The Syra Arts Gallery: From tiny footprint to big impact
Washington - In Washington’s Georgetown neighbourhood, a sliver of space off the courtyard of an office building is home to Syra Arts, a private commercial art gallery with an outsized mission.
Sylvia Ragheb and Egyptian Randa Aboul Nasr founded Syra Arts to raise awareness and create opportunities for Arab artists to gain visibility and access to the American market.
A Dutch citizen, Ragheb moved to Cairo when she met her Egyptian husband and lived there for three decades. There she cultivated relationships with leading contemporary Egyptian artists and established a foothold in the region’s art scene.
Ragheb moved to the United States in 2009 and had her first exhibition at Art Palm Beach in Florida in 2012. The success of that exhibit encouraged her to launch Syra Arts. The small gallery hosts eight shows per year, mostly solos and sales events for Egyptian jewellery designer Azza Fahmy.
“There’s no other gallery doing Middle Eastern art the way I’m doing it,” Ragheb told The Arab Weekly. “We’re raising awareness here about the depth and diversity of regional artists, many of whom have been very successful internationally.”
Recently, Ragheb greeted guests at a reception for Cradle of Annihilation, an exhibit of paintings by Jordanian artist Salameh Nematt. The show’s title a not-so-subtle play on Cradle of Civilization, Nematt’s paintings reflect his profound disillusionment since the “Arab spring’s” hope has disintegrated into chaos. The painting Orange and Black was inspired by burning match sticks.
While initially experimenting with landscapes, and still doing some portraiture and figurative art, Nematt appears most comfortable in the abstract. In the beginning, his compositions allow for more light; the blues and greens of his painting Mirage reflect how the spirit of hope lifted his palette.
But true to the show’s title, the paintings get progressively brooding and angrier. A large white canvas in abstract expressionist style called Bedlam dominated the space. Nematt used a brush and a squeegee blade to spread red and black paint, reflecting the chaos and violence. In the end, “it didn’t seem finished,” Nematt said.
“Something in my subconscious was bothering me. Spontaneously, I decided to dip my shoe in the paint and step on the painting. Without that mark it would not be balanced. Then I knew it was done.”
In Arabic culture, a shoe — shielding the foot from the detritus of life on the ground — is considered odious. Mere exposure to the sole is considered insulting and the Arabic language even provides an eponymous expletive.
Colours darken further against a white ground in a diptych titled The Spring That Never Was. Rust-hewed, wild swirls may signal degradation or perhaps abstractions of dialogue that never materialised; shadows and folding forms emerge from a preserved white ground. This pair of paintings struggles, memorialises but still breathes. Exiting the exhibit, a final diptych Fire and Ashes is rendered in dense browns and blacks, allowing no light to permeate.
Apart from a cigarette break or phone call, Nematt pivoted in place from one guest to another for two hours. Guests included the Rev Paul-Gordon Chandler, founder and president of CARAVAN, a cross-cultural arts organisation.
“What Syra Arts does is absolutely critical,” Chandler said. “People have so many misconceptions of the Middle East and Arabs… it calls for creative dialogue using the arts to bridge between peoples.
There’s so little emphasis on Arab art in major art circles… there’s so much for us to learn from them. Art is a vital creative lens.”
CARAVAN will host an exhibition of 48 Arab and Arab-American artists in London this fall.
Nematt was barely 19 when he had his first solo show in Amman. He worked for more than 25 years as a prize-winning journalist, including as Washington bureau chief for several newspapers. His artistic ethos is inextricably infused with political ruminations on the region’s devolution into unrelenting conflict.
Nematt’s growing following led him to open his own art space two years ago in Baltimore, Maryland. The space is called XOL Gallery, short for the Latin saying Ex Oriente Lux — Light Comes From the East – a recognition that civilisation began in the Middle East.
XOL’s first group show was titled ISIS, both as a provocation to the jihadist terror group as well as a paean to the Egyptian goddess who represented magical healing and was a role model for women. Nematt is hosting a group show in July and two solo shows in the fall featuring Egyptian artists.
Syra Gallery’s next show is to feature Egyptian painter Hammoud Chantout in September. Ragheb said she also hopes to stage “pop-up” shows in New York, using temporary locations such as pre-fabricated bubbles or tents. “I want to reach a broader audience in New York,” Ragheb said.