Letter from the Levant

Brian Kennedy

Brian Kennedy is an artist based in Belfast (and often elsewhere).

Levant – the very word has always had a romantic ring to it for me. It conjures up images of desert, camels and a nomadic life. I like the fact that it is not confined by borders drawn by European colonialists to create countries for their own use.
The word levant comes from the French word for rising and refers to the place where the sun rises. Although it lacks precise borders, it generally means the eastern Mediterranean and originally meant anywhere east of Italy. Now it usually refers to an area between the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey, the Sinai Peninsula and the Arabian desert.
My first visit to that part of the world was to Syria and the Lebanon just over a year ago. The situation was calm then and I was unaware of any signs of discontent. I visited Quneitra, a Syrian town at the edge of the Golan Heights that had been destroyed in the 1967 war with Israel. I had to be escorted at all times by a soldier from the Syrian army, but he allowed me to take photographs. On one wall of a destroyed hospital the graffiti read ‘in our hearts a passion for the nation and a love for Assad’. Certainly the impression I got then was that Assad was held in high regard because of his perceived opposition to Israel and America.
 AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria (foreground: Abir Boukhari); photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author
AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria (foreground: Abir Boukhari); photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author

In Damascus I visited AllArtNow, which is the main contemporary art space in the city. It is housed in an old house inside the ancient city walls of Damascus. To get there you walk along "…the street which is called Straight…" [Acts 9:11] and turn off just before the street that leads to the house where Saint Paul was supposedly taken after he had been blinded. The Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters all used to border this area.
The actual building is in a poor state of repair and the spaces are small domestic-sized rooms, with the added possibility of working in the courtyard. What it does contain is an exciting attitude to contemporary practice. Like so many initiatives fuelled mainly by young artists, it has an energetic feel and often uses other alternative spaces around the city for various projects. The organisation makes an effort to have links with western art as well as having many links across the Arab world; artists from other countries constantly visit to make work. It also has links with the various cultural institutions in Damascus like the British Council, Goethe-Institut and Centre Culturel Français; these organisations often help with the staging of work.
 AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria (small photos from author\
AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria (small photos from author's Golden Egg series); photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author

One person who has already developed strong links between east and west is Issa Touma, artist and director of Le Pont Art Organisation in Aleppo. Touma constantly travels throughout Europe talking about art from his part of the world. The Le Pont gallery was the first photographic gallery in the Middle East and regularly hosts international exhibitions. As well as running a gallery, Touma often uses a large adjacent space that was once the electricity generating station for Aleppo. While running exhibitions there he organises a Women’s Art Festival that covers all art forms. It was interesting to find that both in Damascus and Aleppo there was no problem when artists dealt with women’s issues; in fact I was told it was encouraged. That does not mean that there were no problems, but as one artist who had lived for several years in Europe said, "the problems for women are the same here, there is no difference." That was said to me when I was recording an interview with her in an outdoor bar; she and the other women were bare-headed, enjoying a beer and not necessarily accompanied by men.
 AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria (small photos from author\
AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria (small photos from author's Golden Egg series); photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author

I did visit other galleries in Damascus but they were really commercial galleries presenting well executed paintings and sculptures but no real contemporary practice. In Aleppo things seemed to revolve around Le Pont and in Hama and Homs, now sadly famous, I did not see anything that I would call contemporary practice.
My visit to the Levant left me fascinated with that part of the world and I started to use Skype to talk with and interview artists, film-makers and writers in countries like Jordan, Palestine and Egypt. Using Vimeo, I watched a film of a meeting between the film-maker and her grandmother; the grandmother narrated the story of how after the Second World War the politically active family had moved from Palestine to Jordan and then to Syria. The women remained in Syria with the children but her grandfather and granduncle had to move on to Turkey. Strange, after such a recollection of enforced movement, the next film-maker I talked to cannot leave the Jordan as his family had come from the West Bank in 1967 and he, like everyone else who had been displaced at that time, cannot get passports as they have no citizenship.
On several occasions I spoke to Khaled Hourani, the Arts Director at the International Academy of Art Palestine (IAAP) in Ramallah who was working on the project Picasso I Palestine. The IAAP requested the loan of Picasso’s Buste de Femme (1943) from Eindhoven’s Van Abbemuseum. The procedures and negotiations required to make the exhibition happen were complex, not least because Palestine is not recognised as a country and the work had to be flown into Israel before starting its overland journey.
 AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria; photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author
AllArtNow, Damascus, Syria; photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author

Having spoken to people in Jordan and Palestine, I decided to travel to Jordan in November last year. I found the country a strange mix. Jordan as a country only dates from 1920 and started as a carve-up of that part of the world between the British and French. France got Syria and Lebanon; Britain got Iraq and Palestine. Transjordan, as it was originally called, got its independence in 1946 and was named simply Jordan. Being a comparatively young country, Jordan has still not found its artistic passion or a culture to call its own; it felt like a country in search of its spirit. A large percentage of the population are Palestinian and like my film-maker friend many cannot get passports, and a large number still live in refugee camps. They do, however, have a cultural identity.
The capital Amman does have a vibrant art scene; bookshops, cafes, galleries, but scratch the surface and you become aware that it is not yet confident in its own skin. I am sure that it will grow into its artificial borders and the people will get an identity, but its unsmiling people reminded me of my own people here in Northern Ireland twenty years ago.
There is a prosperous commercial gallery scene typified for me by a visit to a gallery which was situated in a five-star hotel. There is certainly private patronage of the arts and this stretches to the noncommercial art world with the largest art centre, Darat al-Funuun, being sponsored by a local family. The art centre is in a collection of old buildings that have been beautifully restored with sympathy to their history. While I was there a Swiss artist was working on a Palestinian space-shuttle project, which was causing a bit of a stir. It was a good project but the only artists from non-Arab countries who ever work in the galleries are Swiss, as that seems to be the art centre’s policy.
 Old Electricity Building Cultural Centre, Aleppo, Syria; photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author
Old Electricity Building Cultural Centre, Aleppo, Syria; photo © Victor Sloan; courtesy the author

The nearby Makan Art Space is a small but vibrant venue that hosts a wide variety of experimental art projects. It has three studio spaces, which allows for a mix of local and visiting artists. Its balcony with views over the city is somewhere for artists to meet, talk and drink coffee.
Things are changing quickly in the Levant and I have been keeping in contact with everyone I met or talked to. Friends in Syria say that their galleries in Aleppo and Damascus continue, and a group of young artists in Damascus have used a British Council grant to set up an art school in a small office where they meet every evening to talk and research contemporary art. They recently held an exhibition of installation work in the AllArtNow gallery.
I remember Belfast during the ‘troubles’, when people were afraid to visit. It was the feeling of isolation, being cut off from the rest of the art world, that was most soul-destroying. At the moment, I am arranging for the curators from AllArtNow and Le Pont along with some artists to visit Belfast in February. Hopefully artists from the Levant will not be isolated regardless of the politics, and  ways can be found for them to engage in the contemporary art world. Modern technology was used to great effect in the uprisings; it can now be used to allow artists from the Levant to engage with artists from around the world. Perhaps this is an opportunity to finally erase the line between east and west.