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Syrian vision, Venetian view
by Muhammad Yusuf August 27, 2015
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Imago Mundi: Map of the New Art, an exhibition of 6,930 art works involving five continents, more than 40 countries and 38 collections with 10x12cm artworks, is poised to open at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, Italy (Sept. 1 – Nov. 1).
 
The exhibition is an initiative of the Luciano Benetton Collection, which contains works commissioned and collected by Luciano Benetton, Italian billionaire businessman and founder of the Benetton Group, the Italian fashion brand, during his world wide travels.
 
“Ideas, meanings and inspirations are not monopolised products, but fluid and evolving expressions born of interaction and communication between East and West, North and South, and through the convergence of cultural experience,” he says. “We look to the new frontiers of art — personalities, countries, emerging languages and different cultures — to foster openness towards the world and the coexistence of expressive diversity”.
 
One of the curators in Imago Mundi is Donatella Della Ratta, an Italian specialist of Arab art. She is making her presence felt with the ‘Syria off frame’ exhibition, where she curates the works of 140 Syrian artists titled ‘Syria Pixels’ and a project named ‘From Amman to Homs: art as resistance’, which involves Syrian refugee children living in Amman and Homs, Syria.    
 
‘Syria Pixels’ include artists like conceptualist Ammar Al Beik; self-taught maestro Nihad Al Turk; Randa Maddah; Radwan and Jean Yves Bizien and documentarist-researcher Zaher Omareen.
 
Ratta answered a few questions on what was on offer at her corner. Here is what we asked and what she said 

What is the quality in them that made you choose the artworks?

Actually, all the artworks that are going to be shown in Venice were commissioned by us. I approached 140 Syrian artists asking them whether they would like to think about something done specifically on a small 10x12cm format, and all of them were quite excited to accept this challenge.
 
So I haven’t selected the artworks; rather, I have selected the artists and then asked them to make their artworks. The choice of the artists has been made following the idea that this collection should reflect the incredible diversity of Syria in terms of generations, art practices and art backgrounds.
 
The result is a very diverse collection which brings to Venice Syrian artists who are already well known to the global art market and others who just graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, some of them living outside the country, others still based in Syria.
 
Different artistic expressions, from visual arts to poetry, from filmmaking to illustration, are featured in the exhibition. In the end, ‘Syria off frame’ is a reflection of the Syrian cultural mosaic.

What role did you play in creating the ‘Amman to Homs’ and ‘Syria Pixels’ expositions? Was it only advisory?

Actually, the Amman to Homs link was already set up, because it was part of an existing project by Syrian actor and director Nawar Bulbul. Nawar has done several projects with refugee camps in Jordan.
 
As for ‘Syria Pixels’, I approached Zaher Omareen whom I know very well, as we have co-curated several art exhibitions on Syria. Zaher and I are both academics who are reflecting a lot on the role that pixelated, mobile-produced images have played in the Syrian uprising to define a new kind of creativity in Syria.
 
So we have been brainstorming a lot about how to render this new creativity into the Imago Mundi format, and finally Zaher made a test with a real smart phone embedded into a canvas playing a short video in a loop.
 
We showed it to the Benetton Foundation and they loved it! So we decided to create an entire wall made by 35 canvases with 35 real smart phones screening a one minute film in a loop.
 
Each film has been made by a Syrian filmmaker, either living inside the country or in the diaspora. The result is amazing and very diverse. Each canvas can be seen like a standalone project, but the 35 canvases seen together in the installation really give you the feeling of these new “pixels” of Syria.

Child artists, emerging artists, established artists - what links these Syrian art makers?
 
A lust for life. Making art in Syria now is, even more than ever, an expression of resilience, the tangible sign that Syrian civil society is alive and willing to live, even if the international community and the media are dealing with Syria as if there were no such a thing as civil society. Each of these artworks from very different backgrounds is an act of resistance, a statement of creative resilience.

Are the artworks for sale or only show? If for sale, what happens to the proceeds?

Like all the Imago Mundi collections, so also ‘Syria off frame’ is not for sale. The collection is a non-for-profit one and, after Venice, it will stay with the Benetton Foundation in Italy. I am hoping that other countries would be interested to showcase the artworks in the future.

Apart from the 10x12cm format, how has the Imago Mundi model influenced your art practice?

It has helped a lot in making us think about this exhibition as an exhibition on Syria, not on Syrian artists. What comes out is a collective voice which of course speaks different languages (poetry, painting, graffiti, films, etc) using different styles; yet, in the end, it is a collective voice giving an idea of the status of cultural production in Syria right now.
 
Individual artists have contributed to build this collective effort, and that, I think, is one of the most important features of ‘Syria off frame’ and something which was directly inspired by the Imago Mundi project.

Do you have similar plans for other countries in the MENA region?

We would love to showcase ‘Syria off frame’ in the Arab world! We hope to get the interest of cultural institutions, organisations, galleries from the Arab region that would consider hosting the exhibition in their countries.
I think it’s extremely important to show the rest of the Arab world how rich and diverse Syria is in terms of artistic expression and cultural production, even during these difficult times.

What attracted you to Arab, especially Syrian, art?

I’ve been working in the Arab world for more than a decade, and I’ve always been attracted by the diverse cultures of this region and fascinated by the beauty of the Arabic language. I’ve lived in Damascus for four years and I fell in love with Syria, with the energy of the place and its people.

Living in this country is like breathing art; that’s why I became interested in Syrian art: through life, through my lived experience of Damascus, the most energetic and creative place I’ve ever seen.

Vis-a-vis Arab art, will you graduate to bigger formats than the 10x12cm one?

I’m not an art curator per sé. I am a researcher and a writer specialised on Syria. I am committed to this country, and want to do whatever I can to highlight its beauty and raise awareness about its cultural production which, sadly, has been forgotten in the midst of the current conflict.
 
In the past years I co-curated several art exhibitions on Syria (in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Milan, etc) with very different formats (but much many less artists than the 140 we have in Venice!) from the Imago Mundi. If, in the future, opportunities arise about doing something else on Syria within a different framework and format, I will definitively consider doing it.
 

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