SYRIA ART WORLD CHANGES CENSORSHIP
Ayyam Gallery agent Sharon Othman claims “Syria is moving toward a very bright future.” Hers is, however, the only positive comment in The New York Times’ November feature on the state of the Syrian art and design. Reporter Michael Kimmelman claims Damascus has two approaches to art, and neither is promising to its artists.
The first face of Syria is the one that “lately has been making the pages of glossy lifestyle magazines and art-world tip sheets.” With its “leafy neighbourhoods” and “crumbling housing developments giv[ing] way to gated embassies and idling BMWs,” it affords tourists precisely the required dose of antiquity and exoticism without excessive reality getting in the way.
Tourist presence in Syria has indeed grown. Atassi gallery owner Mouna Atassi reports that this past decade has seen “tremendous new interest from collectors in the Gulf and in the West and the arrival of big money shaping what people here make and sell.” This, she claims, has transformed the previously middle-class, tightly-knit and intellectually ambitious Syrian art world into a profit-obsessed entity concerned mainly with “tourist consumption and a few rich Syrians.”
Painter Youssef Abdelke concurs. He believes Syrian artists are pushed to cater to nouveau riche Arabs and tend to avoid more controversial issues such as Syrian politics or identity. For if they did, they would run into the representatives of the Syria’s other face, its “omnipresent censors.” “The authorities are still controlling everything,” says Abdelke. Censorship has only worsened since the advent of the World Wide Web, according to Syrian artists. “Every book, art catalog, film script and television program, big or small, still runs a gauntlet of government censors,” writes Kimmelman. Sharon Othman has also experienced censorship. Ayyam Gallery “couldn’t publish some of its fancy catalogs here [in Damas], because the nudes in them didn’t pass muster with Syria’s censors.”
Censorship manifests itself in other ways, too. Thirty-year-old playwright Ousama Ghanam explains that most performing arts in Syria are still state-sponsored, and that the state favours “populist, uncontroversial fare.” There is thus little funding left for more ambitious and challenging artwork.
Most destructive to the art world is the uneven standards applied by the Syrian censors. Novelist Rosa Yassin Hassan describes their consequences in no uncertain terms: “Two people write about the same thing, and one is imprisoned today, the other not. That sends a message, I believe. It is done on purpose to increase fear and apprehension.”
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- Female Middle Eastern artists trendy thanks to Shirin Neshat – December 2008 – is contemporary Middle Eastern Art the next big thing? – Time Out