“Damascus art gallery ignites Syrian culture war,” By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

Damascus art gallery ignites Syrian culture war
Wed Oct 13, 2010
By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

Arab master painter Youssef Abdelke shows one of his latest works at his atelier in Damascus September 23, 2010. A duel between Abdelke, who had spend two years as a political prisoner, and a banker-turned gallery owner, who helped introduce modern Arab art to international markets, has divided Syria’s conservative art world. The picture taken on September 23, 2010. REUTERS/ Khaled al-Hariri (SYRIA)

DAMASCUS Oct 7 (Reuters) – A banker-turned-gallery-owner has ignited a ‘cultural war’ in Syria’s conservative art world with an aggressive drive to introduce contemporary Arab art to lucrative international markets.

The row… strikes at the heart of the Damascus art world, pitching an intellectual tradition forged by the political and social turmoil of the last four decades against a more apolitical, western-oriented commercial ethos.

Youssef Abdelke, whose etchings and charcoal paintings depict an era of Arab political malaise, says the flamboyant owner of the Ayyam Gallery, Khaled Samawi,is selling substandard work at high prices. This, he argues, lowers quality throughout the Middle East and threatens what established artists and veteran gallerists consider serious art. The 60-year-old artist, who counts the British Museum among collectors of his works, left Ayyam last year in protest.

…. Fadi Yazigi, whose works have been also auctioned internationally, left the gallery shortly after Abdelke. The third major artist to leave was Mouneer al-Shaarani….

Established Damascene galleries say that Ayyam has inflated prices by building up a large collection, limiting supply and marketing unknown artists to undiscerning Gulf clients….

Samawi disputes Abdelke’s accusations and says Syrian art was undervalued before his entry to the gallery scene in 2006……

The Ayyam gallery’s aggressive marketing strategy has included expansion in Beirut and Dubai and selling through the international auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, exposing Syrian art to a wider audience.

The debate escalated last month after a provocative YouTube video showed a newspaper article by Abdelke being burnt. In the article the painter accuses Samawi of peddling art as a commodity.

The video was made by Ammar al-Beik, one of the young artists Ayyam is marketing as a contemporary artist — a contrast to the more socially critical generation of Abdelke.

70-year old painter Leila Nseir sided with Samawi, saying Ayyam had marketed her work professionally and awarded her long overdue recognition as an Arab pioneer.

Nseir was a contemporary of the late Syrian master Fateh al-Moudarres, who sold his paintings for $300 to $1,000 up until his death in 1999. His works now fetch almost $200,000.

Sussan Babaie, art professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, said it was understandable established artists would feel “discomfort with Ayyam as the purveyor of a life-style category” that mimics Western galleries…. “My colleagues in the West mockingly look at much of this art and think of it as derivative…all rather old hat.”

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