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Cultural Insights To Damascus

As the world’s longest continuously inhabited capital, Damascus has been more culturally renowned internationally for its ancient appeals than its contemporary art scene. However, regionally, Damascus had always played an important role in the development of artists, exchange of ideas, music and theatre. 


In the 2000s, experimentation characterised the contemporary art scene as young artists began to rethink their role in society, using media not widely used by the generation that came before them, turning to video, installation, and performance art. This experimentation attracted a few new galleries with international ambitions to set up shop and serve as talent incubators for Syrian artists: Ayyam Gallery, now with its home in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue for more than 15 years, opened in Damascus in 2006 and attracted international museum representation to the city, while Tajalliyat Art Gallery also represented a roster of young artists whose works were moving away from what had previously characterised famous Syrian artists’ styles. 


Over the past decade, there’s been a rise in the fame of diasporic Syrian artists (with international gallery representation) like Tammam Azzam, who’s work in which he superimposed Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss on the facade of a bullet-ridden building in Syria brought the work and the artist much attention following the migration of many artists from Damascus to cities like Beirut, Berlin and Istanbul. Recently, within the city of Damascus, commercial galleries, including Samer Kozah Gallery and Zawaya Art Gallery, have reinvigorated their programming with aims of catalysing artistic production, providing spaces for artists to meet, as well as introducing workshops and education programmes, while also trying to grow their commercial efforts. 


Punctuating the city are a few artist studios and spaces in which the arts community ranging from the gallerist, to the artist, to the aficionado — come together on a regular basis. Sculptor Mustafa Ali’s foundation, sprawling across an old Damascene home, continues to be a hub for the creative community. The newly opened Dar Abdullah, an multidisciplinary cultural space, brings together the community through exhibitions, performances and private events, inviting wider audiences to partake in this experience. 


While prolific collectors are far and few, support for the arts is found amongst those within the community, attempting to bring together their peers and counterparts, as well as provide programming, events and spaces to support the continuity and growth of the art scene in the city.


Samer Kozah originally opened his namesake gallery in 1994 in a small storefront in Medhat Pasha Souk in the old city of Damascus the street that leads you to Straight Street, known as the Street Called Straight in the New Testament running from east to west through the old city, before moving into a traditional Damascene home a few alleyways in from the main road. The gallery is spread throughout some of the rooms on the ground floor of the house, with the courtyard serving as an exhibition space for sculptural works, working with but not exclusively representing both emerging and established Syrian artists. The gallery recently reopened after closing for a few years and seeing the founder move to Beirut, Lebanon, in an effort to sustain his commercial endeavors while also, and more importantly, aiming to promote the works of Syrian artists internationally (Kozah set up a few exhibitions in Beirut for showcasing Syrian artists from both those based in Damascus as well as a those who’d moved abroad following 2012 and the uprising in his home country).

Since its reopening, most of the gallery’s programming has been geared towards supporting artistic production: Kozah has provided a workspace and materials for artists as part of themed initiatives, organised exhibitions showcasing works of locally-based artists alongside Syrian diasporic artists, and turned his gallery into a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas.

Now in its fourth year, the Sculpture Project is a programme by the gallery that invites artists to present works using a specified medium or combination of mediums. For the upcoming edition, a ‘workshop’ will be held at the gallery providing artists a collaborative working space to produce a work that will then be exhibited in the group show. Artists will also be provided with the material needed to produce the works.


Championing conceptual art and new emerging talent, Zawaya Art Gallery opened in September 2019 in a 1920s French colonial building. At the core of the gallery’s mission is supporting and helping grow the careers of artists looking to experiment and explore new mediums, performance art, installation and interactive exhibitions, particularly those whose work blurs the lines between the artist and the audience. With COVID-19 derailing a lot of the programming plans the gallery had (monthly programming that not just included visual arts exhibitions but related collateral events that include music, workshops, and poetry readings), it was forced to rethink some of the plans, taking on a more adaptive approach.

The gallery also has a small library and co-working spaces in one of the rooms, which draws a lot of the young artists, university students (not necessarily just art students), and other individuals looking for a free-of-charge space they can work in away from power cuts at all times of the day (10am – 10pm). The gallery, like many other spaces in the city, is focused on the artists and the arts community that live in Syria, pushing for their development and for the sustainability of an arts ecosystem within the country.


One of Syria’s most renowned sculptors, Mustafa Ali, famous for figurative works usually in bronze and wood, has over the years opened up the old Damascene home which houses his studio to host a range of activities, from group exhibitions to  open mic nights, from open studios to afternoon gatherings around the fountain in the courtyard with friends and peers which over the years has led to the space becoming a hub for supporting and championing the arts in the country. He set up the Mustafa Ali Gallery-Art Foundation, a non-profit with no political affiliations, that aims to secure cultural and artistic exchange between Syria and the rest of the world, particularly harbouring an east-west discourse. The foundation organises international exhibitions and sculpture symposiums for Arab artists, conferences on critical studies and other relevant arts discourses, festivals for a range of art types (sculpture, painting, photography, performance art), adult and children education workshops, and serves as an informal association for emerging artists, extending support and assistance to emerging Syrian artists, providing networking opportunities and general guidance. 


Nestled inside the walls of the Old City in Damascus is this multidisciplinary cultural space by visual artist, musician and film director Abdullah Chhadeh. Upon his return to Damascus after living in Europe for over a decade, Chhadeh took over the old Damascene home (belonging to his parents and the home he spent his childhood in) and renovated it himself, upcycling old furniture from the home to create the seating you find in the traditional courtyard of the house and on the terraces.

The three-story Damascene home, located between the iconic Old City gates of Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi (two of the seven gates to the walled ancient city), includes an exhibition space and a performance ‘stage’ on the ground floor, an artist studio (which Chhadeh is currently using to create his newest body of paintings) and rooms available for hire on the first floor, as well as terraces with the rooftop terrace offering unparalleled views of Mount Qasioun and the city perfect for a night of music with the community the space has built over the past year.

Abdullah’s aim with the space is to create a meeting place for like-minded individuals, a respite from the day-to-day hustle and bustle, to support artists and musicians, as well as provide a much needed platform for artistic expression that can be shared with wider audiences not necessarily involved directly in the arts. 


EAT: Naranj for some Syrian food, sunset on the rooftop is great or lunch in the courtyard; Bouz el Jedi for a traditional breakfast; and Abu el Zelof for a night of live music and good food in between olive trees in the outdoor courtyard.

STAY: Talisman Hotel, in a traditional Damascene home dating back to more than 300 years, in the Old City; Art House, a luxury boutique art hotel in a 400-year-old windmill on the banks of the Barada River, combining modern and old luxury through the display of art.