Art Education in Syria: Foundations and Subsequent Developments

The 1960s were a watershed period for the arts in Syria. In 1960, as private gallery spaces were beginning to emerge and artistic groups and movements becoming increasingly active, the Higher Institute for the Fine Arts was founded in the nation’s capital. In 1963 it was incorporated into the University of Damascus as the Faculty of Fine Arts – a relatively late addition to the much older university.

The foundation of such educational structures and institutes – not to mention the sense of need that led to their creation – was often determined by political and social circumstances. This essay examines the cultural and intellectual environment that produced the Faculty of Fine Arts[1] and its pedagogical formation, looks at some of the ateliers that preceded its creation, and sheds light on its history, both as a physical space and as a place of learning. It will also offer an overview of the local Syrian, regional, and international instructors who taught at the faculty, the curriculum and methodology which was initially adopted, as well as some of the problems encountered as it moved between various buildings – including at Tahrir Square – before settling in its current location in Baramkeh in 1990. The essay then examines the most prominent teaching establishments that were modelled on the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus, such as the art faculties of other public universities, and those of the private universities that began to operate at the start of the 21stcentury, in addition to the Technical Institute for the Applied Arts (which is housed inside the Citadel of Damascus) and various arts centres both in the capital and provincial centres. Finally, it reviews the faculty’s curriculum, both past and present, paying particular attention to its practical courses and the distribution of students among areas of specialisation.

As it happens, examining the evolution of the teaching process at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus and other establishments that provide art instruction in Syria is not without its difficulties, especially regarding the period from the 1980s onwards. This is due to the lack of documented sources and impediments to conducting research on the ground: given the events that have unfolded in the country from 2011 onwards it is currently impossible to access the University of Damascus in order to carry out in-depth research in its archive[2]. It has been necessary to resort to personal and private archives, and this essay is based primarily on those of the artist Mahmoud Hammad[3], a founding member of the Damascus faculty and its former dean, as well as being one of the most influential figures in the fine arts movement in modern Syria. It also draws on my personal experiences in the faculty's sculpture department, first as a student between 1996 and 2002, then as a teaching assistant between 2002 and 2007.

Prior to the Founding of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus

The French Mandate authorities (1920–1947) did not regard the promotion of art and art education (in the style of the École des Beaux-Arts that had been founded in Paris in 1817) as one of its priorities. What interest it had was confined to traditional arts and crafts. In 1922, the Mandate established the French Institute for Islamic Art and Antiquities. This was first housed within the Azm Palace, “a unilateral decision on the part of General Gouroud who was – as were many of the administration’s officials – passionately attached to the antiquities and arts of the country under their control, since the beauty of its early Islamic design and architecture tended to operate as propaganda that enhanced the ‘glory’ of the Mandate itself.”[4] The institute hosted French artists and offered courses in traditional handcrafts, such as wood carving, plasterwork, glassmaking, ceramics and weaving.

During this same period, there were also independent initiatives by Syrians to teach art, such as the founding of the Fine Arts Club in the Sarouja Market in 1930, which once counted among its instructors the pioneering artist Tawfik Tarek (1877–1940). The Club also offered courses in music, acting and photography. In the early 1940s, several further independent art groups were formed, such as The Andalus Forum for Painting and Literature and the Atelier Veronese. The atelier was the first formal association of fine artists, the majority of whom taught art at Damascene secondary schools, and it was from this group that the Arab Association for the Fine Arts later emerged, which was principally concerned with the teaching of painting and sculpture. In the 1950s, the Syrian Arts Association was founded to support artistic and literary activities.[5] It should be emphasised, however, that none of these initiatives contributed directly to the foundation of the Faculty of Fine Arts, despite the pressing need for such an establishment. To get a clearer idea of the historical context, we quote from the speech given by the artist Adham Ismail at the opening of an exhibition by students of the Midan Secondary School in the main hall of the University of Damascus, which was initially published in the al-Ba’ath newspaper, and later reprinted in the volume Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents. Ismail emphasised the need for a school or institute of the fine arts founded on modern principles, like those previously established in other Arab countries:

“Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon not only have higher institutes for the fine arts, but also entire ministries, to which those with a talent for the arts can take their skill and passion and be shaped into a real artistic force. Here, although we are considering establishing an art school, it is along the old lines, which will soon fall away before the onrush of the modern age. We must establish a new generation of young artists to take what is best from the arts of the West and what is most profound from the spirituality of the East.”[6]

However, this constructive suggestion was by no means easy to put into practice. The period between the restoration of Syrian independence (1946–1964) was overshadowed by the impact of Baath Party rule and what was known as the 8 March Revolution. It was a time of transition, full of the political dramas and military coups that would come to shape the identity of the new Syria. This political instability, taken together with a lack of expertise and training among party cadres, an absence of opportunities, and the refusal of the state apparatus to recognise the importance of art and the role it might play in society, set back the development of official departments and institutions equipped to take on the task of teaching art. Though the University of Damascus (the oldest in the country) were founded in 1903, it wasn’t until 1959 that there was any officially recognised institution for art education. Artists (or amateurs seeking to develop their interest) had to travel to mainly Western capitals to receive their training, with the majority heading to Rome, Paris, and Cairo – where, in the latter, the School of Fine Arts had been established in 1908).[7]

An image of the speech delivered by Adham Ismail at the opening of the exhibition of the Midan Secondary School in 1951. Image credit: Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, MOMA, New York, 2018.

An image of the speech delivered by Adham Ismail at the opening of the exhibition of the Midan Secondary School in 1951. Image credit: Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, MOMA, New York, 2018.

1961 brochure of the Centre for Fine Arts. Image credit: Archive of Sami Arnaout.

1961 brochure of the Centre for Fine Arts. Image credit: Archive of Sami Arnaout.

State-Run Fine Arts Centres Prior to the Creation of the Faculty of Fine Arts

Though the Faculty of Fine Arts was late in coming, the 1960s witnessed the emergence of various additional fine arts centres in Syria, created with the aim of honing and guiding the talents of young artists and preparing them for admission to the Damascus faculty, a role they continue to play to this day. The Fine Arts Centre, founded in 1959 in the Rohda district of Damascus, was the first of these. It was initially named after Tawfik Tarek and contained a small museum dedicated to his life and work. The centre taught drawing, oil painting, sculpture, carving, and calligraphy. In 1972 it was renamed the Ahmed Walid Ezzat Centre for the Applied Arts, after the military officer and artist (1934–1971) who taught there in the mid-1960s. In this new incarnation, it offered instruction in handicrafts such as pottery, weaving, silk printing, wood carving and bronze casting. However, located as it was in a residential area, it was unable to continue with the light-industrial elements of its curriculum, and subsequently narrowed its focus to pottery, drawing, photography and calligraphy. Another institution, the Fine Arts Centre of Aleppo, was founded in 1960.[8] At first, it taught drawing, oil painting, sculpture, carving and calligraphy, later adding a course in graphic design. Joining these two institutes in 1961 was the Suhail Al Ahdab Centre for Fine Art[9], which today comprises three fine arts departments (sculpture, carving, and drawing and painting) alongside courses in the history of art and architecture, critical appreciation and perspective. Another centre was created in Homs in 1963, the Subhi Shuaib Gallery of Plastic Arts.[10] Like the others, its courses concentrated on the fundamentals of drawing, painting and sculpture.

Not all subjects were treated equally, with painting and drawing privileged over sculpture. Indeed, many centres were founded without sculpture departments. In his book The Wide Desert of Sculpture and the Road to the Oasis of Saeed Makhlouf the late critic Abdel Aziz Alloun lays out the reasons for the lack of interest in sculpture. In addition to the challenges around the practice, and the absence of statuary in public places, during this period there was, in general, a lack of properly trained teachers with the requisite experience. Alloun provides the example of Jacques Warda (1913–2006), who was responsible for teaching sculpture at the Tawfik Tarek centre in Damascus. Criticising the essentially imitative model followed by Warda, Alloun writes: “The kind of impoverished curriculum over which Jacques Warda presided for four years failed to attract any up-and-coming talent to the centre. The simplest criticism we might direct at those who taught sculpture prior to 1964 is that someone who has lost something can hardly hand it on to their students. Instead, they leave the students bewildered, lost in a sea of secrets.”[11]

The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1965. Image credit: Archive of Mahmoud Hammad.

The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1965. Image credit: Archive of Mahmoud Hammad.

The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus

In 1958, Egypt and Syria came together as the United Arab Republic (1958–1971), with Gamal Abdel Nasser as its president. That year, the new government of the UAR created the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance. This was followed in 1959 later by the formation of the Supreme Council for the Safeguarding of Arts, Literature and Social Sciences, whose principal objectives were to develop artistic and literary culture and provide government officials with the necessary studies and advisory documents to direct policy. Also in 1959, a Bureau of Fine and Applied Arts was set up, headed by the art historian Afif Bahnassi (1928–2017) who, together with the diplomat, author and head of the education ministry, Sami Droubi (1921–1976), proposed the creation of a higher institute for the fine arts in Syria. The initiative was supported by art historian and writer Tharwat Okasha (1921–2012), then the Minister of Culture, and Abdel Nasser issued a decree that one be established.

The curriculum and operations of the new Higher Institute for the Fine Arts in Damascus were modelled on those of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Alexandria, which had been founded two years previously. The Syrian institute officially opened in 1960, with Egyptian staff members including Amin Assem (1918–1989), who established the sculpture department, and Abbas Shohdi (1918–1998) who was its first professor of painting. They worked alongside local instructors such as Mohammed Galal (1911–1975) and Warda. The political situation, however, was growing increasingly unstable during this period: the political union in which broad swathes of the population had initially put their faith, including artists and intellectuals,[12] rested on shaky foundations. It was becoming clear that the UAR had been created without proper regard to the differences that existed between the two countries, starting with the preferential treatment given to Egyptian officials over their Syrian counterparts, and ending with the outright violence and suppression of liberties enacted by the Deuxième Bureau under the leadership of Abdel Hamid Al Sarraj. In The Sixties: A Turn in the History of the Fine and Contemporary Arts in Syria, Abdel Aziz Alloun describes the atmosphere of the times: “We must emphasise that in the latter years of the union, the Northern Region (Syria) drove hundreds of intellectuals into the arms of modern art and the exhibitions and galleries of their cultural centres. They had grown tired of discussing politics and were unwilling to return to prison.”[13] After the break-up of the union, the dean of the faculty, Hussein Fawzi, returned to Cairo with the rest of the Egyptian staff, and was replaced by the Syrian architect Abdul Rauf Al Kasm (b.1932). Though the Higher Institute for the Fine Arts was now officially a separate entity to the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria, it continued to operate with the same structure. At this point, however, certain administrative obstacles began to appear, such as, “how to approve the appointment of a professor who possessed no higher qualifications but whose talents were needed by the institute. Or how to deal with an artist whose position at the institute required that his salary be raised. The Alexandrian faculty’s regulations stipulated that a raise could only be given to artists who had attended the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and this convention was adopted in Syria.”[14]

The graduation project of Nizar Allouch, with Mahmoud Hammad, Elias Zayat, Nassir Choura, Nazir Nabaa, Jalal al-Khouli, Assem Hammad, and Abdulkader Arnaout in 1975. Image credit: Archive of Mahmoud Hammad.

The graduation project of Nizar Allouch, with Mahmoud Hammad, Elias Zayat, Nassir Choura, Nazir Nabaa, Jalal al-Khouli, Assem Hammad, and Abdulkader Arnaout in 1975. Image credit: Archive of Mahmoud Hammad.

In 1963, a law was issued[15] which officially recognised the Higher Institute for the Fine Arts as an independent faculty for the fine arts affiliated with the University of Damascus.[16] At this time, a number of artists who had completed their education abroad, such as Fateh Al Moudarres, Elias Zayyat and Ghayath Al Akhras, returned to the country and joined the faculty’s teaching staff, alongside foreigners like the Bulgarian Teodorov, the Polish artist Zebrowski[17], Pierre Gauthier from France, and the Italian Guido La Regina. The latter’s teaching methods provoked controversy after the Syrian and Lebanese press wrote about the way he imposed his fiercely partisan preference for abstract art on his students. Mahmoud Hammad, a member of the faculty’s administration at the time, wrote the following in a letter to Lebanese journalist Farouk Buqaili: “The moaning we’re currently hearing has been going on for a while in the Damascus press and now seems to have moved to Beirut: that the faculty teaches abstract art (I’m not going to spend time explaining or taking a position on abstract art here, though) and that it’s heading in the wrong direction. One of you has been shouting that we teach imported principles that are supported by colonialism.”[18] Hammad goes on to defend the faculty’s modern curriculum, stating that the attacks on its teaching methods fail to appreciate the importance of this open-minded approach to instruction:

“The campaign that seeks to attack and defame the faculty lacks any grounding in common sense and has taken ‘La Regina’ as its battle cry, apparently for the sole reason that La Regina is a man of considerable and extensive culture who speaks plainly and decisively. La Regina is not the faculty, he is one professor among the many Arabs and foreigners who teach there (we have a Pole, a German, a Bulgarian, a Japanese) […] and his curriculum has been discussed and approved by committee. It was debated extensively and approved by an overwhelming majority, because in principle and in spirit it is in keeping with the most modern teaching methods in the world.”[19]

The Beginnings of the Faculty: Departments and Courses

The newly integrated Faculty of Fine Arts was initially divided into five main departments: painting and drawing, sculpture, carving, design, as well as architecture, which, in 1970 became part of the Faculty of Engineering.[20] The curriculum focused on teaching the fundamentals that students would need to refine their skills, broaden their understanding of art and art history, and give them greater cultural exposure. In their first (preparatory) year, students received practical instruction in the rules of composition and the study of form. Next, they moved onto the study and understanding of human physiology through drawing or sculpting human limbs in isolation, either using live models or plaster casts. They studied colour theory, techniques for sculpture, carving, design, and the principles of perspective, projection and anatomy, as well as the history of art and calligraphy and foreign languages. Students would then choose an area of specialisation. For example: joining the department of painting and drawing, whose curriculum was focused on an in-depth study of the human form, as well as encouraging discussions with their instructors in order to clarify artistic and aesthetic issues and assist the student in forming their own identity as an artist. Students spent five years at the faculty: a preparatory first year followed by four years of specialised instruction. This model was to be altered twice over the following years and the overall length of the course reduced to four years.

The staff comprised a mixture of Syrian and international instructors with a variety of different backgrounds and artistic approaches, including teachers from the Soviet bloc and Western Europe. This fostered a richness and diversity in its approach to teaching – the very same to which Hammad alludes in the letter quoted above. It was impossible to categorise the faculty’s approach or claim it had a particular intellectual or cultural affiliation. Unlike some schools of art, which placed themselves in the service of the ideological approaches and objectives of ruling parties (e.g. socialist realism in the former Soviet Union)[21], the faculty’s pedagogy did not reflect any one school or trend. Hammad made this point when he wrote: “Furthermore, the faculty does not teach abstraction or representationalism or impressionism or symbolism. The student comes here to learn about [the] means of expression in general, to choose what suits them, and to adopt that.”[22] It should be noted that this inclusive approach did not always meet with a warm reception, which explains (over and above the issues with La Regina) the widespread criticisms aimed at the curriculum, promoting the idea that students were being taught contemporary trends imported from the colonialist West: Pop Art, Op Art, Dadaism, and so on. Rather than denying it, Hammad instead defended the openness of the faculty’s curriculum. According to Hammad, it was the faculty’s educational duty to expose its students to culture. What mattered more than anything, he argued, was that the art student learn about all contemporary Western art movements and approaches, without being compelled to practice them: “Art education cannot be a series of mathematical equations: it means opening the horizons of young people so they can choose their path with total freedom. Our faculty exists in a country that calls for freedom, and education must be a mirror of this freedom.”[23]

But the atmosphere of (relative) political freedom that Hammad described would not last for long. While it is true that the 1960s were a watershed moment for modern art in Syria – with the foundation of the Faculty for Fine Arts, art centres, a Syrian television service, private art galleries, and the growth of art groups and movements[24] – the military and security services were already beginning to infiltrate wider Syrian society. By the start of the 1980s, after a long and violent struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood culminating in the Hama Massacre of 1982, the dictatorship had imposed total control on all areas of life.

Teaching Art in the 1980s and 1990s

Over the course of its existence the Faculty of Fine Arts has relocated several times. One of its most important homes was the famous building in Tahrir Square where it was based before its final move to Baramkeh in 1990. The lack of studios and facilities in Tahrir Square had been one of the most fundamental problems facing the faculty, and, unable to properly accommodate the ever-growing number of students, the teaching suffered.[25] In his article A New Building and Old Repercussions, the critic Saad Al Qasim referenced this problem:

“In 1980, as we were about to graduate from the Faculty of Fine Arts, we were visited by a television unit who were conducting an investigation into the reality of the faculty’s current circumstances. We were very keen to talk about the lack of space and its inability to meet the demands of the curriculum, especially since it was a former apartment block, not designed to accommodate such large numbers of students divided between five separate departments.”[26]

As it happens, Hammad, who was the dean between 1970 and 1980, had foreseen this problem from the very beginning and had pushed for a construction project that would create a building capable of housing all the new students that were projected to apply, alongside studios and classrooms for the five original departments, and workshops for the applied arts. He raised the subject in a meeting at a 1971 conference for developing higher and university education:

“Studying the fine arts requires special attention being given to practical and applied instruction, which means moving as rapidly as possible from the planning stage to implementation. To this end, the committee has confirmed that the faculty should be able to host various workshops and studios, such as those for weaving, pottery, mosaics, synthetic stone, woodwork, metalwork, stained glass, plastics, and more, equipping the faculty to contribute to the improvement of various forms of industrial production. However, this vital expansion in practical instruction will only be achieved by housing the Faculty in an appropriately capacious building, which should be designed with these particular pedagogical requirements in mind.”[27]

Hammad’s efforts bore fruit, and the foundation stone of the new building was laid in 1977, on the 14th anniversary of the 8 March Revolution. The building had been designed by an Italian architectural firm in cooperation with the Construction Bureau in Damascus, represented by Al Kasm. Hammad oversaw the entire process. In 1990 the new building in Baramkeh was finally ready to receive its students.

Aside from the important step of relocating to a new building constructed to international standards, the faculty underwent no other development of significance. Neither its teaching methods nor curriculum were updated during the 1980s and 1990s; indeed, there were warning signs that both were going backwards. For instance, nude models were replaced with clothed ones, though the decision came neither from the faculty’s administration nor the government. Rather, it came from certain members of staff on the pretext of reducing the budget allocated for paying models – though they had previously been considered an essential component in the students’ training and the development of their artistic and technical knowledge. Even though these same teachers were, in one way or another, indebted to such models in their own development as artists, they nevertheless regarded the concept of the nude model as a European import, brought in by the faculty as part of a curriculum that was no longer appropriate for the norms of Syrian society.[28] There is no documentary evidence that lets us pinpoint the last time students stood before a nude model, but most probably it was at some point in the 1980s, as it was during this period that socially conservative attitudes began to make a comeback. The absence of this vital anatomical training had an impact on emerging Syrian artists. This was particularly true of sculptors, who need a detailed visual exposure to – and practical experience of – working their chosen medium in front of accurate representations of the human body if they are to avoid anatomical errors.

As for the positive steps taken by the faculty during this period, we should make note of the decision to create a department for higher studies in 1990, which gave graduates the opportunity to extend their education and obtain master’s degrees and doctorates. But even this development – which sought to bolster the theoretical grounding of their education – was beset by difficulties, such as a continuing dearth of experienced and qualified staff capable of overseeing the students’ work and guiding them through advanced studies, and the absence of a department that specialised in theory, such as the art history department at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo. Artist and historian Nour Assalia referred to this issue in her article, Modern and Contemporary Syrian Art: An Overview of Criticism, History, and Philosophy:

“To get to the roots of the problem of the inadequacy of art theory in Syria, we must address the fact that there is no university course that teaches the history or philosophy of art as separate subject. As a result, they hardly exist as fields of inquiry in the curriculum of the Faculty of Fine Arts.”[29]

The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, 2021. 

The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, 2021. 

The Next Generation: Art Faculties in Public and Private Universities

In 1987, the Technical Institute for the Applied Arts was established inside the historical citadel in Damascus. The institute offered two-year courses and was placed under the control of the Ministry of Culture (and not the Ministry of Higher Education as was the case with the Faculty of Fine Arts). It had four departments, but the sculpture department stood out for the high standard of its technical instruction, with students trained in various techniques for wood and stonework as well as bronze casting and moulding. It also had a photography department, something the Faculty of Fine Arts lacked, and two more for pottery and calligraphy.

Starting in 2006, new faculties began to be established at institutions in the Syrian provinces. It is difficult to trace the precise reason for this development, but the rising numbers of students (many of them from the provinces) applying to join the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus was probably a motivating factor. In 2006 the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts was created at the University of Aleppo, which contained departments for sculpture, carving, graphic design, drawing, oil painting, visual communication and interior architecture, along the lines of its Damascus counterpart. In addition to these, it also had departments for textile weaving and fashion design.

Almost immediately, the new Faculty in Aleppo ran into problems with its building and staff. The building it used was borrowed from the Faculty of Engineering and was not fit for purpose. For instance, the sculpture department was located in the basement, which gave rise to a number of practical issues, such as the difficulty of delivering materials and equipment along with high levels of damp and humidity. Another fundamental issue was again a lack of experience among the staff, and heavy workloads for the instructors.[30] Subsequently, the sculpture, carving and photography departments were shut down due to a lack of staff and student numbers, a sign that the decision to set up the Faculty had not been properly planned and thought through, either on the pedagogical or administrative sides. In 2007 the Faculty of Fine Arts (Two) was established in Suweida as a provincial branch of the Damascus faculty. It followed the same curriculum as its counterpart in Damascus, but as happened in Aleppo, it was not properly equipped to take in students. Initially, the faculty occupied a former secondary school building, to which was later added a workshop for sculpture. Elsewhere, the Faculty of Fine Arts at Tishreen University in Lattakia was established in 2012 and at first contained two departments (interior architecture and drawing and painting) to which were later added courses in sculpture, carving and advertising. From the outset, there too was a problem with lack of readiness: it was housed in a wing of the engineering faculty and lacked a complete and properly qualified teaching staff, and as a result a number of its students transferred to universities in other provinces.

Taken together, an inability to meet their educational targets was a common feature of all these institutions: they lacked the materials, equipment, and spaces necessary to serve the requirements of the young artists who studied there, and their administrations were disorganised and ineffective.

Art faculties were also created at several private universities. Until the early 2000s higher education was exclusively state-run and free, then a law was issued[31] which permitted the creation of private educational institutions at university level. The decision came at a time of growing issues within the state-run system, but the rapid spread of these private establishments triggered considerable debate within the universities, because they were permitted to accept students who had failed to achieve the requisite grades to progress in the public system but who were able to pay their fees. Today there are more than 20 private universities in Syria. The first of this kind, the University of Kalamoon, opened its doors in 2003. It created a Faculty of Media and Applied Arts in 2006, which contains a photography lab, computer lab, and workshops for sculpture, furniture-making and metalwork. The Faculty of Arts at the International Arab University, meanwhile, offers courses in interior architecture, visual communication, theatre design, film, industrial design and fashion design. It is also worth mentioning that these universities have recruited many public-sector teachers due to the higher salaries they offer.

Workshops and Studios

As mentioned earlier, artists’ workshops and studios have always functioned as alternative teaching spaces in Syria. However, it is difficult to estimate how many Syrian artists have been involved in teaching art in their studios as an ongoing activity alongside their own work, because many only operated in the period before university entrance examinations, when the majority of private lessons would be used to train students in the fundamentals of drawing and shading. Some of these studios had an obvious influence on their students, for example that of the self-taught sculptor Saeed Makhlouf, who was given a permanent workshop by the Damascus International Fair on its grounds. His studio attracted many young artists who were influenced by his work, especially when it came to the wood sculpture practice he was known for. Mahmoud Shaheen wrote about him as follows: “These young talents took from Saeed a medium in which to express themselves, a way of thinking, and a love of their country and its heritage, then set out to form their own distinctive identities within Syrian modern art which always referred back, one way or another, to the teacher who had first opened his doors and heart to them.”[32] Another example would be the sculptor Faiz Nahri, who taught the basics of sculpture – from preparing clay, constructing metal moulds and casting – in his workshop in Tajara.

The Sculpture Department: A Personal History

To this day, enrolling at art faculties within public sector institutions in Syria requires a certificate of secondary education and successfully negotiating an entrance interview and exam.[33] The four-year course is divided into an initial preparatory year followed by three years of specialisation, and ends with a graduation project, completed in the months following one’s written examinations in the final year.

Having been introduced to five areas of specialisation in their first year, the student is asked to list their choices for further study in order of preference. The departments of sculpture and carving remain the least popular choices and are often the destination of those students with the lowest marks, except in the rare instances when they are a student’s first or second choice. On the other end of the scale, the department of interior architecture (or interior design and decor) is the most popular, because of its closer association with the job market and the social status attached to the idea of being an interior designer (even though graduates from the department receive the same degree title as all the others – that of Bachelor of Art, without denotation of specialisation or area).

Entering the sculpture department was to embark on a perilous adventure: the question of one’s professional future was an ever-present concern. I myself was one of these adventurers: one of only three students out of an intake of 20 who had chosen to specialise in sculpture. I had received my introduction to sculpture in the workshop of Faiz Nahri, which I continued to visit on and off throughout my time at the faculty. My family had never objected to my desire to study art despite their entirely legitimate concerns over my professional future: being an artist in Syria is no way to ensure your financial stability. Furthermore, sculpture carried considerable social stigma, as in the increasingly conservative mindset of the times it was associated with idolatry and religiously proscribed representation.[34]

The sculpture department at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, 2021.

The sculpture department at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, 2021.

In my second year, which is to say my first year of specialisation, we were given six projects in addition to two practical exams. Our instruction was largely confined to producing imitations of plaster models. In the third year, students sculpted from live models, who were mostly shy and respectable members of the faculty’s administrative staff. In the fourth year, alongside copying objects and models, the student was allowed greater freedom to experiment, in order to develop their own particular artistic vision. We were required to represent concepts such as human relationships or incorporate geometric, human, and animal forms in a single piece.[35] On the technical side, students were able to select options such as casting, ceramics, metalwork, and stone, but the instruction was too basic to allow us to put these skills into practice. It was during the second term of the fourth year that students began their avant projet,[36] which involved beginning to conduct research under the supervision of one of the instructors for what would become their graduation project. This went on through the summer months, during which time the faculty became one huge workshop. As long as a member of staff was present, students were permitted to stay late into the evening. When the projects were completed, students had to defend them before a committee comprising the dean, department heads, and instructors from the department in question. The majority of the sculpture department’s projects were clay sculptures subsequently moulded in plaster (occasionally polyester resin). Other materials were neither common nor required, but it was possible to use wood or ceramics or metal.[37]

Theory constituted 40 percent of the final mark and was confined to the history of art and architecture, the history of civilisations and myth, geometry, the Arabic language, a foreign language and anatomy. During my time at the department, the curriculum also included courses in national socialist culture and (male-only) military instruction, both of which were subsequently abolished. In the second year, the oil painting department added courses in technique, materials and colour theory, while in the third year, the sculpture department taught us the principles of architecture and urban planning. In the fourth year, the students in all departments were taught aesthetics and criticism. In 2000, a course in information technology was introduced for the first time.

Following graduation, students could continue in their department in order to obtain a diploma of higher studies, which was considered a natural extension of the graduation project: they could continue to develop their practical skills in addition to learning about new theoretical material such as visual reference, pure aesthetics, the history of art in the Arab world, medium-specific techniques, computer design, and the principles of academic and scientific research.

After passing through this stage, I began work as a teaching assistant in the sculpture department, where I taught for two years between 2002 and 2004. Working alongside a colleague, my core role was to provide instruction to the first-year students. In 2005 I was made a lecturer and began to teach the second and third years as well. The curriculum did not change during my period of employment at the faculty and no attempt was made to plan any improvements to the instruction offered. Suggestions were not encouraged. While it is true that students were not made to follow any particular approach to their practice, a glance at the graduation projects was enough to know that expressionism was favoured, and this was hardly surprising since the staff were by and large expressionists themselves.

Despite the fact that it possessed a staff with valuable experience and skills, the sculpture department remained stagnant and closed to outside influences. It produced more post-graduates a year, but the majority of them promptly gave up sculpture. Aside from the fact that the majority of its intake hadn’t chosen to study there (victims of their own low grades), the subject itself is considerably more demanding than others: it requires a large, well-equipped workspace, the costs of production are high, and sculptures are much harder to sell on the market than oil paintings. Most trained sculptors end up reverting to painting or other arts as their secondary (or even primary) practice.

In Conclusion

Despite the issues – both practical and theoretical – that face the education process in the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, the institution itself cannot be held entirely to blame: the social and political changes that the country has undergone from the 1960s onwards have left their mark on all aspects of Syrian society, and the country’s universities are no exception.

For this reason, the 1960s may have been, despite the many stumbling blocks that the Faculty encountered at the time, the period richest in debate and discussion on both the administrative and practical levels. Even though it has enjoyed the use of a properly equipped building since the beginning of the 1990s, there has been no obvious evolution of the faculty’s methods and curriculum since its foundation. In recent decades, instruction has gradually transformed into a routine job, carried out in accordance with inflexible regulations and an unchanging curriculum devoid of freedom and innovation. What exceptions do exist are carried out on the initiative of individual members of staff who want to push their students to evolve. Administrative corruption and preferential treatment on the basis of party affiliation are two of the biggest issues affecting education in Syrian universities in general. Even so, it is impossible to ignore the Faculty’s importance as a space for instruction and development, and we must respect the efforts of staff members who, despite all obstacles, have worked and continue to work to defend the freedom of artistic expression.

It is perhaps appropriate by way of conclusion that we salute the memory of Mahmoud Hammad, who developed close relationships with both staff and students for the sake of an open and inclusive culture, and whose exceptional performance as both teacher and dean at the faculty was a rare model of excellence during a difficult period.

TIMELINE

 

For ease of reading and referencing, Nour Asalia created a timeline based on two essays published in The Journal, namely, “A history of art associations in Damascus during the 20th century: from emergence until the first Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971” which was written by Lubna Hammad and issued in October 2020, and the current essay by Muhammad Omran entitled “Art Education in Syria: Foundations and subsequent developments”.

 

YEAR- EVENT/INSTITUTION or GROUP/ LOCATION/ FOUNDED or RUN BY

1922 to present- The foundation of the French Institute for Islamic Art and Antiquities. In 1946 it was relocated to the Abu Rummaneh neighbourhood, where it was known as the Institute Francais, Damascus, The French Mandate Authorities

1930- Creation of the Fine Arts Club in the Sarouja Market, Damascus, Independent Syrian artists

1940/41- Foundation of the Andalus Forum for Painting and Literature, Damascus, Independent Syrian artists

1940-  The fine arts exhibition at the Faculty of Law, Damascus, The Ministry of Education

1941–1950- Foundation of the Atelier Veronese, first formal association of fine artists, Damascus, Independent Syrian artists

1943–1945- The Arab Association for the Fine Arts, Damascus, An offshoot of the Atelier Veronese

1947- The fine arts exhibition at the Jawdat Al Hashemi High School, Damascus, The Ministry of Education

1948- Foundation of the atelier of Nassir Shoura, Damascus, Independent Syrian artist

1950s.- Foundation of the Syrian Arts Association, Damascus, Independent Syrian writers and artists

1950- The first exhibition of Syrian paintings at the National Museum in Damascus Damascus, The Bureau of Antiquities in cooperation with the Ministry of Education

1952–1955- Foundation of the Fine Arts Appreciation Association  Damascus, Independent artists and individuals interested in culture and the arts

1953- The first state-funded group of Syrian artists begins studies in Rome, Rome, The Ministry of Higher Education

1956–1959- Foundation of the Syrian League of Artists for Painting and Sculpture, Damascus, Independent Syrian artists

1958- Creation of the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance, Damascus, The government of the United Arab Republic

1959–1966- Establishment of the Bureau of Fine and Applied Arts, Damascus, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance (UAR)

1959- The first annual spring and autumn exhibitions, Damascus, The Bureau of Fine and Applied Arts

1959- Formation of the Supreme Council for the Safeguarding of Arts, Literature and Social Sciences, Damascus, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance (UAR)

1959–1973- Creation of the Tawfik Tarek Fine Arts Centre, Damascus, The Ministry of Education

1960–1963- Foundation of the Higher Institute for the Fine Arts, Damascus, The Ministry of Education (UAR)

1960–1968- Establishment of the first private art gallery, the International Modern Art Salon, Damascus, Independent patron

1960- Creation of the Fathi Mohammed Fine Arts Centre, Aleppo, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance

1961- Creation of the Suhail Al Ahdab Fine Arts Centre, Hama, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance

1961–1966- Foundation of the Circle for Social Integration and the Arts, Damascus, Independent artists and individuals interested in culture and the arts

1963- The Higher Institute for the Fine Arts becomes the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University, Damascus, The Ministry of Higher Education

1963- Creation of the Fine Arts Centre in Homs (later the  Subhi Shuaib Fine Arts Centre), Homs, Independent Syrian artist

1965- Creation of the Damascus Group, Damascus, Independent Syrian artists

1966- The Bureau of the Fine and Applied Arts becomes the Bureau for the Fine Arts, Damascus, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance

1967–2005- Formation of the Fine Arts Union, Damascus, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance

1968- The Tawfik Tarek Fine Arts Centre relocates from Rohda to Shahbandar Square and is renamed the Adham Ismail Fine Arts Centre, Damascus, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance

1969- Creation of the Group of Ten, Damascus, Independent Syrian artists

1971- The first Arab Conference for the Fine Arts, Damascus, Independent artists from Arab states

1972- The Adham Ismail Fine Arts Centre (formerly the Tawfik Tarek Fine Arts Centre) is renamed the Ahmed Walid Ezzat Centre for the Applied Arts, Damascus, The Ministry of Culture and National Guidance

1972- The first Arab Festival for National Art, Damascus, Independent artists from Arab states

1987- The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus relocates to its present home in Baramkeh, Damascus, The Ministry of Higher Education

1990- Establishment of the Technical Institute for the Applied Arts inside the citadel of Damascus, Damascus, The Ministry of Higher Education

2005- The Fine Arts Union becomes the Union of Syrian Artists, Damascus, The Ministry of Culture

2006- Foundation of the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts in Aleppo, Aleppo, The Ministry of Higher Education

2007- Foundation of the Faculty of Fine Arts (Two), Suweida, The Ministry of Higher Education

2012- Foundation of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lattakia, Lattakia, The Ministry of Higher Education

Footnotes

1 For the purposes of this essay, the Faculty of Fine Arts refers to that of the University of Damascus, unless otherwise specified.

2 This is due to a combination of reasons, including the fact the author, is based in Paris and unable to travel to Syria; that access to said archives will require navigating extensive bureaucracy and ministry approval, and even if such permissions were granted, there is no guarantee any comprehensive archives even exist.

3 We were given access to the valuable contents of Hammad’s archive by his daughter, Mrs. Lubna Hammad.

4 Dima Shukr, ‘The French Institute in Damascus’, al-Arabi al-Jadid, 2010

https://diffah.alaraby.co.uk/diffah/opinions/8DB6F747C448-489E-A21E-9BE201E7EF69

5 Many exhibitions were held during this period, but perhaps the most important was opened by the then president Taj Al Din Al Hasani at the Faculty of Law in 1940, which included work by a group of Syrian artists alongside that of a number of officers in the French Mandate forces. When it comes to the post-independence period, the architect and researcher Lubna Hammad wrote an article about 20th-century art groups in Damascus, in which she refers to the first state-run exhibition in 1950: “The Ministry of Education opened the first official Syrian exhibition staged by the Antiquities Administration in cooperation with the ministry in a private wing of the National Museum of Damascus. It created a committee to hand out prizes, which were competed for by approximately one hundred paintings by some 30 artists. The exhibition, titled The Exhibition of Painting and Draughtsmanship was the starting point for contemporary art in Syria and the first of an ongoing series of annual exhibitions that continues to this day.” (Hammad, Lubna: ‘The History of the Founding of Art Groups in Damascus in the 20th-Century Up Until the First Arab Conference for the Fine Arts, Held in Damascus in 1971’, The Journal, Atassi Foundation, 2020)

6 Lenssen, Anneka & Rogers, Sarah & Shabout, Nada (eds.): Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, Duke University Press (Caroline, 2018), p.144

7 By Prince Yusuf Kamal (1882–1967) 

8 Renamed the Fathi Mohammad Centre for Fine Arts in 1968 after the pioneering Syrian sculptor (1917–1958), it also contained a museum with a selection of his works.

9 Named after the artist Suhail Al Ahdab (1915–1969).

10 Originally named the Centre of Fine Arts, and renamed after the artist Subhi Shuaib (1909–1974) following his death.

11 Alloun, Abdel Aziz, The Wide Desert of Sculpture and the Road to the Oasis of Saeed Makhlouf, p.132

12 We can find indications of the importance of the union and belief in it in the work of some Syrian artists. For instance, Mahmoud Hammad’s painting The Memory of February 1st (1958) and Mamdouh Qashlan’s The Eternal Renaissance (1959).

13 Alloun, Abdel Aziz, The Sixties: A Turn in the History of the Fine and Contemporary Arts in Syria, Dar Daadouch (Damascus, 2003), p.47

14 Al Qasim, Saad, ‘Sixty Institutes and Art Colleges Affiliated with Damascus University’, found on the Contemporary Syrian History website, originally from the al-Thawra newspaper, issue 17027, March 2020

15 Law 84.

16 In Syria, educational the private institutions generally accept students with secondary certificate grades below those required to enter the public university system. As a result the quality of their graduates varies.

17 Unfortunately, there is little in the available archives apart from their family names, so full identification is not possible.

18 Excerpt from a letter to the Lebanese journalist Farouk Buqaili on the occasion of the exhibition of Syrian art held at the Sursock Museum. From the personal archive of Mahmoud Hammad.

19 Ibid.

20 The decision to separate was probably influenced by the decision of the Engineering Faculty to split from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, after former culture minister André Malraux issued the university reform law in 1967.

21 Though the Ba’ath Party controlled all aspects of the state, the fine arts (or to be precise, the teaching of fine art) remained outside its ideological framework. Following the defeat of 1967 there were attempts to engineer the creation of something called “nationalist art” though it is impossible to detect its influence in the works produced by Syrian artists at the time. It should be noted that the majority of Syrian artists at the time freely expressed patriotic sentiments and there was no need to impose such beliefs on their work.

22 Excerpt from a letter to the Lebanese journalist Farouk Buqaili on the occasion of the exhibition of Syrian art held at the Sursock Museum. From the personal archive of Mahmoud Hammad.

23 Ibid.

24 For example the Half-a-Day Modern Art Group, the Damascus (or “D”) Group, and the Group of Ten.

25 In 1964 there were approximately 100 students of both sexes at the faculty (including the architectural department). These numbers were to grow exponentially.

26 Al Qasim, Saad, ‘A New Building and Old Repercussions,’ al-Thawra, April 2020.

27 The proceedings of the Conference for Developing Higher and University Level Education, taken from the personal archive of Mahmoud Hammad.

28 “Abdel Wahhab Heikel, who was the first nude model at the School for the Fine Arts founded by Youssef Kamal in Cairo in 1908, had no idea that his body – which was then regarded as a necessary educational prop – would become a source of shame, or that his profession would become extinct in both Syria and Egypt, on the grounds that it was an offence to public morals. Nude models stopped being used in both countries during the 1980s and were replaced by clothed models.” (Mohammed Omran writing in al-Arabi al-Jadid, 1 November 2015).

29 Asalia, Nour, ‘Modern and Contemporary Syrian Art: Criticism, History and Philosophy: An Overview’, The Journal, Atassi Foundation, 2022.

30 The artist Alaa Abou Shaheen, who worked as a teaching assistant at the Aleppo faculty from 2010–2011, stated the following in a conversation with the author: “I’d propose projects for all four years of study, and correct and mark the work as though I was head of department.”

31 Law 36.

32 Shaheen, Mahmoud, ‘The Sculptor Saeed Maskhlouf: The Tamer of Stubborn Material’, al-Arabi issue 578

33 The test involved producing three pencil drawings: a still life, a depiction of either Socrates or Venus from Greek statuary, and a drawing of the student’s hand. These requirements never changed, though subsequently a further exam in artistic culture was added. 

34 A former dean of the faculty called the sculpture department a “department of idols”, while the father of one student who had been forced to take sculpture due to his low marks in the first year, demanded that his son be transferred to the carving department for the same reasons.

35 Sometimes projects were assigned from outside the faculty, like the wall relief project designed to highlight the achievements of “the corrective movement”.

36 This was an initial, preparatory phase for the graduation project. The French term was the one used in the faculty.

37 There were special course trajectories for metalwork and ceramics. The three sculpture workshops were divided between them and a separate department was created for wall reliefs.


 

Sources

The archive of Mahmoud Hammad, courtesy of Mrs. Lubna Hammad

Alloun, Abdel Aziz, The Sixties: A Turn in the History of the Fine and Contemporary Arts in Syria, Dar Daadouch (Damascus, 2003)

Alloun, Abdel Aziz, The Wide Desert of Sculpture and the Road to the Oasis of Saeed Makhlouf, 1973

Shaheen, Mahmoud, ‘The Sculptor Saeed Maskhlouf: The Tamer of Stubborn Material’, al-Arabi, issue 578

Al Qasim, Saad, ‘A New Building and Old Repercussions’, al-Thawra, April 2020

Al Qasim, Saad, ‘Sixty Institutes and Art Colleges Affiliated with Damascus University’, found on the Contemporary Syrian History website, originally from the al-Thawra newspaper, issue 17027, March 2020

Hammad, Lubna, ‘The History of the Founding of Art Groups in Damascus in the 20th-Century Up Until the First Arab Conference for the Fine Arts, held in Damascus in 1971’, The Journal, Atassi Foundation, 2020

Assalia, Nour, ‘Modern and Contemporary Syrian Art: Criticism, History, and Philosophy: An Overview’, The Journal, Atassi Foundation, 2022

Shukr, Dima, ‘The French Institute in Damascus’, al-Arabi al-Jadid, 2010

Bank, Charlotte, Art Education in Twentieth Century Syria, Heidelberg University Publishing, 2019

Lenssen, Anneka & Rogers, Sarah & Shabout, Nada (eds.): Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents, Duke University Press (Caroline, 2018)