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Two sisters bring performance art to Syria

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Abir Boukhari is on a roll. An art producer who manages her family’s poultry-equipment business on the side, she has formed the innovative “All Art Now” collaborative with her younger sister, visual artist Nisrine Boukhari. Together they have made a space for multimedia and performance art in Damascus.

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Nisrine graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus, where students often cite Syria’s foremost modernist, Fateh Moudarres, as a source of inspiration. But the sisters were motivated to learn more about alternative mediums, such as video.

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In 2008, Abir bought a dilapidated space in the heart of the Jewish quarter, mostly abandoned since the emigration tide in the early 1990s, and repurposed it into a place for art. A handful of artists, such as prominent sculptor Mustafa Ali, have studios nearby.

Art installations occupy each of the rooms, including one by young visual artist Muhammad Ali, called “Trickery.” His space is filled by a filing cabinet with shoes neatly placed before it. An audio of banging and breathing from inside the cabinet plays continuously, sounding as if someone is trapped inside. However, peering into the cabinet’s keyhole, viewers are confronted with a bird’s-eye view video of themselves as they peer in.

“Some traditional artists who came liked it, and some were really angry and started to yell,” Abir said. “But what I really like is [that] we have young people who were not involved in art before and now ask me about new projects.”

In a country where writers, journalists, and bloggers receive the brunt of state censorship, artists appear to have a freer rein for expression.

“All Art Now” drew attention with its video art festivals in 2009 and 2010, which screened the work of Syrian and international artists in public spaces.

“The idea was to introduce video art to different people,” says Abir, including other artists.

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Abir is now preparing a third arts festival called “Living Spaces.” She muses about potential locations for the video installations and performances, including an old bomb shelter-turned-gallery.

Her neighbor, successful painter Nazir Ismail, respects her perspective. “Abir’s events inspire people to be creative.... Art is free. And when you have this freedom ... [it] generates discussion.”

[Editor's note: This article's title summary was clarified after publication.]