In 1986, Mouna Atassi and her sister Mayla opened a small bookshop in their home city of Homs in Syria. Soon it was so popular that they opened a gallery in the attic that functioned not only as an exhibition space, but also as an important gathering place for intellectuals, critics and artists.
Fateh Moudarres, Elias Zayat, Nazir Nabaa and Ahmad Draq Sibai were some of the regular visitors and the Atassis began to collect artworks.
The sisters went their separate ways in the 1990s, with Mayla opening Green Art Gallery in Dubai and Mouna moving her gallery to Damascus, but they remained close and their artistic friends were to become some of the region’s foremost names. Their collection took on historical significance and almost 30 years later, there were enough pieces to start the Atassi Foundation.
Established in 2014, the organisation holds one of the most comprehensive collections of Syrian art with pieces from 70 artists dating back more than 100 years.
With Mayla passing away in 2007, Mouna curated the first exhibition from the collection that she began with her late sister, and it opens in Alserkal Avenue’s newest venue, Concrete, on Thursday, March 9.
“Back then I had no idea of what we were starting,” she says. “We were passionate about the art, we loved it so we collected it, but that’s all we were thinking about. I never thought the collection would be in the public interest.”
Also, in light of the war that has ravaged and devastated the country for the past six years, the collection has become even more precious – a beacon of hope in what is otherwise a dark period of Syrian history.
“The war has made us even more responsible for our country, which is one of the reasons I began the foundation,” admits Atassi.
“The real Syria is not defined by Daesh or anything you see on the news. Syrians are intellectuals and thinkers and we cherish our history and culture. I want this side of our country to come out of the shadows and into the light.”
Based on the themes of portraits and figures, the exhibition includes more than 80 works by 40 artists illustrating the landscape of Syrian art from 1924 to 2016.
It highlights the trajectories and shifts of art movements in Syria and its socio-cultural histories representing different movements, techniques and mediums, including painting, drawing, sculpture, photography and video art.
There are masterpieces from across several generations on show. Notable inclusions are Tawfik Tarek, one of the pioneers of Syrian art, who took part in the first art exhibition in Damascus in 1926; Marwan Kassab-Bachi, whose figurative works gained him international prominence throughout his career; Louay Kayyali, who was best known for portraits that depicted the daily struggles of the deprived majority in the 1950s and 1960s; and Fateh Moudarres, one of the most prolific and well-known Syrian modern artists.
From the contemporary side, Doha-based artist Jaber Al Azmeh is showing a piece that questions modern-day Syrian identity, and Humam Al Sayyed presents his portraits that depict a squashed figure representing loss of hope.
Accompanying the exhibition is a detailed catalogue written in part by Rasha Salti, a researcher who is also a consultant curator on this project.
There is also a commissioned research on the subject of the face and body in Syrian art by artist and writer Nagham Hudaifa, who also has a piece of work in the show.
“It is not just a matter of putting artworks on the walls,” explains Atassi.
“It is a research-based project aimed at documenting and recording our cultural history.”
Over the course of the three-week exhibition, there will be curatorial tours, a film schedule and other programmes organised in part by Alserkal Avenue, the hosts of this seminal show.
“Alserkal Avenue has always been a platform that has worked to represent art from across the Mena region. Syrian art has not only played a very important role in the region’s art history and cultural development, it has also remained under-appreciated on the world stage.
“The Atassi Foundation has one of the largest and most-important collections of Syrian art, and the inauguration of Concrete felt like the right opportunity to show these unseen works to the community of Dubai and beyond,” says Vilma Jurkute, director of Alserkal Avenue.