The Archive of the Mother Artist

Right before I enrolled at the Fine Art Academy in Damascus, I was present at the opening of a sculpture exhibition for my father Jamil Kasha at C Art Gallery in Lattakia in 2014. An old woman in her late seventies showed up to the opening, walking elegantly and with immense poise. She drew the attention of almost everybody upon entering the space, and all greeted her with apparent appreciation. She toured the exhibition accompanied by my father and the gallerist Shadi Nseir – a relative of hers – commenting on the works and providing valuable feedback. This lady was none other than the artist Laila Nseir.

I became curious about this character and wanted to know her closely. And then, for the first time, I had a look at her works at the studio of my dear friend Shadi Nseir, who talked to me extensively about the artist Laila Nseir, whom he considered his aunt. Later on, I asked the Nseir family friend and photographer Ilian Shakkour to accompany me on a visit to her own studio, after he had also spoken to me a lot about her. Shakkour arranged the visit, and within a few days, we commenced our journey of discovery to the house where the artist worked and lived.

That was the first visit in a series of many. In one of our encounters, Nseir talked openly about her illness, pain and the need to travel to Beirut for treatment at the Hôtel-Dieu de France hospital. She explained to me how her dire financial situation was an obstacle, and that she was waiting on the sale of some of her works to be able to afford the treatment and medication she needed.

Out of desire to support her, I suggested sending photos of her works to several collectors and acquaintances. Nseir accepted, but had strict conditions, namely insisting on a no-negotiation policy regarding the price. The effort succeeded, and four paintings were sold. Nseir was, therefore, able to travel to Beirut for treatment.

Upon her return from Lebanon, she invited me for lunch and a painting session at her place. Our relationship grew stronger, and the visits became more regular. Over time, Nseir became dependent on me in helping her with both daily and professional matters. She grew into a mother figure and a mentor for me, especially after my family was forced to leave Syria. She always said, and wrote in her poetry: “I feel an overwhelming sense of motherhood!”. In our sessions, she talked extensively about herself as a human and an artist.

Nseir enrolled at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo in the early 1960s, and courageously ventured into experimentation on both stylistic and technical levels. She commenced with realism and then surrealism in 1965, after which she also worked in minimalism. In the search for her own artistic style, and according to her, she experimented with abstract expressionism in her first exhibition organised in Damascus, in 1973, before then fully immersing herself in expressionism. She engaged in extensive research and experimented with line art, a genre that became characteristic of her oeuvre. The result of all this research was unique works in which she employed various line forms: real lines, simplified lines, or curved. In addition to pioneering oil pastel as a medium in Syria, as well as printing, these became genres she became fully immersed in.

She talked to me about her humanitarian concerns, which were manifested regularly in her oeuvre. She mainly tackled the pains of human, portraying poverty, starvation, homelessness, and the plight of peasants and of the world’s broken souls: she drew wars and humanitarian catastrophes from all over the world. She even addressed the Vietnam war, which she followed closely through the press. Nseir also portrayed the Beirut war, even travelling to the battle fronts to examine events firsthand and draw soldiers in Lebanon and then Palestine.

Nseir always felt under-appreciated, officially, in Syria as a prominent artist. Due to her rich intellectual mindset and outstanding artistic character, I became more and more eager to contribute in some way to grant her the appreciation she so deserves, through documenting her archive, work, and career. For me, Laila Nseir was an invaluable human revelation. To my continued astonishment, I have uncovered new and interesting discoveries about her and a life full of tragedies, pain and sharp criticism.

This is how the idea of bringing together her archive was born. Nseir herself was also interested in this venture, and as of 2016, she collected articles, documents and photographs. We sorted them together, and luckily, she was extremely organised in collecting and maintaining her archive. We continued with this mission until 2019 sorting out the contents of her studio and house in Lattakia.

Nseir’s small studio in Damascus remains unchartered territory. We had no idea what kind of archive it contained. Back then, in 2019, Laila suffered a pelvic fracture and was hospitalised. She called to inform me that the landlord had broken into the property and would get rid of her belongings. I directly called Siba Al-Ali, an old friend of Nseir’s who has also been a great support for the artist all over the years. Al-Ali visited the studio and tried to salvage part of the content. When I arrived, I found everything packed in garbage bags ready to be thrown away! Luckly, we acted before the landlord was able to do lasting damage.

In addition to collecting the studio’s contents and documentation, I gathered all available TV interviews with Nseir in the archive of the General Organization of Radio and TV in Syria. I also conducted extensive interviews with her, resulting in over 100 hours of audio recordings documenting her career and life in Egypt and Syria (between Damascus and Latakia). Moreover, I scanned all her artworks currently present in Syria at galleries, private collections and in the archives of the Fine Arts Syndicate, Ministry of Culture and various museums in Damascus. Finally, I typeset with Wadie Atfe many of her poems, short stories and a theatre play.

The current archive covers her extensive professional career, from beginning from 1958 with her student phase until she ceased drawing and painting in the year 2022. There are also some linear drawings Nseir worked on during her eventual stay in the nursing home, marking an end to an exceptional career in art and creativity.

As the archive is in need of professional treatment and a systematic and academic approach, I have felt a huge responsibility towards it, and out of eagerness for it to reach safe hands, I took the initiative to bequeath a full digital copy to the Atassi Foundation for Art and Culture. I, hereby, would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to the Foundation and its team.         

Ahmad Kasha

Translated by Basel Jbaily

The Archives of Leila Nseir - MASA Collections - Atassi Foundation

Leila Nseir with Hussein Bikar, Rabia Alsolh and Ghazi Alkhaldi Egypt, 1963

Technical Report

Within the Atassi Foundation’s Modern Art of Syria Archive (MASA) project, we hereby publish the archives of the Syrian artist Leila Nseir (1941–2023).

Based on recorded oral consent by the artist in presence of poets Monzer Amasri and Maher Alraai, and young artist Wadie Atfe, the archive of Leila Nseir was sent to us by the young Syrian artist Ahmad Kasha, who became a spiritual son to Nseir over the last decade of her life. Motivated by our common goals of documenting and promoting Syrian art, Kasha collated and scanned all the documents included in this archive.

We received digitally nearly 700 documents, of which 478 have been included in this release. The rest has been excluded for either being unpublishable, duplicated, incomplete, or due to conflicting copyrights.

This archive is mostly in the Arabic language and is divided into seven main folders: Press clippings (178), Documents (12), Exhibition materials (21), Letters (3), Photos (226), Writings (15), Recordings (23 - available upon request)

The archive draws a complete profile of a personal and intellectual life dedicated fully to art. In the articles about Nseir – most of which were published in local Syrian newspapers – as well as in 43 interviews with her, Nseir expresses her views regarding general topics. She discussed societal issues, political matters, as well as artistic debates, and showed a strong belief in the notion that art is inseparable from society. Thus, she painted it, and painted for it.

Her works tackled issues such as wars, like her two paintings entitled Vietnam (1966) and Racism (1965), both presented at the travelling Syrian exhibition in Europe in 1986. In interviews, Nseir discussed existential questions, the creative and professional concerns of Syrian artists, and the gap between them and the audience. In one such interview in 1980 she stated that the “artist belongs to a certain era, class, and nation.”

Nseir also expressed her views on abstract tendencies in Syria, art criticism, the necessity to experiment, and freedom in art practices. She also reflected upon feminist topics: “I have not got married due to my overwhelming sense of motherhood” (1983), and articulated her opinions in other instances as a matter of socio-political commitment, for example attributing the scarcity of females artists to the fact that the “outperforming woman suffers from the sadism of the man” (1989).

The documents of this archive also trace the artist’s solo and group exhibitions, namely those organised within Syria. It should be noted that exhibition booklets do mention the dates of her solo and group exhibitions abroad – Moscow, Sofia, Paris, Budapest, Rabat, Kuwait and Baghdad – the archive, however, does not include any material from such shows.

Through her various exhibitions, Nseir’s feminist approach resurfaces regularly, and this becomes clear from the list of group exhibitions such as Arab Woman and Art Creativity, organized by the Fine Arts Syndicate in Damascus and in collaboration with the General Union of Syrian Women in 1975 and an exhibition of the works of female artists Leila Nseir, Asma Fayoumi, Greta Alwani and Shalabiya Ibrahim co-organised by the Bulgarian Cultural Centre and the Fine Arts Syndicate in Damascus in 1984. Nseir was also involved in the art criticism scene and published a research paper about her career and that of other female artists, entitled ‘Contribution of Syrian Female artists in the Syrian Plastic Art’ on the occasion of an exhibition held at Baladna Art Gallery in the Jordanian capital of Amman in 1996.

A prominent document in this archive the ‘The Notebook of Poetry and Sculpture’, which she completed between the years 1969 and 1972, into which she included poetic diaries, short stories and sketches for sculptures.

The sketches were not pictorial descriptions of the writings, but rather independent drawings showcasing Nseir’s sculptural vision, and highlighting the influences of local civilisations on her work. Also evident in these sketches are her endeavours to show the mass of the material, the fines shades of shadow, and the bright light.

Her poetry is written in free verse and shows a Baudelaire-like tendency. Amony the recurrent images are gouged out eyes, rats, scaleless fish, flowers without petals, graves, silence and blackness. She talks about the hardships of life, as well as stories of love and solitude. Nseir wrote on 29 July 1970:

Leaves are falling

My eyes are bloody

for the remains of a flower

plucked every day



by piece.

In another section dated 11 December 1970, she wrote:

The small fish is imprisoned

and the sky is raining fish

to fill the hole

with fish

without scales

the surface of the hole

is glittering

with gouged out eyes

and on the edge

new scales grow


The photographs portion of the archive comprises the following sub-folders:

- 1960s: Personal and general photography related to professional meetings and encounters.

- Cairo, early 1960s: Photography documenting her years of study in Cairo along with her peers.

- Exhibitions: A non-exhaustive photographic record of some of her exhibitions, with Nseir appearing alongside the audience and other artists.

- Portraits: Personal photos of her across the years from 1959 till 2008.

- Miscellaneous


Despite the importance of this archive, especially the intellectually-rich press clippings, we need to stress the fact that this archive is not comprehensive, as some documents are still in Syria and have not yet been scanned. These comprise mostly letters, exhibition materials, drafts for short stories and scripts for plays, which we will process and add to the archive once received. There are also video recordings to be processed, which we have already received. However, we opted not to delay the publication of the archive as our original plan was to release it before her death. Laila Nseir, however, departed us before being able to witness our appreciation and admiration.

Translated by Basel Jbaily

The Archives of Leila Nseir - MASA Collections - Atassi Foundation

Details from "Notebook of drawing and sculpture" by Leila Nseir, 1969-1972