Syrian Art in Paris

Researching the works of Syrian artists in Paris seems at first a daunting task. This is primarily due to the sheer number of artists who have been going there, from the early 20th century through to the present day. Another difficulty is the diversity of their chosen modes of expression, such as painting, sculpture, etching and installation art, in addition to other various mixed media.  Syrian artists have always flocked to Paris to study art both in practice and in theory (though few of them opted for in-depth theoretical specialisation), and most of them enrolled in the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, and have been doing so since the days of Michel Kerche and Tawfic Tarek.

The reason France has attracted artists and creatives the world over is not solely due to its progress in the fields of art, intellect and philosophy. The main motive lies in the extent of personal freedoms and, as such, freedom of expression both in word and deed. Not only has France attracted artists as individuals escaping from dictatorships for political and security reasons, it has also been an intellectual refuge for those fleeing social intimidation and intellectual constraint. Such was the case with some of most notable writers of the 20th century, including the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran and the Czech novelist Milan Kundera. 

Syrian Art in Paris - Features - Atassi Foundation

Youssef Abdalki, Lily, 1996, charcoal on carton, 63 x 50 cm.


This essay will cite some of the various reasons that have urged Syrian artists to travel to Paris, although it is not possible to include all such experiences here.[1] It will also touch upon unique experiences such as those faced by female artists Laila Muraywid and Rafif Al Rifai, who have each faced various challenges in Paris. In addition, I would like to highlight the experience of artists such as Youssef Abdelke, who lived in Paris and was unable to visit his homeland for a long period of time due to his political inclinations. Another interesting case is that of Ziad Dalloul, a unique case of a Syrian artist who is represented by one of Paris’s most prestigious galleries; and the exceptional experience of Asa’ad Orabi, who personifies the rare intersection between academic research and creativity. Furthermore, there will be a look at contemporary artists – however, this shall be brief, since this essay is published as part of the seventh issue of The Journal and will therefore be complemented by interviews and spotlights that will complete the landscape of the Syrian art scene in Paris. Finally, this essay will conclude with the role of institutions, of artistic criticism in promoting – or discouraging – the arts. 


[1] For example, some artists have had an artistic presence in Paris without having lived in it, such as Fateh Moudarres or Sabhan Adam.

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Historical Background:

In a 2006 lecture, art historian and critic Dr. Abdul Aziz Alwan (1934–2011) reported that, in 1929, a book for art education was included in the curriculum in Syria by the Mandate authority. Entitled The Book of Objects, and taught in elementary schools, it outlined the basics related to concepts of volume, mass and space, both in theory and in practice. Even though we are aware that the subsequent disappearance of this subject (and the absence of a comparable replacement) was due to the difficult social and political circumstances in the country, this anecdote can nevertheless be used as a simplified starting point in the analysis of Syrian artists and their pursuit of study in France.

Until 1918 Greater Syria (Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon) was divided into states under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. With the onset of the First World War in 1914, the infringement of Ottoman rule over Arab countries increased, particularly with imposed enlistment in its army and confiscation of property. During this time, social and intellectual life started to collapse as people became increasingly swept up in national causes and a fear of tyranny pervaded. As a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire, these states were liberated in 1918, yet immediately divided up between France and Britain, the colonial powers lying in wait for them at the time, with further division into its current borders in 1920 with the discovery of oil in the region. Even when Damascus was liberated by Al Sharif Hussein’s army under the banner of the great Arab revolution, his son, Prince Faisal, aware of the extreme fragility of this brief independence, was forced to enter an agreement with the French. This was the result of the agreement between Prince Faisal and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, which stipulated that, in view of the weak political and administrative powers of the Ottoman State, the authority would be handed over to the French. The French Mandate would last until 1946, when Syria became a republican state, ruled over by Shukri Al Quwwatli, the first president of the Syrian Republic.

During this same period, Paris was home to some of the most significant intellectual trends of the 20th century, welcoming some of the world’s most prominent writers, artists and philosophers. Yet ironically, France itself was resisting German occupation until its liberation in 1944, i.e. before the end of the Second World War

Syrian Artists in Paris:

The First Generation:

The phenomenon of going to Paris to study began in the late 19th century with what is widely referred to as the ‘first generation’ of Syrian artists. They saw in Paris a city that embraced their desire to get acquainted with art and its practice. The first generation included Tawfic Tarek (1875–1940), Michel Kerche (1900–1973), Jack Wardeh (1913–2006) and Sami Burhan (1929– ) among others. In Contemporary Art in Syria 1898–1998, published by Atassi Gallery in 1998, art historian Tarek Al-Sharif allocated a section to address Syrian art during the period of the French Mandate and its effect on Syrian artists, writing: “The pioneers were introduced to some new and important artistic experiences brought in by the artists who had travelled abroad to study; or by French artists who came to paint or even by those whom the French brought over to work in the field of education.” Al-Sharif also referred to the influence of Impressionism: “In the same period, the first documented realism receded to become close to reality, whereby [Syrian] artists resorted to historical topics in response to the French occupation and to observe to Arab history and revive Arab heroisms in great historical battles”[2]. In that summary there is a clear indication of the hardship of being committed and completely devoted to artwork.

[2] Tarek Al-Sharif, Contemporary Syrian Art in Syria 1898–1998, Atassi Gallery, Damascus, 1998

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Michael Kurcheh, Badawiyeh, undated, oil on wood, 53 x 38 cm.

While Syrian artists were seeking to establish a much-needed Fine Arts Association in 1950, France had long been witnessing the creation of schools of art and artistic trends associated with artistic theories, curricula and data. Among these accelerating events was the birth of installation art in Picasso’s atelier in 1912 and conceptual art a year earlier, with the first readymade work by Marcel Duchamp. In 1960, the year of the establishment of the Academy of Fine Arts in Damascus, Paris was already witnessing the arrival of video art, after its invention by Nam June Paik. In contrast, Syria was only just emerging from successive gruelling occupations and, as such, society was focused on fundamental national and human issues. This is evident by a long period of disengagement from artistic developments around the world. There are some who deny such disengagement, by stating that art was present in other forms, such as decorative arts and crafts, as adorned books and manuscripts and architectural details, walls and floors. While I do not by any means undermine these forms of arts, I would argue that they cannot be held on par with painting and sculpture in their definitional form as we have known them ever since the Renaissance. However – what is important is that, rather than disregarding the sculptural heritage of the Middle East’s civilizations, is to see their existence and magnificence as emphasising this idea of disengagement (from Western art history). The West and the Middle East have both experienced their own historical peaks and troughs – and, in contrast to our disengagement from artistic development in the past, so too the West lived in complete obscurity and disengagement when it came to various fields that were at the height of their evolution among the Arabs (such as mathematics and science). Each era and ruling body has its own agenda, and so it was that the period of Islamic conquests was unconcerned with the aforementioned arts despite its interest in other intellectual and creative domains. 

Thus, the ‘first generation’ played a crucial role, in possessing the courage to pave the path for art in Syria, navigating a conflicted relationship with the Mandate country: the importance of studying in Paris on one hand, coupled with the desire to resist occupation and adhere to the culture of the motherland on the other. In fact, studying in Paris went beyond professional training and art; some in fact studied history of art and methods of academic research like professors Bashir Al Zuhdi and Hassan Kamal, who returned to Syria to teach at the Academy of Fine Arts. Professor Abdul Aziz Alloun mentions them in his book The Turn of the Sixties in the History of Contemporary Fine Arts in Syria, where he also emphasises the impact of the French on Syrian artists citing, “the French philosopher, Renan, and his influence on the Syrian artists and the workers who accompanied him on his expedition for archaeological excavation in the city of Amrit, as well as the photographers who arrived with the French poet, Lamartine, in 1833 and stayed at Asa’ad Pasha Caravanserai in Damascus.”[3]

Syrian artists were fully aware of the need to move to Paris to be exposed to and be part of art movements, and therefore Paris began to attract an increasing number of Syrians, as explained by artist Fateh Moudarres during a meeting with Abdul Aziz Alloun in 1960, who asked him: “How do we support Arab artists and raise them to a world level?” Moudarres responded with: “To strengthen the personality of the Arab artist, international doors should be opened to him by the state (…). In brief, we must respect the freedom of the artist.  His work and capability should be studied in all conscience”[4]. [5]

[3] Abdul Aziz Alloun, Turn of the Sixties in the History of Contemporary Fine Arts in Syria, Damascus, 2003

[4] Ibid

[5] Published in issue number 284 of Sawt Al Arab newspaper in May 1960

Syrian Art in Paris - Features - Atassi Foundation

 Fateh-Moudarres, Untitled, 1998, mixed media on paper, 29 x 21 cm.


The Second Phase:

In this phase, Syria’s official educational bodies had realised the important role of art and the need to include it in a national educational curriculum, and so supported those who wished to enhance their training abroad by way of scholarship programmes. It is worth noting that the prerequisite for students who travelled to Paris (with the intention of  returning home to teach at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus) was earning a diploma from the prestigious École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts (founded in 1817). However, due to the differences in various schools and curricula, that diploma became the equivalent of a Doctorate Degree in art upon returning to Syria. According to the testimony of early graduates, that decision was taken by the artist Mahmoud Hammad (1923–1988), who was the first dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts in its new structure. Hammad had stayed for a short artist residency in Paris in 1963, during which time he identified the throbbing spirit of art and the importance of getting acquainted with art training curriculums. Some artists travelled to specialise at the École nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs (founded in 1802).

Between the 1970s and 80s, some artists returned to Damascus after graduation, including Fateh Al Moudarres (1922–1999), Sami Burhan (1929–), Khuzaima Alwani (1934–), Munzer Kamnaksh (1935–2019), Abdul Kader Arnaout (1936–1992), Ghayath Al Akhras (1937–), Nazeer Naba’a (1938–2016), Ghassan Sibai (1939–2015), Abdallah Al Sayed (1941 –), Ehsan Entabi (1945–) in the 1970s, and Mahmoud Jleilati (1949–), Yakzan Atassi (1950–), Mustapha Fathi (1942–2009) and Hammoud Shantout (1956-) – who returned to Paris recently to settle there – and Ahmad Ma’ala (1958–) in the 1980s.

Some artists recognised their aspiration to remain in Paris and settle there permanently, such as Rafif Al Rifai (1952–), Sakhr Farzat (1943–2007), Ibrahim Jalal (1947–), Ziad Dalloul (1953 -), Laila Muraywid (1956–), Maher Baroudy (1955–), Youssef Abdelke (1951–), Asaad Arabi (1941–)، Amin Al Doukhi (1949-) and Bashar Issa (1950-). As we mentioned in the introduction, the motives and circumstances that defined the fates of these artists were varied and numerous. In no way can they be considered as an emigrating cultural unit. Their artistic activities were also varied according to their individual practices. 

While the relationship between Paris and the first generation of Syrian artists was clearly manifested in their direct influence on the establishment and growth of the art scene within Syria, in addition to their role in the art education of subsequent generations, the second generation of artists started putting down roots in Paris and asserting themselves there.  Women artists faced their own hurdles within this, as embodied by the opposing experiences of Laila Muraywid and Rafif Rifai. 

Syrian Art in Paris - Features - Atassi Foundation

Laila Muraywid, A Poem That Doesn't Heal, 2018, photograph on fine art paper, 110 x 73.4 cm.

Laila Muraywid studied at the École Nationale superieure des arts decoratifs and has lived in Paris since 1981 and is a full-time artist. Muraywid did not speak French when she arrived, creating an incentive for her to explore her ability to communicate beyond the boundaries of language. In the group exhibition catalogue for Le corps decouvert (‘the body exposed’), held at the Institut du Monde Arabe in 2012, she explains: “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”. That is why we see the female body constantly present in her works. 

More recently, in 2015, Muraywid approached the world of poetry and collaborated with the poets Adonis, Etel Adnan and Vénus Khoury-Ghata in making artist books that revolved around the themes of life, death and solitude. For so long Muraywid has been experimenting without limits by making use of the photographic image or drawing or sculpture. She “deals with the world through a deep desire for renovating the concept of sculpture and its tools”, and it is possible to see how the human body itself is her medium and jewellery and dolls are a method of sculpture. From this audacity, her works are continuously produced.

Syrian Art in Paris - Features - Atassi Foundation

Rafif Rifai, Montagne, 2012, oil on canvas, 100 x 82 cm.

Then there is Rafif Rifai, who completed her studies at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris in 1980. She returned to Paris to settle there on a permanent basis just three years later. At the time, she participated in a contest organised by the French Ministry of Culture to obtain a qualification to teach plastic arts in middle and high schools, fully aware of the difficulty she faced in trying “to reconcile between teaching tasks, family and artistic research”. Ultimately, this proved difficult, and she turned to teaching. However, she was able to take advantage of “the many vacations [available in France] to devote her time to artwork away from the concerns of education.” Upon retirement, she finally was able to become a full-time artist.

Her oeuvre is divided into phases of research expressed by abstraction and personification right up to inserting ready-made items onto the portrait. In her productions, she uses collage, paper, oil colours and stickers. In 2003, she drew The Woman and the Kiln, which Rifai sees as “shaped like the uterus, the origin of life and flame, the last ultimate flame.” This word made her incorporate sand and mixed media into her artworks. Later, she integrated the army shirts as a material into her collages, which simulated “the predominance of the military in her homeland”. Soon after, this was converted into prisoner’s shirts, referring to the dualities of presence and absence. Rifai explains: “My suffering in exile and the loss of my motherland drove me to go on drawing abstract scenes where memories of scenes in Syria blend with those of my life in my French town. Thus, images of the homeland come back persistently”. 

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Sakher Farzat, Untitled, 1994, oil on canvas, 97 x 73 cm.

Other Important Artists in the Second Phase:

Sakhr Farzat moved to Paris in 1977 to settle there and work, devoting himself entirely to creative work until he passed away in 2007. Farzat had worked as a teacher at the faculties of fine arts and interior design at the University of Damascus before moving to France. During his life, his work progressed from realism to geometric abstraction and, widely exhibited throughout France, he was also inclined to introduce words written in Arabic into his paintings. Indeed, he used writing as an abstract, visual unit away from decorative calligraphy. When looking at his body of work, we also notice that he gave great importance to the title of his artworks, as if he wanted it to be a linguistic supplement to the visual side.   

Youssef Abdelke moved to Paris in 1981, where he received a PhD in plastic arts from the University of Paris Eight in 1989. He is one of the few Syrian artists who pursued theoretical studies to earn a high academic degree whilst continuously maintaining a clear artistic path. Since he settled in Paris, Abdelke’s practice has been directly related to his role as a political activist. He has remained engaged with the Arab world despite being in exile due to his political opposition to the Syrian regime, and he practiced the art of caricature early on in life and his drawings were published in Arab newspapers. His works in etching and drawing, especially still nature with its grey gradients and realistic precision, simulate the slow death of intellect and liberties in the Arab world. He continued to exhibit in the Arab world and in international biennials alongside shows in France until he returned to Syria in 2005 with a retrospective show at the famous Asa’ad Pasha Caravanserai. Today, his works are still exhibited in Parisian showrooms.

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Ziad Dalloul, Celebration of the Absents - The evening's Prelude, 2015-2016, triptych - oil on canvas, 195 x 390 cm.

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Maher Baroudi, Janus, 2012, charcoal on canvas, 38 x 46 cm.

As for the artist Ziad Dalloul, he settled in Paris since 1984 and chose to dedicate his time to his practice after spending four years in Algeria, where he contributed to the establishment of art teaching curricula for the schools there. The doors in Paris had not been open to him from the very start. The artist worked with great care and devotion until the famous gallerist Claude Bernard decided to represent him. Galerie Claude Bernard represents some of the most prominent artists in the contemporary French scene, including César Baldaccini, Jean Dubuffet and Georges Jeanclos. Undoubtedly, Dalloul’s expressive power and his extensive culture constituted the entryway to this well-deserved status, with works that breathe the soul of impressionism before superseding it to touch the frontiers of personal memory. Dalloul’s connection with the Arab world continued via many connections, included training sessions in workshops, of which the most significant were the those conducted at Darat Al Funun in Amman.

Maher Baroudy did not continue living in Paris once he finished his studies at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts. One of the most prominent Syrian sculptors, he has been living in Lyon since 1980 where he has been working as a teacher at the School Émile Cohl since 1996 [an art school]. His artistic activity veers between sculpture and painting and etching. Baroudy remained in contact with the Arab world through forums and exhibitions. In his works, he presents a vision that criticises social hypocrisy and political militarisation, characterised by using a sheep’s face to represent humanity. 

Syrian Art in Paris - Features - Atassi Foundation

Ibrahim Jalal, The Great Jazz, 2010, oil on canvas, 165 x 150 cm.

Ibrahim Jalal has lived in Paris since 1974, where he studied at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts. He continues his path in abstract art, experimenting with several elements. Even though he was coached in the French abstraction of Paul Klee, he is still inclined to customise his expression, influenced by his memories of his father’s profession as weaver. In his childhood, he was surrounded by fabrics and heritage inscriptions. His eye is trained to the juxtaposition of colours in an abstract way. As with many artists, Jalal’s path as a full-time artist was not easy and for several years, he faced the strain of finding a place suitable for his work until he settled in the Parisian suburbs, where his atelier is located today.

In considering these experiences, what is clear is that amongst the many reasons that artists were driven to live in Paris in these decades, the seeking of fame or material gain was not the main desire, but rather, to be liberated, whether intellectually, socially or politically. In most of their experiences, we detect emotional links and a visual memory close to Syria as well as concerns associated with the everyday realities of the Syrian community. The shape of these links will differ with the next generation.

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Randa Maddah, In View: Occupied Golan Heights, 2017, Video.

The Young Generation:

This is a group of young people who travelled to Paris study art or to engage in its artistic scene. Some arrived before 2011, like Khaled Takriti, Firas Jabakhanji, Buthaina Ali, Nagham Hudaifa, Ula Abdallah, Walaa Dakkak. Those who came after 2011 include Khaled Al Khani, Khaled Dawwa, Alaa Abou Shahin, Randa Maddah, Walid El Masri, Bissan Al Charif, Dino Ahmad Ali, Omar Ibrahim and Reem Yassouf. Most of them were born in the 1980s and some in the 70s and many moved to Paris already as adults who had completed their art education or to pursue post-graduation studies, in addition to the youth who came specifically to begin their art studies, like Keem Talla, Lina Smoudi and Omar Nusairat. Even though the year 2011 is a crucial date in the life of Syrians and the fate of their country, marking as it does the onset of the Syrian revolution and its consequent events, changes and distortions, the artists listed here are not defined by this date.

Other articles in this issue will shed light on some of their experiences but this irony must be briefly noted: The difficulties facing Syrians today are numerous and diverse. Their sufferings are intense and their roads are rough. And yet, due to the very fact that the name of Syria has become almost synonymous with the idea of a country subjected to the most violent war, this has created an inquisitiveness and desire to become acquainted with Syrian art as Syrian artists have been thrust into the international spotlight. No doubt this ‘desire’ has been excessively exploited at times, whether by institutions or by Syrian artists themselves.

The Role of Institutions and Galleries:

As in all artistic movements starting in the early 20th century, cultural institutions play a big role in promoting and enhancing or thwarting creative artistic work. This of course also­­­­­­­ applies to the production of Syrian artists in Paris – and there have been numerous Syrian artists represented by galleries there, or even Parisian galleries whose owners are of Arab origin.

First, however, the role of official institutions should be noted. As a matter of fact, whoever follows the artistic scene in Syria will remember immediately a cultural environment that was very effective in Damascus, namely The French Cultural Center. It served as a kind of gateway to Paris for Syrian artists, such as Sabhan Adam, whose works found their way to Paris through the solo exhibitions made available to him by the centre. The centre also constituted the first threshold for young people who studied the French language there. Unfortunately, on the other hand, the Culture Centre Arabe Syrien was not quite as constructive to the growth of Syrian artistic movement. Even though it hosted numerous exhibitions, its role and its effect have remained limited, focused more on administrative procedures rather than opening horizons to artists.

Of the most prominent institutions have been the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Institut des Cultures d’Islam, yet few exhibitions have been dedicated solely to Syrian art and instead mostly presented the productions of Arab artists in general in group exhibitions. The most outstanding example of s Syrian art exhibition in Paris was perhaps the exhibition of Fateh Moudarres in 1997 at the Institut du Monde Arabe, organised by the Atassi Gallery, to shed light on his remarkable experience. This event had a significant impact on introducing Moudarres to France, even though he had never lived there.

There are also Arab-owned galleries such as Claude Lemand, Marc Hashem and Europa, in addition to the French galleries that have represented artists for continuous periods such as the aforementioned Galerie Claude Bernard (which represents Ziad Dalloul) and Imane Fares, who represents Laila Muraywid. Furthermore, the significant role of these galleries was not confined to locally-based exhibitions and promotion, but they have also represented artists in major annual Parisian events such as the Art Paris art fair and Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain, exhibiting the works of Youssef Abdelke, Khaled Takriti, Ziad Dalloul, Laila Nseir, Sabhan Adam and others. Over the past few decades, these galleries have displayed artists not necessarily living in Paris in an effort to establish links between Syrian artists and Paris, the capital sought by artists from all over the world.

In the years following 2011, Syrian art in Paris witnessed an even stronger presence and more significant representation through the powerful activity by young artists with their diverse media of expression and their active engagement as part of a global art movement. Their works demonstrated the ability to be present and to compete. One such initiative that demonstrates this was Caravan Culturelle Syrienne, established in Paris in 2014. It was launched with the intention of roaming to French cities for the purpose of introducing Syrian art across the country. Another similar initiative, Portes Ouvertes, was established in 2017 in partnership between French and Syrian women. The project started by opening the doors of Syrian artists’ ateliers to the French public. Despite challenging circumstances – including bad weather, lack of heating and remote locations – the initiative was an immense success and culminated in a seminar. The project continued in the form of exhibitions dedicated to Syrian artists and ended up in open galleries free from the categorisation of identities; galleries that brought together Syrians and other artists residing in Paris.

The Role of Critique and Documentation:

Finally, it is important to consider the role of critique and documentation. In reality, documenting Syrian artistic production and dating, appraising and theorising it are all under-developed practices. This applies to a great extent to Syrian artists in Paris. At first it must be said that since the beginnings of plastic arts in Syria, there have been no official art critics, as elsewhere in the world. Instead, artists themselves fill this role, through their encouragement of discussion and dialogue. Reference should be made to some rare Syrian textual publications that have addressed Syrian artists living in Paris, among others. One such publication is Contemporary Art in Syria published by Atassi Gallery in 1998 and The Turn of the Sixties in the History of Contemporary Fine Arts in Syria by Abdul Aziz Alloun (2003) and financed by Mohamad Da’adoush, the founder of the first art gallery in Syria in 1960, the International Modern Art Gallery, as well as some documentary films.

Syrian Art in Paris - Features - Atassi Foundation

Asaad Arabi, Mourning, 1997, oil on canvas, 46 x 27 cm.

Asaad Orabi exemplifies a rare case in the Syrian scene of a researcher artist who continues to practice specialised writing, with a huge interest in Syrian art.[6] He also taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus and held many exhibitions there. Orabi studied fine arts in Paris then specialised in theory until he received a PhD with a major in the science of beauty and sciences of art in 1987 from Sorbonne University. By virtue of his residence in Paris, he is closely informed on the events that are held there and which he periodically writes about in newspapers like Al Hayat and Diffa Thaltha. In his book Al Musawwer fi Mira’t Al Naked  (‘The Artist in the Mirror of the Critic’), published by Sharjah Biennial in (1997), he asks essential questions that touch upon the core of our topic, such as: “Why are the shows of diaspora artists spaced out in their own countries? They come to us as segments isolated from what preceded them and what will follow them. Doesn’t this intermittency instill the character of alienation? Especially when the novelty of evolution is accelerating; carrying in every show astonishing, if not shocking, doses even for a trained recipient?”[7] Orabi in his review of Arab art also addresses the bureaucracy of institutions and the difficulty in moving between the inside and the outside, and talks of other questions related to intellectual discourses– such as prohibition and withdrawal (as discussed earlier in this essay). He also tackles the power of art critique, and its role in supporting artists and promoting talent. Some of those young researcher-artists include:  Nagham Hudaifa, Ula Abdallah and Mohamad Omran as experts in the theories and history of art, as well as myself, Nour Asalia, author of this article.


[6] Asaad Arabi is considered part of the Syrian plastic art movement although he is originally Lebanese and has the French nationality in view of his long period of work in France.

[7] Asa’ad Arabi, The Artist in the Mirror of the Critic, The third Sharjah International Biennial for the Arts, 1997.

I would also like to cite one of the important events that have sought to enhance the overall image of Syrian art, the conference L'art contemporain syrien, histoire d'une révolution visuelle (‘Contemporary Syrian Art: History of a Visual Revolution’), organised by Portes Ouvertes at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, which provided an image of Syrian art production in collaboration with researchers, gallery owners and exhibition curators. Elsewhere, the website Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution aims to document, impartially, the greatest possible number of works by Syrian artists, including those living in Paris.

I would like to conclude this essay with the response of Veronique Rieffel, the former director of the Institut des Cultures d’Islam in Paris. Her writings and her role as exhibitions’ organiser concentrated on art in the Middle East and Africa. When we asked her, “How do you see the Syrian artistic scene in Paris?” she replied:

“For so long, I have been interested in the Syrian contemporary art scene. I am better informed about this scene which I discovered during the four visits that I paid to Syria before the revolution: The Museum of Modern Art, the old Jewish quarter which many artists chose to live in, ‘Damascus Capital of Arabic Culture’ and others. For a long time, this country has greatly intrigued me because the art of living exists everywhere in it; not only in the field of art but also in life, in the manner of existence and in daily events. Of course, in some way, the revolution forced many Syrian artists to go to Paris and Berlin and other places so as to survive and pursue their artwork. This allowed greater closeness and passion by a wider audience (though still limited) in order to learn about the wealth of the contemporary Syrian art”.



It is important we define the terms and concepts that will form the basis of our current study, for the purposes of both clarification and conformity, particularly in light of the intricacies of translation [Editor’s note: this essay was originally written in Arabic. You can read the original here]. Most of the terminology related to art was initiated by European thinkers and theorists, due to the fact that most contemporary artistic movements originated and developed in their countries. The term ‘plastic arts’ may seem intuitive at first, yet to this day remains a topic of discussion in the West. Furthermore, there is the difficulty of finding the exact matches for these terms in the Arabic language. We shall not embark on a detailed investigation here, but understanding the practical usage of a term starts with searching for it in its language of origin. In brief, the word plastic (tashkili) was translated into Arabic from the French word plastique (itself from the Latin plasticus, ‘to be molded’). The use of the latter in an art-specific context can be traced, according to the ‘Lexicon of Cannes University’ for the origins of words and their synonyms’ to the 16th century, when it was used to describe artistic procedures that accompanied architecture, as elements that could be shaped and adapted to take on an aesthetic artistic form. However, it was not until the 18th century that the term ‘plastic arts’ as we understand it became prolific. The first to theorize the classification of arts in this manner was the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1927–1804) through the German term bildende kunst which was translated into French in several iterations: ‘plastic arts’, ‘visual arts’ and ‘fine arts’. Fine arts would be anything achieved by human creativity in relation to the values of beauty; visual arts as productions perceived by the sense of sight; and plastic arts are all manual products conducive to an artistic form. We shall surpass the considerations of some critics that it is possible to include video art in the field of plastic arts and adopt instead the specialties in etching, sculpting, painting in its various forms and installation art as what we will address in this essay.

As for the expression ‘Syrian art’, it is not meant as a category that expresses a certain direction, trend or movement, but rather, to indicate the production of a group of artists who emerged from one geography; Syria, their motherland. We cannot feel the identity of Syrian art in the sense that it encompasses the production of certain groups, even though the scene did witness an effort to form intellectual affinities like ‘The group of ten’[8] in 1972. What we can define as an art linked to a country or a nation or a people is that which relies on inherited visual vocabulary that expresses the culture of the inhabitants of a place or the moves made by a group of artists who belong to a specific geography with a view to change. It would thus be the birth of a new intellect unlike any other and so it is attributed to them. We can for example distinguish the features of Spanish art, European art, Pharaonic art or even the arts of ancient Syrian civilizations.  We can easily distinguish the statues of the Kingdom of Mary from those of the Palmyra civilisation. Today, we can foresee artistic features that combine the works of young artists through certain junctions. However, these junctions are still linked to the reality of war and its vocabulary and not to the core of artistic trends. This fact is not poignant because it is closely related to the face of contemporary art today.

[8] An art gathering set up by the artists themselves, which included Nazeer  Naba’a, Naim Ismail, Abdel Kader Arnaout, Ghayath Al Akhras, Nashat Al Zo’obi, Elias Zayyat, Ahmad Darak Sibai, Asa’ad Arabi, Khuzaima Alwani and Ghassan Al Siba’i. This gathering was formed as a cultural movement aiming at strengthening the role of artists and collaboration among themselves.