BEIRUT: To summarize a country’s culture production in a single exhibition may seem a whimsical enterprise, but Damascene gallerist Samer Kozah is taking a stab at it this week at Artheum, which is currently hosting the first annual Syria Contemporary Art Fair.
Kozah says the aim of the fair is to show “how the theme of Syrian art looks at this moment.” Along with a jury consisting of gallerist and sculptor Mustafa Ali, painter Edward Shahda and sculptor and painter Fadi Yazigi, Kozah selected four galleries (his own and Ali’s included) and 38 independent artists (including Yazigi and Shahda) to take part in the fair.
There were no specific selection criteria.
“Any Syrian artist can participate,” he says, “but we need the jury to select the value of the work. 70 percent and up it’s okay for the quality.”
The result is mixed, at best.
Artheum is a versatile space and has transformed itself once again for this fair, with the large hall divided into a series of rooms centered around a seating area and small bar. Four rooms have been set aside for the galleries; the independent artists are grouped according to an unclear system, with some assigned a separate wall or room, while others are clustered together.
Divided into “established” and “emerging,” the artists are for the most part showing sculpture and painting, with the exception of two series of black-and-white photos and a lone piece of video art.
Houssen Soufan’s work captures a nude woman, arranged in a variety of aesthetically pleasing and occasionally startling poses. Michel Chaccour’s straightforward but nicely composed photographs of children playing and livestock bleeding were shot in the souks and alleys of Aleppo and Damascus during Eid al-Adha.
The Mustafa Ali Gallery Art Foundation – established in 1999 to support young artists – is exhibiting a minimalist series of three wooden heads, sculpted by Ali himself.
The Samer Kozah Gallery, Art Residence Aley and Tajalliyat have a slightly broader selection of pieces on show. Tajalliyat’s includes some of Ahmad Moualla’s smaller calligraphic abstracts. Kozah is showing some beautiful bronze sculptures by Maysan Salman; displaying a masterful sense of poise and balance, these depict paired figures in motion, falling toward or away from one another.
Unfortunately, this exhibition does not display all of the works to their best advantage. Salman’s sculptures are beautifully mounted and lit. Opposite Salman’s pieces on the floor, meanwhile, two wonderful works by Alaa Abou Shaheen – a rooster and a donkey, each welded from jagged pieces of scrap metal – stand completely unlit, likely to be under-appreciated if not overlooked completely.
The sole video work, Kurdish artist Khadija Baker’s five-minute-long “Syrian Wedding,” promises a welcome variation in medium. The work (which also grazes on YouTube) is a visceral stop-motion animation involving human hair and limbs dancing behind the draped opacity of a mesh wedding veil.
During Wednesday’s opening night, unfortunately, the room set aside for the projection of “Syrian Wedding” offered nothing but a static projection of a black screen – Kozah speculates that someone forgot to press “play” after the first run through. In the event that organizers master the complexities of looping the video for the remainder of the fair, Baker’s work should be one of the more interesting pieces on show.
Additional problems stem from some eccentric inclusions – among them a stand in the middle of the hall dedicated to Kozah’s wife’s jewelry.
“We had a very big place for jewelry in Damascus,” Kozah explains, “and I give her a small space to show her work because she has many customers in Lebanon, so they can come to visit her. But this is out of the art fair absolutely and is not in the catalogue or anything.”
The gallerist describes the jewelry stall as “a facility,” like a library or a bar, but it further adds to the sense that the fair’s curatorial criteria are whimsical at best, haphazard at worst.
The quality of the work varies hugely – presumably between 70 and 100 percent quality. Among the pieces by artists designated “emerging” are several interesting works. Fadi al-Hamwi’s monochrome paintings of a human skull are grim but powerful, as is a skeletal cow, encased in a womblike sack outlining where the flesh and udders should be.
Next to these works hang two colorful, chaotic mixed-media collages by Heba Al Akkad, the antithesis of Hamwi’s black-and-white paintings but equally appealing, filled with a childlike sense of fun in experimenting with color and medium.
The brightly colored facade hides darker themes. One piece captures a rotund man, his rounded belly created from strips of Arabic newspaper, clutching a gun made from strips of colored paper and patterned fabric. He points this weapon at a tree behind which, half hidden behind a layer of netting, plays a mother with her children.
“Established” artists Mohammad Omran and Rasha Jaber also stand out. Omran’s several bronzes and lone painting capture a series of animals and human figures without legs, seated on wheeled contraptions that give them limited mobility. Jaber’s series of colorful portraits includes a tableau of faces from which rivulets of color trickle, marking the canvas with vertical lines.
While there is certainly some interesting work on display, many of Syria’s better-known artists are nowhere to be seen at this Syrian Contemporary Art Fair, and the uneven deployment of the work doesn’t do justice to those who have chosen to participate. While some walls seem overcrowded, other rooms are left completely empty, or display just three works. The way artists are grouped is often baffling.
Given the large community of Syrian artists now based in Lebanon due to the conflict at home, an art fair of their own is a timely and valuable thing. The Artheum team has done a commendable job of partitioning the sizable venue, but the use of the space feels poorly thought out. Before the next such event is staged, these problems will need to be addressed.
“The Syrian Contemporary Art Fair” is up at Artheum in Karantina until Oct. 9. For more information, please call 78-940-041.