Sunday, September 19, 2004

Issa Touma: "Artists Still have Hopes"

I have been following the story of Issa Touma, a Syrian artist and gallery owner who has been battling the Baath Party, for some time in Syria Comment. After I printed the first story about him some months ago, I received a very kind email from Issa inviting me to Aleppo. I look forward to meeting him. In the meantime, I hope he will have gotten permission for his festival from the Baath Party. I noticed this article by Mr. Touma the other day published in (All4syria) : 16/9/2004. It is worth reprinting here because it speaks worlds about the courage of Syrians as they try to combat social and political conservatism.

We Still have some Hopes
Issa Touma
Director of the Photo festival, Aleppo, Syria

On Feb 2, 2003, as founder and director of the Le Pont Gallery in Aleppo, Syria and director of two highly successful annual international art festivals in Aleppo I received a written order and directive from the Baath Party of Syria, signed by one of the Board of Directors Baath Party in Damascus. The order stated that I was to cease all my cultural programs activities and forthwith submit all planned activities for the express approval of the Baath Party.

This bureaucratic act has for over a year enmeshed me as an artist and curator, in a time consuming and dispiriting bureaucratic battle with faceless officials who fear, above all else, change in society and feel the knee jerk need to control the natural impulses and growth of the artistic community. Although this incident is specific to my life as an artist and curator in Syria, it symbolizes the artist’s predicament in the Middle East. If I may say so, my personal artistic history and problems I faced, in very general way, apply to the wider Arab world. By this I mean that my fellow artists across the Arab world, in all fields including photography are affected by and indeed constrained by the attitudes and responses to the modern world prevalent in Arab society and political life.

I was born in Syria in 1962. My mother is a bilingual ethnic Armenian and my father is a Syrian Arabic speaker. Our family was by Syrian standards middle class. Although my mother’s family has a long history of important political activism, I did not follow in their footsteps and chose instead art. I started in jewelry design, painting and an early age began organizing small-scale art activities. My life changed forever when I discovered photography 1988 and found that it provided deep satisfaction and later provided challenges that formed my character and informed my beliefs. After some training I began my professional life in photography in 1992. In the beginning my professional development as an artist was impeded because despite the fact I was able to acquire the technical skills required in photography, as an artist I lived in an art milieu that was underdeveloped and isolated from the main stream of the art world in the West.
I soon arrived at an understanding that I needed to have more contact with artists and intellectuals in the wider art world. At that time it was not possible for me travel and so my response was to find a way to bring foreign artists to Syria. I started a second career as a curator and gallery owner. I started with a small gallery that showed the work of local artists and began bringing in foreign artists. This eventually led to my founding the Aleppo International Photography Gathering and the Aleppo International Women’s Art Festival. These two annual events have over the years brought to Aleppo hundreds of photographers, painters, and sculptors from all over the world.

The response from the public to this opportunity to see and meet foreign artist was overwhelming enthusiastic if not somewhat puzzled. The result was that not only was my life profoundly affected and influenced but the face of cultural life in Aleppo changed forever (for better or worse depending on who you talk to). The public in general was then engaged as I was in a learning process exploring and acquiring the language of art required for an appreciation of the trends in the art of modern photography and integrating these influences into our own experience.

However change brings resistance and sometimes conflict. In my case the incomprehension and fear of change as expressed by the actions of Baath Party of Syria lead to my time and work being compromised almost daily by discussions and meetings of various representatives of authority in Syria. My position is clear, that is to say, I am an artist and curator not a political activist or public critic of the political authority in Syria and wish only to be free to create art and bring art and the artists from outside of Syria here for the benefit of the Syrian public, free from the interference of hostile, fearful and ignorant political officials.

As for the public response, we have witnessed an evolving and maturing attitude. In the very beginning the public expressed a great curiosity tempered by a skepticism acquired by years of living in a deeply conservative society that lacks many freedoms. Over the years as we demonstrated our consistency and the public became more accustomed to the newness of modern photography and accordingly the general response has grown into one of solid support and indeed, expectations of more.

In these exhibitions and festivals we not only showed the work of foreign artists but Syrian photographers and encouraged a free exchange of ideas and cultural experiences. The results have been fruitful and productive for both sides but more importantly it exposed Syrian artists and other Arab artists like me to an unprecedented number of foreign artists and the attendant influences.

As I indicated earlier, artists in the Middle East have been insulated against the influences of the modern trends in photography outside the Arab world. The primary source of influence on photography has generally emanated from an earlier European influence sometimes described as Orientalism. Across the region in photography clubs and studios photographers produced and still in many cases produce technically proficient work depicting semi documentary scenes, landscapes and portraits. The artists who wished to move past this anachronistic work, found themselves on the fringe of society, few in number, without a support system and confronted with resistance born out two essentially traditionalist societal norms, namely religion and politics.

The Islamic religion with its ancient prohibitions on the reproduction of human imagery still plays an important part in the daily lives and current attitudes of many Arab people. As a result the branches of the arts that are revered are traditional calligraphy and traditional painting. The person who pursues artistic endeavors through photography encounters indifference because the attitude is that in order to produce good photography all one needs is a good camera not an artistic approach.

As for the political pressures on the population and the related effects on artists, there are a small number of photographers throughout the Middle East who have absorbed the influences from the west and exploring the creative potential of photography. Many of these artists however stay within the realm of what might be described as abstract art, an area of creativity that is firmly connected the current European forms and to large extent incomprehensible to their viewers in Arab world. Unfortunately few artists are willing to take the risks involved in producing images that are explicitly linked to the day-to-day realities of life in the region including political or social oppression. At this point in time hijab covered ladies conditions are far too intimidating for significant number of artists to face the consequences. These photographers are in this respect in the same boat as the other intellectuals and artists who in essence are unable to freely speak their minds or express their concerns in an open and free atmosphere.

In 1996 the Le Pont Photography gallery opened to the public and was followed in 1997 by the first International Photography Gathering in Aleppo. Our aim was to bring to the public the art photographic imagery and the new ideas connected with it. In doing so we wished to reach a complete cross section of society disregarding ethnic, religious and differences of social classes. The cultural experience of viewing photographic art and meeting the artists was on this scale was something new for the people of Aleppo and I witnessed documented it happening in a situation where workers, ministry officials, hijab covered ladies and intellectuals all rubbed shoulders as they appreciated art. We have no difficulty reaching the public in Syria because the language of art crosses all social barriers and speaks to everyone. Photography is a unique and an accessible way to communicate. We ask only that the government of Syria communicate to the public clearly their intentions concerning artists and the right of the public to explore the art of photography by explicitly acknowledging their support and refrain from interfering in the world of culture and art.


At 8/24/2005 12:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the posting, it was very interesting. I live in Kansas, but my spouse is from Nepal, and I my awareness of the importance and relevance of other countries and cultures is probably greater than that of the average American. I think this article brings forth a topic that is relevant to us in this country as well. Do not blindly accept policies of your own governement, instead, challenge them-because policies are often sweeping generalizations which may not accurately reflect reality-or what the populace believes to be true. I hope Americans are able to see the importance and relevance of all peoples of this world, without a biased eye.

At 7/17/2006 10:27:00 PM, Blogger Aiman Tulaimat said...

how can one contact Issa Touma?

At 8/07/2006 07:58:00 AM, Blogger Marta said...

I have just came back from Syria. I visited Issa Touma in Aleppo. Here is the email of his art gallery:


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