Nestled in the far corner of the souk of Tekkiye Suleymaniye in the middle of Damascus lies a small room at the very end of the court-yard, away from the noise of the traffic. Inside the room, canvases of all sizes adorn the walls, and where there is no space on the walls, they are stacked up on the floor. Paintbrush strokes of red, blue, purple jump out, enveloping visitor in a plethora of color as Damascus is brought alive in front of their eyes.
The room has long been a home to artwork, founded by Issam Khabbaz’s grandfather in 1945. He had set up a commune for artists to work and display their work together in this small room in Tekkiye, keen to let struggling artists showcase their pieces to the Damascus crowd. It has since been passed down through the family, and today, Issam, himself an artist, works in the room with two other colleagues. Together, they make up Al Shams Gallery.
The three artists hail from different parts of the country. Twenty-four-year-old Khabbaz is from Damascus. Meanwhile 46-year-old Mohammad Tourify, originally from Tartous, moved to Damascus in the 1990s to study fine art. The latest member to make up the trio is Hazar Riyad, a 35-year-old English literature graduate from Homs. The three, however, share the same unbridled love for Damascus and its history.
“What we’re trying to do is capture the essence and spirit of Damascus through our work… we are still alive and so is this city. Therefore, we are showing this with art,” explains Tourify.
For Riyad, who dabbled in art as a hobby before deciding only recently to take the plunge and make it her career, it is important to keep Damascus alive. “It is one of the oldest capitals in the world, and has withstood thousands of years of inhabitants, invasions and wars,” she says.
The idea behind sharing their workspace is to diversify their work, and more importantly, learn from each other. Originally, Tekkiye Suleymaniye, essentially a mosque compound, was built by the Ottoman leader Sultan Selim II to honor his grandfather who had conquered Syria back in 1516. Today, the mosque still remains. The rooms and courtyard around it have been turned into small stores for Damascene crafts, from jewelry and soap, to textiles and artwork.
And it is not difficult to understand the messages on the canvases. Images of bustling streets and souks in the Old City, iconic monuments that define the city, whirling dervishes swirling their way across the easel, or sweeping landscapes of Damascus rising above the ashes, immortal on the canvas.
All three are keen to stay away from the politics of the ongoing war surrounding the capital, burying themselves in their work.
“Damascus is the heart of this area,” says Tourify, stressing the importance of keeping the heart pumping and alive.
“This is why we paint,” he continues. “Art is our weapon, and so are the colors, the canvas and the paintbrushes.”