hanging its location with every edition, following the route of Syrian refugees from Lebanon to central Europe and elsewhere, the syrian biennale is a nomadic exhibition showcasing Syrian, regional, and international artists within the framework of a biennale, taking place once every second year.
Since the tragic escalation of Syria’s political and social conditions in 2011, the country’s cultural geography has undergone a seismic shift. Damascus, once the beacon of Syrian culture, now shares its legacy with cities like Beirut, Istanbul, and Berlin, which have become the repositories and new representatives of Syrian art. The chosen locations mark a reversal of a typical migratory path, acknowledging the struggles and the potential of redefined belonging from national identity to international multilocality. However, this ambitious cultural project transcends countries, borders, and categories, focusing not on the identity of refugees but on the rich tapestry of experiences, expressions, and innovations that migration brings forth.
In a world plagued by existential threats such as climate change and constant human rights violations, art becomes a medium for engagement, and artists become a voice of change. People of diverse backgrounds, religions, and even opposing ideologies and political views will come together in search of an active exchange of varying viewpoints, leading to more creative and innovative thinking. While emphasizing the ‘Transit Narratives’ theme, the Biennale will inspire by movement, transformation, assimilation, and the intricate swinging between longing and belonging.
The Biennale’s themes will span around critical conversations such as Sustainability, Justice, Creative Activism, AI’s societal threat/impact, None-Western Intersectional Feminism, Mental Health, etc., depending on proposed curatorial concepts for each edition. These will not merely be subjects but a call to action, a provocation, carefully organized and aligned with the Biennale’s committee and local and international partners to reflect our goals through universal consciousness.
The project is committed to representing an equal balance of Syrian artists (inside and outside their country), artists from the Biennale’s host country, and internationally acclaimed artists. Engaging with local art institutions, community centres, and civic organizations will foster a sense of shared ownership and cultural exchange. Using collaborative integration, creation, curation, and implementation as a methodological approach, the project will strengthen connections with host cities, local Biennales, cultural spaces and stakeholders to avoid power imbalances.
The Biennale aims to emerge as a platform for the scattered Syrian cultural communities and within the global art scene. It invites the dispersed Syrian community to assert its influential role through innovative themes and collaborations, weaving a vivid tapestry that encapsulates and safeguards Syria’s cultural heritage. This endeavour aims to counteract the fragmentation and displacement of Syrian identity, providing a constructive space for dialogue about Syria’s often misrepresented image in the media. It will be more than just another exhibition of contemporary art or refugee-oriented project – it will be a complete, responsive, and aware art event accompanied by talks, performances, workshops, music, films, and debates that will benefit the local community and build a sense of belonging for the newcomers.
With a commitment to a long-term vision, the syrian biennale encapsulates the urgent dialogues of the present and plants the seeds for future cultural engagements by aiming to be a seed for a Lebanese Biennale that will benefit from the created spaces, structures, and networks.
This project is currently under development, please check this space regularly for updates.
After writing the initial concept by conceptual artist Khaled Barakeh, coculture cooperated with curator, art Historian & editor Dr. Nadim Samman to lead the research phase. Separately, Barakeh & Samman visited Beirut, Istanbul, and Berlin, where they met with key individuals and esteemed institutions within the art circles to meticulously understand local dynamics, attitudes, and potential opportunities for a syrian biennale event in each of these vibrant cultural hubs. These interactions have allowed us to gauge the potential local impact and equipped us with critical insights for the detailed and nuanced conceptualisation of the biennale tailored to each possible location.
In the developing phase of the biennale’s conception, we enlisted intellectual input from a diverse ensemble of global art cognoscenti. To these experts, we dispatched both Barakeh’s preliminary vision for the biennale and an insightful reflection penned by Dr Samman, inviting them to share their feedback, reflections, and considerations. In response, we received 18 illuminating contributions that significantly enriched our planning process. These insights honed our initial vision and brought forth diverse perspectives and ideas, broadening our understanding and approach by incorporating suggestions and accommodating diverse viewpoints while retaining the core values and objectives of the syrian biennale.
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe in the winter of 2020, it precipitated an unforeseen halt in our activities. With the utmost respect for public health guidelines and cognizant of the gravity of the unfolding health crisis, we deemed it essential to pause our operations until Autumn 2022. This period of inactivity, dictated by an unprecedented global situation, allowed us an opportunity for introspection and strategic recalibration, keeping the evolving global context in mind. Despite the enforced pause, our commitment to the Biennale remained unyielding as we awaited a safer, more conducive environment to resume our efforts.
Our focus in this phase will be strategically dedicating our energies towards forging significant alliances with organizations, venues, museums, and influential figures in the cultural landscape of Beirut, the chosen site for our inaugural edition and the first refuge sought by Syrians. Parallel to this, we will kickstart our fundraising campaign, engaging with potential donors, sponsors, and partners who align with our mission. Our comprehensive approach will entail crafting persuasive grant applications, articulating the vision of the syrian biennale to potential benefactors and public entities, and nurturing associations with globally dispersed, like-minded cultural bodies and organizations. This phase is vital as it sets the stage for building a resilient support network and garnering the necessary resources, both essential for the successful progression of our initiative.
During this phase, we aim to assemble a diverse and multifaceted team. This team will comprise a balanced mix of emerging talents and seasoned professionals. We’re committed to fostering diversity and inclusion, incorporating various artistic perspectives, and representing multiple nationalities, genders, and cultural backgrounds. To ensure the Biennale retains its local relevance and resonance, we plan to prioritise the inclusion of local professionals from the host country in our team. This strategy promotes mutual ownership of the event while capitalising on the profound cultural insights and comprehensive understanding these local experts bring of their cultural terrain.
For the selection of the syrian biennale curator(s), we will convene a diverse selection committee. It will include respected figures from both Syria and the host country, as well as curators with experience in steering previous national biennales in the host country, as they have insights and nuanced familiarity with the cultural intricacies and dynamics of the chosen location. Concurrently, we will open a global call to curators, inviting them to present their conceptual interpretation of the syrian biennale’s framework. The committee will assess these applications, determining the most suitable candidate(s) to curate the biennale.
The chosen curator(s) will then sculpt the narrative and thematic tapestry of the biennale. This will involve curating a selection of artists and artworks that harmonise with and illuminate the event’s central themes. Their responsibilities will encompass facilitating performances, initiating dialogues, arranging workshops, and directing panel discussions to create a program that appeals visually and sparks intellectual conversations. While we do not wish to enforce a predetermined agenda, we expect the curators to resonate with contemporary global concerns, addressing themes such as Sustainability and Climate Change; Justice, Accountability, and Human Rights; Art and Activism; AI and Machine Learning Impact; Migration, Displacement, Identity, and Cultural Fusion; Mental and Psychological Health; Intersectional Feminism from Non-Western Perspectives; Civic Society Engagement, etc. While we appreciate the potency of provocative and critical discourse, we will share the chosen themes with our partners and funders to ensure alignment and coherence within the broader cultural conversation.
We are poised to launch the inaugural edition of the syrian biennale in Beirut in Autumn 2024. This milestone will be birthed from years of dedication and planning, connective thinking, and collective cooperation. We hope it will be more than just an art event tributing to the Syrian culture but to serve as a prism through which Syria’s diverse cultural richness and historical depth are refracted, moving beyond traditional narratives of conflict and victimhood to a more comprehensive representation of cultural vibrancy. It heralds the advent of a platform where diverse narratives can coexist, intersect, and disrupt - and in this disruption, forge a path towards greater understanding and cohesion within the global discourse.