The Atassi Foundation strives to collect, preserve and share the work of Syrian artists around the world

The Atassi Foundation is a visual arts initiative seeking to preserve, promote and offer support to Syrian artists and the Syrian diaspora through a wide range of outputs including exhibitions, publications, research and education. The beginnings of the foundation stem from a collecting family legacy that began in 1986 with the Atassi Gallery, Homs’ first commercial gallery founded by sisters Mouna and Mayla Atassi. Mouna and her husband Sadek later moved from Damascus to Dubai, and in 2012, with a remit and conscious decision to become philanthropic, the Atassi foundation was founded to collect and make visible Syrian visual arts heritage.

Looking back through the collection’s history, there is a strong legacy of Modernist works including pieces by Lutfi Al Romhein, Aktham Abdulhamid, Tawfik Tarek and Abu Subhi Al Tinawi, to name a few. At the present, there is an emphasis on acquiring and supporting a younger generation of artists with the intention to create a well-rounded overview of modern and contemporary art by indigenous artists.

“It is very important at this point in time to preserve the artistic and cultural heritage of Syria, but I must stress that we not the only ones doing so,” says Shireen Atassi. “We are not going to stop the war, but what we can do is maintain this collective memory and help shape the future memory of Syrian art and artists.’’
Built on personal family decisions, the Atassi Foundation is non-profit and without a permanent space. It operates in this manner to allow for a more flexible model and a rethinking of how private collections might operate. This nomadic model allows for experimentation and flexibility, as opposed to the normative rotation of works that is observable in many private collections.

The foundation is well aware of accessibility issues, hence adopting a more flexible model, and addresses this by aiming to put all of the collection online in the future whilst adopting a rigorous international artwork loan programme and producing publications, as well as running an international exhibition programme. Last year’s Syria: A Living History at The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada — and more recently, during Art Dubai, Syria: Into the Light at Concrete, the new cultural space in the city’s art district Alserkal Avenue — are exemplary of creating more visibility and introducing new audiences to artists represented in the collection.

Entirely self-funded, the focus now is on partnering and collaborative efforts with international organisations, alongside promoting and enabling younger Syrian artists to develop their work through research, residencies and other opportunities for furthering the work’s reach. There is an element of experimentation for this young organisation but careful, thoughtful decisions also seem to have gone into this “nomadic” model. A foundation on the move, it perhaps chimes with this need to preserve a culture that we continually watch being displaced, even as we hope that a resolution is on its way.

by Jareh Das.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Biennial & Museum Acquisitions #41, pages 130-135.