It begins like a familiar story of the Middle East’s diaspora: armed with a suitcase of clothes and another filled with gifts, a couple travel to visit their children and grandchildren, and clashes erupt in their home country.
Stranded, they sit glued to the news, contact family and friends in their hometown, hope, pray and wait for any sign that the conflict abates – but it does not.
Saving Syria’s artworks
It was November 2012 when Mona Atassi and her family watched Syria fall apart. They had understood then that a return was not possible, at least not for years. In those grim moments, Atassi, a stalwart figure of the Syrian and Arab art scenes, felt that she had to set up a foundation to safeguard modern and contemporary Syrian art.
“I just knew I had to do this, it was like a light went on,” she recalls. “I wanted to establish something to support and encourage Syrian art, far from the insanity that we were and are still seeing.”
The idea to create a foundation, however, had begun to take shape in 2009 when Atassi considered ways in which she could convert her decades-old Damascus commercial gallery into a non-profit organisation.
The Atassis, an old avant-garde and aristocratic Homs family, have long epitomised intellect and high culture – some held high-ranking political positions; Hashim Atassi, for example, negotiated and signed Syria’s independence treaty that ended the French mandate in the 1930s.
Serving the intelligentsia
The roots of Atassi’s patronage of the arts stem from 1986, when she and her sister Mayla founded a bookshop in Homs. It came to attract the city’s cultural intelligentsia, including a small group of artists, who are among the Arab world’s great modernists. A year later, the sisters launched Atassi Gallery above the bookstore and presented exhibitions for some of Syria’s notable artists, including Fateh Moudarres, Louay Kayyali and Mahmoud Hammad.
Green Art Gallery
In 1993, the gallery moved to Damascus, and Mayla relocated to Dubai, where she pioneered in founding Green Art Gallery in 1995 – one of the city’s earliest spaces. Tragically, she lost a battle with cancer in 2010 and her daughter Yasmin now runs the gallery.
Atassi continued to showcase Syrian art in her Damascus gallery and widened its visibility by collaborating with regional institutions such as Amman’s Darat Al Funun; Beirut’s Agial Art Gallery; and Cairo’s Al Hanager Art Centre. In 1995, she published a monograph for Moudarres to coincide with his retrospective at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
Not about sales
“In our first 20 years, we worked on intellectual, cultural and artistic projects. It wasn’t about sales,” says Atassi. Over the last three decades, she amassed a collection of some 400 works by modern and contemporary Syrian artists, buying several pieces from various periods in artists’ trajectories. In doing so, she formed a solid comprehensive and historic collection with superb provenance and a careful curatorial eye.
“I got bored of selling,” says Atassi. “I want to continue my journey. This collection’s future is Syria, and Homs specifically.” Initially, she considered setting up a foundation in Syria and went so far as to meet the ministries of culture and tourism, architects and urban planners, but plans didn’t fall through and tensions had just begun to surface. When the conflict erupted, “the artworks were the first things I got out”, she says. She is still in touch with artists, both those who have fled as well as those in Syria.
“They are still working and living under very tough conditions,” says Atassi, whose Damascus gallery has been transformed into a living area for some of her loyal staff.
Registered in Switzerland
For about eight months, she managed the collection’s cataloguing – photographing, itemising, captioning and valuating. This gave Atassi a head start on a book that documents the collection and which is scheduled for release this year. By the end of 2015, she had met with lawyers in Switzerland, registered the foundation in Lichtenstein, and transferred all artworks to this non-profit entity. “This foundation is how I can say what Syria was and hope that it will come back,” she says.
The Atassi Foundation debuted at the last edition of Art Dubai and was the only non-profit entity to participate at the fair. "Foundations are a service to the general public and I wanted to introduce mine to the audience coming to Art Dubai that includes museum reps and curators," says Atassi.
At the booth, visitors admired works by Abou Subhi Al Tinawi, one of Syria’s masters who experimented with glass painting, alongside a video that pictorially told the story of modern Syrian art.
• Visit www.atassifoundation.com