Artistic Unity: Art in the UAE: Interview with Green Art Gallery’s Yasmin Atassi

This article appeared in The Artistic Unity Issue #67 which was dedicated to the art scene in the UAE in which we unravel the threads of unity by exploring the perspectives of various stakeholders within the UAE’s art community. Through insightful interviews with galleries, art institutions, and auction houses, a vivid mosaic emerged, depicting how unity has been woven into the fabric of the art scene.

Rima Nasser: Can you share both your and your mother’s journey of bringing art to the UAE?

Atassi Gallery, Homs, 1980s. Courtesy of Green Art Gallery.

Yasmin Atassi: Originally, we are from Homs, Syria. In the 1980s, my mother and her sister, Mouna Atassi, had inherited a small shop in the souk from their mother. They decided to open a cultural project, which was an important bookstore at that time and probably one of the few in the city. It was a meeting point for artists, historians and intellectuals. Through this network, they started meeting many artists from across Syria and decided to convert the small bookstore attic into an art gallery. Their first show was by the Syrian pioneer Fateh Moudaress. This was in the late 1980s, when Syria was in a particularly difficult state. Art was the last thing on people’s minds, but they were real pioneers and believed in the project. The relationship between Syria and Lebanon at that time was important for their business, both in terms of books being brought from Lebanon to sell in Syria and in terms of cultural exchange between Syrian artists and Lebanese practitioners. In 1990, my parents decided to move to Dubai and Mouna decided to move to Damascus, where she opened Atassi Gallery, which became a major centre for arts and culture. Mouna was also a pioneer in bringing some wonderful contemporary art to Damascus, including Samia Halaby, digital works and performances.

Atassi Gallery, Homs, 1980s. Courtesy of Green Art Gallery.

When my mother moved to Dubai, setting up a space quickly was quite difficult. We had a villa in Dubai, and she decided to convert the guest room into an art space. After a couple of years, she built up her portfolio and was introduced to Amnah Al Dabbagh, her Saudi business partner, and they decided to open Green Art Gallery in 1995. She brought in artists from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and it became a centre for art from the region specifically.

Atassi Gallery, Homs, 1980s. Courtesy of Green Art Gallery.

My journey started much later. I studied computer science and had zero interest in art until I was in my early 20s. At that time, my mother was unfortunately diagnosed with cancer and she passed away at the age of 51. I decided to take over the gallery, which was a difficult decision, as this was 2005 and the market in the UAE had already changed drastically. Our gallery was seen as very old school and more akin to a salon than a professional gallery. I decided to keep the name in homage to my mother. We started with my own generation of artists or artists that I felt were quite interesting. I also expanded as I wasn’t only interested in the Middle East. I was one of the first galleries to look at Turkish contemporary art, for example. Then we expanded beyond those borders to look at the Global South, intercultural exchange and whatever made sense within the context that we are in.

RN: What inspired you and what were the challenges?

Atassi Gallery, Homs, 1980s. Courtesy of Green Art Gallery.

YA: I’m not sure what inspired me. All I know is that I was 25 years old and didn’t want to do anything else except this, even though my father tried to convince me otherwise. There were many challenges. It’s much harder to rebrand an existing space; it would have been easier to close and reopen a new space under a different name. I lost many of my mother’s collectors, who didn’t understand what I was doing. I had to go slowly, because for financial reasons I couldn’t just suddenly lose my old collectors while still trying to build up a new generation of collectors who would understand what I was doing. This was quite challenging, then in 2008 there was a financial crash. I had to tread very carefully. Finally, I saved up enough money and we moved to Alserkal Avenue in 2010. Our first show was in 2011 and we’ve been there ever since. At the beginning, we couldn’t survive with just the primary market. We did a lot of work on the secondary market, using my mother’s collection of modern art from the gallery. In more recent years, my reliance on the secondary market became much less to now being almost non-existent. Today, I mainly work with primary artists.

RN: Which artists were the primary focus of your efforts? Did your choice change over time?

Afra Al Dhaheri, Give Your Weight to the Ground, installation view at Green Art Gallery, Dubai, 2023. Photo by Seeing Things.

YA: When I first took over, the gallery had a completely different programme and focus. I had to go extremely slowly and conservatively. I was really interested in artists of my generation, but also in a much more global look on contemporary art while still rooted in context. My first representations included Kamrooz Aram and other Iranian artists based in New York that we’ve been working with since 2012. Early on, and still today, we worked with Seher Shah. There was an interest in research-based practices and artists who had an affinity to the region, but also a global outlook. In 2013, I started working with Nazgol Ansarinia, another Iranian artist who lives and works in Tehran and looks at daily life in a place as complex as Tehran. My choice changes over time. The work became more difficult, more challenging. You can see that the programme has morphed organically into a place of deep thinking and intellectuality, while of course form does matter. We’ve recently started adding some Emirati artists. Two of them, Asma Belhamar and Afra Al Dhaheri, are wonderful female artists who are part of a growing generation of artists and I’m very excited to see them here in the UAE. There are things that I show today that even one or two years ago I would never have dreamed of showing, mostly because since then the audience has really matured.

RN: In what ways has this endeavour played a role in nurturing the art scene in the UAE?

YA: Green Art Gallery has played a role in nurturing the art scene. We had many firsts: the first gallery to set up here and the first to bring modern Iraqi, Syrian or diaspora art to the UAE. It’s also not about being the first but about having a consistent programme that constantly challenges us and I think that’s still quite important to me today.

RN: Can you provide an overview of the current state-of-the-art scene in the UAE?

YA: We are miles away from where we were when we started in the mid-1990s when my mother had to sell art prints to hotels to survive. The market is bigger and more mature.
There are fairs, auction houses and so many wonderful galleries – my colleagues on Alserkal Avenue in particular. We can no longer say that we are a small art scene. Obviously, we are smaller than London, Paris or New York, but the collectors, the patronage and the community we have here are important.

RN: What are the expectations regarding the evolution of the art scene in the UAE over the next two decades?

YA: That’s a tough question. It’s been incredible to see how the UAE has grown and it will continue to grow. The art scene will be reflective of the audience here. It used to be mostly Arabs and European expats, and now it’s such a cosmopolitan global audience. Our programme needs to reflect that, and the art scene needs to be as inclusive as possible.

Nazgol Ansarinia, Lakes Drying, Tides Rising, installation view at Green Art Gallery Dubai. Photo by Anna Shtraus.

About Green Art Gallery

Founded in 1995, Green Art Gallery became a pioneering force in Dubai’s art scene, as one of the city’s earliest dedicated art spaces. Directed by Yasmin Atassi, the gallery plays a vital role in shaping the rich tapestry of Dubai’s artistic history, fostering a diverse roster of artists from the middle east, north Africa, south Asia and beyond.

Caption featured image: Michael Rakowitz, installation view at Green Art Gallery, Dubai, 2022. Photo by Anna Shtraus.

Yasmin Atassi, owner of Green Art Gallery. Photo by Marwah Al Haddad.

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