Etab Hreib on Conflict, Commercialism , and Sexism in Syria’s Current Art Movement

By 
Rebecca Joubin

In the this interview with the critically acclaimed Syrian watercolorist, Etab Hreib, she discusses the interrelated nature of the arts in the context of her own love for the theater and set design, and details various influences on her work.

Critically acclaimed Syrian watercolorist, Etab Hreib, a native of Der-Ez-Zor, graduated from the Graphic Arts Department of the University of Damascus. Since then, she has exhibited her work in various parts of the world. She was the recipient of the Al-Mahros Golden Award in Tunisia, a Golden Award from the Chinese Ministry of Culture, and an award from the Ministry of Culture in Algeria. In addition to working full time as an artist, she teaches at the Fine Arts Department at Damascus University, gives painting courses for diabetic children, conducts workshops for the blind, and has worked as a set and costume designer for Syrian theatre, film, and television drama. 

Your canvases are filled with Syrian landscapes from memories of your youth. Tell us about your childhood, family background, and the circumstances that created such a rich stock of inspiration?

My family is from Der-Ez-Zor, but my father’s job in the Ministry of Interior allowed us to relocate often. We moved from Aleppo to Tartus, and finally settled in Damascus in the 1960s. All the houses we lived in – the images and scenery – live in my paintings now. 

From a very early age, I did not speak much to others. Instead of feigning interest in stories or conversation, I focused on images. I observed people, soaked in the details of my surroundings, then registered the colors and expressions into my imagination.

Later, I studied graphics at the Fine Arts Department of Damascus University and took classes with renowned Syrian artists such as Fateh al-Mudarres, Nezir Nabah, and Ghiyas al-Akhras. Though I specialized in graphics, I preferred using watercolor to depict the colorful images of nature that have accumulated in my mind. 

My love of traveling was instilled in me from childhood, and continues to manifest in my adult years. In 1993, I traveled to China and held an exhibition there, then on to America. I believe that travel is the most important gift in the life of an artist. You meet new people, see new places – you gain a lot of vision and love for other cultures.

You’ve also worked on set designs for theater and television drama. How did your passion for theater and drama begin?

I strongly believe that all art is connected. Knowing one strengthens your knowledge of the other. When I was a child, I told my parents I wanted to be a musician. I used to make boxes and do puppet shows for my family. I would sew clothes for my puppets, make curtains, chairs, and set decoration. During those days, we children did not have many toys – so we built from our imagination.

Even when I worked as a watercolorist, I remained active in set design. In 2004, I worked with renowned Syrian director, Najdat Anzoor, in “Hour al-Ayn,” a critique of Islamic extremism. Najdat has a true artistic perspective and he allowed me to use my imagination in set design. While he gave me complete freedom, I had a difficult time with the producer. The problem is that a majority of producers are both unprofessional and painstakingly frugal, therefore limiting our artistic perspective. For example, I would ask for real flowers, but would be given plastic to economize.

Please tell us about the art scene when you started.  

The art movement in Syria started at the beginning of the 20th century and was supported by the Ministry of Culture. In the 1920s, the Ministry of Culture espoused fine artists such as Tawfiq Tareq, Saaid Tahsin, and Muhammad Jalal to promote art. The end of the 1940s brought the next generation of artists such as Fateh al-Mudarres, Adnan Rifa’i, Naim Ismael, Naseer Showra, and Adhan Ismael. In the 1960s, artist Mahmood Daadoosh opened one of the first art galleries in Syria. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture held an exhibition for all artists during the fall and spring of every year, and awarded prizes for the best artwork at each exhibition. At the time, art had less to do with commerce and more with national solidarity and pride. People felt a real connection to art. 

Thus, when I launched my career as an artist in the 1970s, there were very few galleries. In the 1980s and 1990s more and more galleries began to open. All exhibitions were hosted under the patronage of the Ministry of Culture. The years 1985 to 1995 were a golden age for galleries, with their having been run by intellectuals and cultured individuals who had an eye for art.   

In  2006, new, grandiose, and private contemporary art galleries  opened in Syria, bringing Syrian art into the international arena. Did you see this new trend in art as driven solely by commerce or is it the beginning of a young Syrian artist’s movement?

In 2005, large private galleries opened in Damascus. They were run by uncultivated, often corrupt, nouveau-riche,who aimed to disguise illegally obtained funds behind a veneer of cultural integrity.They wooed artists with promises to sell their work and document them in catalogues. The result was an artificial inflation of prices of the work of some artists, which has damaged the Syrian art market. The director of a commercial gallery in West Mezza purchased the art of unknown artists. He then submitted the paintings for auction at Christie’s Auction House in Dubai and repurchased the pieces – an internationally known trick used to increase both price and recognition. While these types of investments improved the lives of selected artists, they also damaged the integrity of the market. Moreover, the conversation surrounding art changed; public recognition of artistic value was transmuted from the quality of a piece to its final bidding price. Asking prices trumped originality. This hurt the reputation of Syrian art, and many smaller galleries closed.

At that some artists left the director of the large commercial gallery in West Mezza, and there was a lot of controversy in the press surrounding both his and other galleries.

Initially, this director was able to woo artists by taking them to art fairs around the world: New York, Miami, Paris, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi. But a slew of unprofessionaal  comments to the press caused many of his top artists, like Yaser Safi, to discontinue their relationship with him. Included were claims that older artists are lazy and jealous of new artists, and that younger artists produce a higher caliber of art than do their seniors. He also stated that those who cannot sell their work are amateurs, not artists. Sadly, these are only a fraction of his many insolent remarks, which resulted in the termination of multiple contracts.                                                                                                        

Please share your thoughts on the new generation of artists.

The new generation of artists lacks the patience of its predecessors. Their professors ask them to mimic rather than to experiment or work from their imagination. When I graduated in 1978, students were still working off of nude models, but the government prohibited that in the 1980s. My daughter Sorab has recently graduated as a sculptor from the Fine Arts Department, where she was limited to clothed models. How can the sculptor understand the anatomy of a clothed model? We have regressed. Fine arts professors these days are just employees. My daughter Sorab graduated first in her class. Usually such a graduate is hired as an assistant teacher for two years. However, the school  denied her that privilege because they did not want a female. Unfortunately, many professors feel threatened by the advancement of their students. 

How has the current crisis in Syria affected your art?

I do not feel comfortable exhibiting with the sound of lead flying through our cities. Instead, I have committed my time to volunteering with diabetic children. I teach them art and creative projects, for I feel that guiding children to express themselves creatively amidst this bloodshed will have a greater positive impact than would an art exhibition.

This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, No. 64.

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