of direct visual representation of sexual signals, in contrast to the works of many Arab female artists who oppose the absence of sexual desires in women. Indeed, and annother artist whose works deal with memories in a comparable way is Nagham Houdaifa.

An Introduction to Feminism in Contemporary Syrian Art: The Self and the Body - Features - Atassi Foundation

Nagham Hodaifa, Nightgown, Mixed media on canvas, 133x 81 cm, 2012

Self-indulgence, Union with Grandmother's Nightgown

In the exhibition book Personal Revolutions, artist and art historian Nagham Houdaifa (b. 1981) writes about her oil paintings, which represent her grandmother’s nightgown, and mimic the real body's dimensions, yet depicted without a head. She writes how this shirt calls for the “asking [of] fundamental questions that could be philosophical, religious, or personal. This nightgown can only be seen, inspected, or shown to a very close person. It is an intimate moment that may be seen sometimes, but through the mirror, and through this look that shows some reservation, it will in turn disappear, turning the hidden into visible."[31] Intimacy, as writer and curator Marie Baggy defines it in the book Feminist Art: The Different Forms of Intimacy in the Work of Women Artists, is “the internal, the locked, the inaccessible to the public (…) The inner, in the sense that it’s the opposite of shallow, profound.”[32] These drawings, which the artist started in 2012 after moving to live and work in France, push personal questions into a general context, related to the search for feminine emotional roots that stimulate creativity. The white nightgown with its light fabric is one of the common elements among women globally, and an artistic vocabulary that has appeared in paintings by Rembrandt, Picasso and Lautrec, to name a few. In addition to the emotional dimension represented by nostalgia for the mother and grandmother figure, this white shirt reveals some of the body, and attached to it in other places, evokes other intimate feminine themes, as it is the companion of sleep and isolation to the self.


The importance of this artistic context lies in the attempt to change the stereotyped image of women's activism, both from within and through the artistic act. In other words, although it is possible to enrich the artistic act – and the philosophical and aesthetic questions related to it – with an investigation of gender, female artists here are intrinsic and supportive of the feminist cause, and not the other way around. However, in spite of these examples, it may still be too early to talk about a feminist aesthetic discourse linked to Syrian art, as it is very much still a process in the making. Establishing this discourse requires interdisciplinary efforts, starting with the legal protection of freedom of expression. Only then can it move on to sociological application, which would strengthen the capacity of women artists to defend themselves against different issues of the feminist cause without fear of taboos. On the other hand, although we do not witness a wealth of exhibitions solely dedicated to Syrian women artists, the research presented here does not indicate the absence of women artists, as they are present in most group exhibitions and many individual exhibitions. The feminist experience in the contemporary Syrian art scene is characterized by a lack of extremism or self-framing by comparisons with the production of male artists. Rather, it seems to be in pursuit of a merit-based intellectual methodology.






[3] un carnet genre et histoire de l'art





[8] Hodaifa, Nagham, Personal revolutions, A Study on Feminism in Syrian Art, Dubai, Atassi Foundation, 2019. p.15


[10] Special Letters Correspondent in Damascus, Al-Adab Journal, Issue One, 1953, p. 72-73. The magazine archive website:

[11] Aloun, Abdul Aziz, Monataf Al Settinat fi Tarikh al Funoun al Jamila fi Souria (The Turn of the Sixties in the History of Contemporary Fine Arts in Syria), Dar Daadoush, Damascus, 2003, p.241

[12] Ibid. p. 67

[13] No information is available on the dates of these two latter artists’ births and deaths.

[14] Nseir, Leila ‘A Tough Target For Death’, Atassi Journal, Issue 4, 2018,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Reckitt, Helena, L'art du féminisme - Les images qui ont façonné le combat pour l'égalité, 1857–2017, translated by Caroline de Hugo, Paris,Hugo Image, 2019, p.32: “L’émergence de plus en plus visible des femmes dans le monde de l’art pendant le XIXe siècle fut confortée par une confiance croissante dans la manière dont elles promouvaient leur propre image.”

[17] Nseir, Leila ,‘A Tough Target For Death’, Atassi Journal, Issue 4, 2018,

[18] Skeker, Majed, The Social Reflection in the Art Works of the Syrian women Artists, Supervised by: Prof. Dr. Shafek Ishtai, Damascus University, 2013

[19] Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World.

[20] Columbian World's Fair 1893, ‘Pavillon des femmes’, Mary Fairchild, Mary Cassatt

[21] Nochlin, Linda, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, 1971,

[22] Hayek, Katie, intersectional feminism and how it can be applied to the Syrian situation, Jadaliyya Website, 2018, 2018. 

[23] Naef, Silvia, Islam et images – une relation complexe, 2021

[24] Reckitt, Helena, L'art du féminisme - Les images qui ont façonné le combat pour l'égalité, 1857–2017, p.212 : “La maternité n’est pas un simple fait biologique lié à la reproduction, mais plutôt ce qui fait que l’on se rattache à un genre particulier: le genre féminin.”

[25] Zapperi, Giovanna, L'artiste est une femme: la modernité de Marcel Duchamp, Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 2012.p.7. “Ce livre avance l’hypothèse que Marcel Duchamp a déstructuré le genre de l’artiste- autrement dit, sa masculinité.”

[26] M. Bannan, Helen, Writing and Reading Memoir as Consciousness-Raising: If the Personal Is Political, Is the Memoir Feminist?, Feminist Collections V.26, 2005. pp.1–4

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Le corps découvert, Catalogue of the exhibition, Paris, Institut du Monde Arabe, Hazan, 2012. p.160

[30] Ali, Buthayna, 'We The Living’, Issue 4, Atassi Journal, Atassi foundation, 2018. 

[31] Hodaifa, Nagham, Personal Revolutions, Dubai, Atassi Fondation, 2019. p. 69.

[32] Bagi, Marie, ‘L'Art au féminin II, Paris’, Le Manuscrit, 2019, unnumbered digital edition: “Intérieur… Ce qui est fermé, inaccessible à la foule… Intérieur (au sens où ce mot s’oppose à superficiel) profond.”


Special Letters Correspondent in Damascus, Al-Adab Journal, Issue One, 1953, p. 72-73. The magazine archive website:

Aloun, Abdul Aziz, The Turn of the Sixties in the History of Contemporary Fine Arts in Syria, Dar Daadoush, Damascus, 2003, p. 241.

Hodaifa, Nagham, Personal revolutions, A Study on Feminism in Syrian Art, Dubaï Atassi Fondation, 2019

Masri Monzer, Leila Nseir, A Tough Target For Death Interview, Issue 2 of Atassi Journal, Atassi Foundation, 2018.

Reckitt, Helena, sous la direction, L'art du féminisme - Les images qui ont façonné le combat pour l'égalité, 1857–2017, traduction par Caroline de Hugo, Paris: Hugo Image, 2019.

Skeker,Majed The Social Reflection in the Art Works of the Syrian women Artists, Supervised by: Prof. Dr. Shafek Ishtai, Damascus University, 2013

Nochlin, Linda, Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?, 1971.  

Hayek, Katie, intersectional feminism and how it can be applied to the Syrian situation, Jadaliyya Website, 2018, 2018. 

Naef, Silvia, Islam et images – une relation complexe, 2021

Zapperi, Giovanna, L'artiste est une femme: la modernité de Marcel Duchamp, Paris : Presses universitaires de France, 2012.

M. Bannan , Helen, Writing and Reading Memoir as Consciousness-Raising: If the Personal Is Political, Is the Memoir Feminist?, Feminist Collections V.26, 2005.

Le corps découvert. Catalogue d’exposition, Paris, Institut du Monde Arabe, Hazan, 2012.

Ali, Buthayna, We The Living, Issue 4 of Atassi Journal, Atassi foundation, 2018.

Bagi, Marie, L'Art au féminin II, Paris : Le Manuscrit, 2019.