MEKHITAR GARABEDIAN, Il n’y a pas de victoire, . . . from Les Carabiniers 1963, 2014, neon, 55 × 134 cm. Photo by Philippe Degobert. Courtesy Galerie Albert Baronian, Brussels. 


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Syria’s civil war shows no sign of ending. The year 2014 saw United States-led military intervention in response to the rise of Daesh (the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), a sign of the increasingly international nature of the struggle. Amid the death and destruction, the Syrian uprising that began in 2011 has seen an outpouring of creativity in the form of political posters, graffiti, photography and painting in addition to hundreds of thousands of videos documenting the conflict and daily life shot on personal phones and shared online.

In the capital Damascus, the National Museum has a strong modern art collection, but does not exhibit contemporary works. Other regime-controlled institutions, such as the Damascus Opera House (Dar al-Assad for Culture and Arts), run skeleton programs even through the worst periods of fighting. Since 2012, the nonprofit AllArtNow, one of the few initiatives that held cultural programs in Damascus, has given up its physical space to house refugees.

With almost half of Syria’s population displaced over the past three years, cultural practitioners are seeking refuge in neighboring Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. In Beirut, the nonprofit Ettijahat, formed in 2011 by a group of artists and activists, supports independent cultural projects. Nonprofit Bidayyat organizes workshops and produces Syrian documentaries and experimental videos; in 2014, Mohammad Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi’s Bidayyat-produced documentary, Our Terrible Country (2014), on Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh, took the grand prize at the FIDMarseille international film festival.

Due to fighting and exile, many platforms have moved into cyberspace. The Aleppo International Photography Festival was due to be held online in December, but by press time it had not appeared. In 2014, the Syrian Mobile Phone Films Festival announced plans to collect and screen mobile-phone-shot personal films; no news has been forthcoming since. Syrian filmmaker collective Abounaddara releases a short film each week in solidarity with the revolution.

While the local commercial art scene had grown considerably in the years before the revolution, most galleries have now closed or relocated outside Syria. The long-running Homs-based Atassi Gallery has closed, though its sister space in Dubai, Green Art Gallery, presented a solo exhibition of late Syrian painter Fateh Moudarres (1/12–20). While Rafia Gallery and Tajalliyat Art Gallery seem to be closed, with the latter keeping an active Facebook account, Samer Kozah Gallery did take part in the 2014 Beirut Art Fair (9/18–21) and the Singapore Art Fair (11/27–30).

Damascus’s major commercial space, Ayyam Gallery, remained closed, although sister outposts across the Middle East presented Syrian artists. In Beirut, Ayyam included painter Safwan Dahoul’s latest monochrome works in its fifth anniversary group show (10/30–1/10/15), while in Dubai its al-Quoz gallery mounted a retrospective of Samia Halaby’s paintings, drawings, prints and hanging sculptures (2/19–4/30).

Abroad, several Syrian artists and collectives participated in the group exhibition “Here and Elsewhere” (7/16–9/28) at New York’s New Museum, including Abounaddara, Mekhitar Garabedian and Hrair Sarkissian. In Europe, Syrian painter Youssef Abdelke had a solo exhibition at Paris’s Galerie Claude Lemand (4/3–5/3), while Brussels-based Albert Baronian gallery mounted Mekhitar Garabedian’s exhibition of photographs, letters and slides in “I Love You, But I Don’t Know” (2/28–3/29).  Ayyam Gallery Dubai showed “Landmarks” (10/27–1/10/15), featuring two new series of paintings by Thaier Helal. Earlier mixed-media canvases are juxtaposed against more recent pieces that mark the artist’s return to abstraction. Last but not least, the aforementioned collective Abounaddara, whose name means “man with glasses” in Arabic, were awarded the Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics, given biannually to an artist or group whose work furthers social justice.