Lucy Knight

Syrian artists' retreat

Artists out of Syria find a refuge in Aley


As he sits chain-smoking his Gauloises, Waleed Nezamy talks about the commotion that his pictures momentarily caused at the Syria Contemporary Art Fair (on at Artheum until October 9). 


Exhibiting three works that he produced while still in his hometown of Hama, the exposure of breasts and bottoms was, for a brief moment, the subject of some discussion. “Initially they didn’t want to show the pieces,” says Nezamy. But the organizers at the gallery were persuaded and the pictures are still on display, and for sale. 


Nezamy brought the pieces over from Syria two weeks ago as he began his residency at the mountain town retreat Art Residence Aley (ARA). “I do actually do very big canvases,” he says, “but these were much easier to bring over.” After an eight hour journey Nezamy was happy to finally reach the quiet seclusion of the space that has welcomed more than 25 artists since it opened 16 months ago. 


ARA started quite by chance when founder, Raghad Mardini, found herself drawn to the Ottoman era set of stables in Aley that now houses two artists at a time. “There was a real energy to the place,” she says. Covering 150sqm of ground, the building is a very simply open plan structure. Two sofas turn into beds at one end, with a kitchen and bathroom at the other, and a large garden plays host to a majlis, where paints and brushes cover most surfaces. It’s simple but inviting, and most importantly of all, it’s peaceful. 


Having worked for years in Damascus as a civil engineer restoring old buildings, Mardini fell in love with the Lebanese location and quickly got to work. “My time in Syria had exposed me to a lot of artists and their ateliers. I spent a lot of time with them. By the end of the restoration, May 2012, that was when the refugees were flooding over and many were artists from my days there.” And so the two elements were joined: “I invited a friend, Wissam Muases, and the project started with his statue that now sits in the garden.” 


Like most programmes of its ilk, applications for residency are to be sent along with samples of work. Sitting with a committee Mardini selects those they feel will benefit most from the time they spend in Aley. “I’ve already had 60 applications for next year.” While she aims the programme at the younger generation of artists, there are exceptions – Al Baroudi, at 37, is a perfect example. “Since we started we’ve had 26 artists come through, mostly aged between 20 and 30, and 180 pieces of art work have been produced.” While the artists stay at Aley Mardini works with them to get their creations into galleries and the attention they would otherwise be lacking by being in Syria. “As a non-profit group we don’t want to make money out of the artists, we just want to help them to sell.” 


Al Baroudi, who found out about ARA via Facebook, had been working as an interior designer when fighting began in 2011. “Until the war, I actually hadn’t made any art for about seven years,” he says. “The war changed that though. The situation definitely triggered something in me to start painting again.” With a style that focuses on the importance in life of the female Nezamy is very much an artist who creates art for himself and in no way wants to change anything about the images just to make money.  


What is one nation’s loss is another’s gain when artists like Nezamy, and previous tenants of ARA have included people like Reem Yassouf, Sally Samaan, Husain Tarabie, and Mohamad Omran; many of whom are currently being exhibited at the Syria Contemporary Art Fair. Galleries here are snapping up their works but Mardini also takes them to exhibit in Jordan and Morocco. Her future plans include exchange programmes with other residencies in Spain, Dubai, and Egypt. For the time being Nezamy has no plans to return to Syria, where the situation has left simultaneously him horrified, but inspired. 

The residency space in Aley (image via Facebook)

Nezamy is very much an artist who creates art for himself and in no way wants to change anything about the images just to make money