Curator Abir Boukhari of AllArtNow, Damascus talks to Tobias Collier, recent Delfina artist-in-residence in Damascus.
Abir Boukhari runs AllArtNow, a pioneering contemporary art space down a quiet back street in the Old City of Damascus. Her project is unique in Syria, where contemporary art is not widely known. She recently curated ‘Magnetism’, an exhibition of installation art by Syrian and international artists.
TC: How did you start AllArtNow?
AB: In the beginning we did not have a space, we were only two sisters who wanted to do something for the arts and to show artworks, but when we started to go out and participate in exhibitions, we noticed what was lacking in the art scene here.
[Abir established the initiative with her sister Nisrin Boukhari, an artist].
Thus, we started to develop our skills and to learn, partly through participating in short courses. I believe that if we want to support artists, we should create a space where they can get to know what is happening around the world. I think if we want to develop the arts, we should give artists the opportunity to connect with the art scene now. Our initiative was launched as a reaction to the disorganisation in the art industry and the limited possibilities in this field in Syria.
Artists face many problems in Syria. There are many negative stereotypes about artists and the art industry. For Syrian society, working in art means being useless, crazy, immoral or a freak. There is a lack of art critics available to help the public interpret artworks and a limited availability of resources such as art books and DVDs.
Art entrepreneurs usually don’t come from art backgrounds and have no chance of developing their skills. Often they own galleries where they show solo or group exhibitions, but they don’t organise projects with supporting curatorial concepts. There is a lack of art organisations and sponsors to fund art activities and there is a limited choice of specialist spaces equipped for exhibitions.
In the face of all these problems, something positive made us continue: in Syria we have enthusiastic artists who insist on working in art, in spite of all the difficulties they have found. So we decided to begin from zero, maybe some day our work will encourage other groups to take the same way.
TC: How long have you been running the space AllArtNow?
AB: I have run the space for only one year and five months. But AllArtNow was founded in 2005 as a private initiative that focuses on young Syrian artists.
TC: Can you give me any history of AllArtNow? How many shows have there been? What artists have worked with you?
AB: Independently we organised our first activity at the 14th Istanbul Art Fair ‘Artist’ in 2005, when we showed work by five Syrian artists. Since then we have successfully organised many activities, including showing at the Istanbul ‘Artist’ again in 2006. We have also organised workshops to develop the traditional arts and art skills for children.
In 2008 we curated the first independent project for contemporary art in Syria – ‘Here I Stand’, in collaboration with Swiss curator Rayelle Niemann. The show was sponsored by the Swiss Embassy and featured artists from Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Another first last year was a graffiti workshop held at our space and directed by artist Joost Eshuis from the Last Plak group in the Netherlands. We also organised ‘Out of the Circle’, an exhibition of artists from Egypt and Syria at the Cultural Palace in Damascus. Meanwhile our artist Iman Hasabi won first prize at the Canadian Biennial for Miniature Art.
In February this year we organised the first video festival in Syria, featuring 125 artists from 41 countries. One of our partners was the ‘Les Instants’ video festival, Marseilles. We have organised solo exhibitions for young Syrian artists. This year we supported the first solo exhibition of talented artist Muhammad Ali, in collaboration with the French Cultural Institute.
We believe that development will come by working with other partners and exchanging experiences. Day after day we were convinced that we must benefit from each experience to give artists the right opportunities to flourish. We have succeeded in encouraging artists to work in contemporary art forms. This is especially difficult because in Syria we have only academic arts faculties and art students do not learn anything about contemporary art. As a result of our work, some of our artists have realised video works and participated in festivals and workshops around the world.
We have succeeded in finding a hall for lessons, a small workshop for AllArtNow staff, a small space for traditional arts and an old Damascene house that is in need to restoration, which we decided to use as an informal art space.
TC: What are your interests and ambitions for the space?
AB: I hope to create an independent space for contemporary art and to renovate the house to make a residency space. This would enable us to host artists from abroad and to send our artists to other countries to exchange ideas. I believe in learning from others by getting to know them and working with them. Thus we will continue with the same method of development and cooperation with organisations in Syria and abroad. Our next steps include working to enlarge our network and to build good relations with new organisations, by attending exhibitions and workshops.
We would also like to establish permanent resources to fund our activities and staff. We want to be able to host young Syrian artists in our workshops and organize their first solo exhibitions. I hope to be able to make this space an open space to show artwork in progress. We want to define and support contemporary Syrian art, especially installation and video art. To do this we want to create a studio equipped with cameras, computers and spotlights to give artists the opportunity to study film, photography and video art. We want to organise monthly screenings as well as interventions and exhibitions in our space. We also want to develop more programmes for children and the traditional arts.
TC: How is it running a non profit space in Syria?
AB: It’s not easy to find funding to run this space but up to now I have been working as a volunteer and the space was given by my family. I have small resources from selling traditional art, graphic design and photography. For each project I try to find funding.
TC: Is there an audience for the kind of work you want to do? How is the work received by the art scene and the public in Syria?
AB: I think we already have problems with the audience for any kind of art or culture. With contemporary art I think people don’t know about it but the strange thing is that even people who do not know anything about art (like in my neighbourhood), they visit the installation exhibition and they tell other people and advise them to visit it.
TC: 'Magnetism’ is a group show of installations by Syrian and overseas artists, how did this project come about?
AB: Because in Syria we don’t have this kind of open space, many artists (local and overseas) like the house and they asked me if it would be possible to make artworks in it. So I selected some projects to show, and for me the common point between all of them was the house and their desire to do something in this space.
Abir Boukhari and Tobias Collier, with Ali MacGilp