Syrian Art Scene Opens Up: Stephen Starr Reports from Damascus: Opening Nights of Art Exhibitions Such as That of Mustafa Ali's Guillotine Solo Event in the Well-to-Do Area of West Mezzeh in Damascus Late Last Year, Are Becoming a More Common Scene on the Syrian Art Circuit

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For the Guillotine event, evening dress, cravat and tweed-coat wearers meet to catch up and to see what message Ali, a well-known sculptor, would be promoting to his admirers--and critics.

A display of heads carved from wood--one splashed in blood next to a huge axe--represents Ali's view of the world today. "These days everyone is afraid. People are afraid of change, social, cultural, political, whatever," he told The Middle East.

These artists and art lovers are basking in the new space for art now in evidence in Syria.

For decades, the Syrian art scene had been dominated by the state, who subsidised artistic and cultural events at outdated 'Arab culture centres'. Much of Syria's art history has been coloured with the political turbulence of the region: wars with Israel, the displacement of Palestinians--440,000 of whom live as refugees in Syria--and documentations of the government's political 'renaissance' that brought the current ruling Ba'ath party to power in 1963.

But today, the private art scene is emerging with gusto.

Art cafes, less formal places where people come to drink an array of imported beers and spirits, are today a common sight of the largely Christian Old City areas of Bab Sharqi and Bab Touma. The city's intelligentsia gather to debate society, culture, art and direction the country is going, all over a glass of the locally-produced arak aniseed drink.

At a professional level, chic modern art galleries in Damascus including the Ayyam Gallery, Art House, Rafia Gallery and Tajallyat are the engines driving Syria's new art scene.

Since opening in 2006, Ayyam Gallery has become a leading promoter and seller of Arab art with galleries in Beirut, Damascus, Dubai and now in Cairo. At its headquarters in Damascus, Khaled Samawi, the founder of Ayyam, says he felt pushed to open a gallery in the city: "I've always collected art and when I came to Syria I saw how hard it was to find good works."

Samawi, who was voted Arabian Business magazine's Entrepreneur of the Year for 2009, sold his finance company in Switzerland before moving to Syria in 2001.

"After visiting 50 to 100 studios I saw that there was so much talent here and it was pretty much an underground scene, without much structure," said Samawi, who says he receives around 10 to 20 proposals per day from artists who wish to either work with or have their work shown at Ayyam.

Ayyam represents around 20 artists, of whom 13 or 14 are Syrian, the rest being Lebanese and Palestinian.

"I don't think the quality of Syrian art has changed at all. I think there is a greater variety now. In 2001 there were around 10-20 artists in a specific age group who were big names. Now there are 50 artists, 30 who are new and from the country's younger generation. This makes for a greater variety," said Samawi.

Last October, Ayyam's auction house in Dubai showed around 70 lots of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art spanning nearly 100 years. Over one million dollars worth of art was sold.

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Samawi says he thinks Ayyam has definitely changed the way artists are shown and how they are represented and exhibited. …