BEIRUT — Many Syrian artists, musicians and creatives have made Beirut their home since the outbreak of the uprising and ensuing civil war in Syria in 2011.
Artscoops, an arts platform originally set up by mother-and-daughter team May and Raya Mamarbachi in 2014, now aims to share Beirut’s artistic richness with the world.
The site functions as an online gallery and marketplace for handpicked Arab artists, painters and photographers from around the region, including Syria. Prospective applicants, usually mid-career or established artists, are evaluated by Artscoops’ board before being accepted. Artscoops takes a commission on sales — between 10% and 20% — while building partnerships between artists and galleries in the Middle East and beyond. The organization is now working on running live auctions on the site as well as a curated showcase of Iranian art.
The original idea emerged from a Syrian arts event in Beirut in the autumn of 2014. Raya said, “I noticed when they were doing the auction people were really buying, sight unseen, pieces of art.”
Raya saw a niche for a platform focused purely on Middle Eastern art and asked her mother to join her.
“We tend to have much more of an international audience, so we do not rely as much on the Lebanese [market],” Raya told Al-Monitor, explaining the site's benefits for Syrian artists living in Beirut. “Of course we have our place in the market here, but the idea behind Artscoops was so that people sitting in London, New York or Wales — wherever — could search and buy.”
“It’s a different platform and a way for them to be seen here, as well as outside,” she added.
Raya’s mother, May, has a background in Syrian art as a collector and former owner of al-Mamlouka, a luxury boutique hotel in the Old City of Damascus. May used to run cultural tours around Old Damascus during Syria’s cold opening to tourism and international investment after President Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000. During this time, Syrian art was gradually exposed and established in the wider Arab cultural world.
“Between 2005 and 2011, we had this awakening,” she told Al-Monitor. “It was there, only nobody was focusing on it.”
Raya agreed, saying, “Recognition of Syrian art is everywhere now.”
The Artscoops roster — more aimed at mid-career and well-established artists as opposed to young, emerging ones, May explains — includes Palestinian-Syrian pop artist Oussama Diab and the atmospheric black-and-white images of Damascus-born photographer Nassouh Zaghlouleh. Affiliated artists come from all over the region.
Damascus-born painter Wissam al-Shaabi, who has exhibited at galleries in Beirut and Syria's capital in the past, told Al-Monitor that Artscoops is a valuable promotional venue “especially for the Syrian arts scene right now.” He added, “You are getting exposure not only in the region — people will see your art outside.”
A year and a half old, Artscoops now represents some 600 artists and works with more than 30 galleries in the Middle East, Europe and the United States.
However, the much-reported image of Beirut’s arts scene since 2011 — as a cultural hub and refuge — can look different from the perspective of younger, independent Syrian artists who have moved to the Lebanese capital in recent years.
Diala Brisly, a Syrian illustrator and graphic artist who arrived to Beirut two years ago, agrees that there is more focus on Syrian art nowadays, but said that structural issues — like freedom of movement and the trials of residency in Lebanon — inevitably get in the way.
“Before, inside Syria, we didn't have this freedom to express all our thoughts by art,” she told Al-Monitor, saying that Beirut provided a more open, freer place to work. “When we went out, we had this spotlight on us and our art.”
Brisly went on, “But we are not free to move like other artists in the world. We can’t share our experiences or make exchanges with other artists. It’s all online, and it’s not enough. It’s like we’re just living in a room and trying to figure out how we can share that.”
Brisly has produced a solo exhibition in the rebel-held Aleppo countryside and produces children’s books and comics in Beirut, all while volunteering with refugee children in the Bekaa — “camp art,” she said with a smile. That can mean dividing time between more political work with Syrian refugees and making it as an artist in the very different world of Beirut. Brisly added, "Because of the crisis, we really need art therapy for all these people and children. People think art is a kind of luxury, but it’s a big need.”
Saeed al-Batal worked as a citizen journalist, photographer and independent filmmaker in regime-besieged eastern Ghouta for three years before arriving in Beirut last year. He views himself as something of an outsider, somewhat skeptical of the arts world.
“I don’t know a lot about the arts society here in Lebanon yet, but I know contacts here from when I used to be in the siege,” he told Al-Monitor, discussing how it's become easier for independent creatives to produce their work. “It’s much easier now for independent filmmakers than before. The price of a camera is cheaper than ever … and with $3,000 you can make a movie.”
However, the arts world is “not just hard to get into," Batal added. "When you are in the Middle East, it is always like a mafia. If you are talking about metal engineering or the car industry or whatever, there’s always a small mafia controlling it. It’s the same kind of idea, controlling the arts.”
With the help of Beirut-based non-profit Bidayyat, which supports, trains and produces Syrian filmmakers, Batal released a short film called “Frontline” in 2014, while still in Ghouta. The film provides a granular snapshot of life under siege in Syria: the frontline silently observed through a rifle’s sights, two fighters cheerfully playing up to the camera as they fill sandbags for a new firing position, a rebel sniper discussing the joys of listening to famous Lebanese singer Fairuz in the morning as he lies in position.
Batal is now putting the final touches on a new short film shot in Beirut, centered around a conversation between a Syrian refugee newly arrived in the city and a one-time fighter from the Lebanese civil war.
“Inside the siege, you record and don’t have the time to think about what you’re recording,” he said, reflecting on working back in Ghouta. “Here you have time to sit back, take space and generate. That’s what’s different for me — it’s the first time I’ve had time to really think about something.”
He added, “Time there is always occupied with the 'now' that you’re in. If you want to make food, you have to go chop the wood and start a fire. There’s this process to do anything, so your time is always occupied.”
Many Syrian artists have left Beirut, often for Europe. The Artscoops team as well as Brisly and Batal all acknowledge that more people are looking elsewhere for stability and opportunities, and that artists were part of the large-scale movement of Syrians from Lebanon last year — an all-too-familiar story in the age of the refugee crisis.
Online platforms like Artscoops might break down some barriers like the border control officer and the visa rejection letter. And yet, for younger, independent artists and creatives from Syria, who see themselves as working on the peripheries of downtown Beirut’s arts world, the Lebanese capital is not always the arts paradise that some make it out to be.
“They don't want us to go to Europe, but they don't want to help us here,” said Brisly, remembering the reams of applications and rejections she’s had to go through for festivals and workshops in Europe because of the difficulties of getting a visa.
“It’s like they're trying to convince us to go to Europe to try and find our future. Yes, I think about getting asylum somewhere — but because I can’t be a prisoner anymore, not because I have a dream to live in Europe and get benefits,” she concluded.
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