Q: How do you see the state of contemporary international art? How does art function in today’s global society?
A: Fragmentation, aimlessness and uselessness are the big events that have affected art activity. The harshness of the experience appeared in the big movement.
Reflected in all art activities and expression, beginning from the art work arriving at the body as a force of expression.
Big dreams wasted in the center of an anxious vacuum engulfed with the event. Hopelessness, uselessness, aimlessness.
Art always was an indication to a red line passing mind activity in the understood.
The idea tours the mind, going to darker places, popping up like a flash or light that is aimed on a lost spot.
Q. What role does scholarship (art criticism, art historical discourse, etc) play in shaping our perceptions and understandings of art?
A: The role of art criticism is to clarify the artistic experiment; this comes about through clarifying the state of society in the economic stage and the contradiction in infrastructure and ambition, both high and low, according to the common perception, which in turn is reflected on tastes in art.
Art criticism helps us to establish understanding of the vision through deep studying of art movements and comparison, clarifying the relationship of art in society and the level of effects on the changes in the infrastructures on the art producer.
When we go back and look at art with an experienced eye and see art history, art movements and what it produced in new thinking becomes clear.
The affect of thinking on the understood, is how we differentiate the local style, and how the big and partial changes take place in the art experiment.
The studying of art history explains “the need for artistic activity will become clear to us when art becomes a mirror to society.”
When you distance yourself from a historical period, and you are in totality of time, it will become clearer, as we see the level of attachment of art in its society.
Q: How do you read the current interest in Middle Eastern and “Islamic” contemporary art in European and North American art institutions, markets and galleries?
A: It is not a desire to know that has pushed art establishments’ interest in Islamic and Middle Eastern art; their motives are market driven, political and economic, resulted in an interest and investment in art of the Middle East in order to transfer it from the local level to the global. It became clear to Western art establishments and the people of the region that Middle Eastern art has elevated spiritual life and behind it philosophical thinking that proves the existence of these people.
Therefore the political reason was followed by the economic reason, which is the investment in art of the Middle East at the right time, as those concerned in the market, gallery owners in Europe and North America; rush to discover these treasures that were hidden from them for different reasons, mainly the political.
Q: What artists, movements, or schools have had the most impact on your work?
A: Historically, the Phoenicians and the Etruscans and the ancient Middle Eastern art; recently Expressionism and Art Povera and the Modernist sculpture.
I was born on a historic city by the sea (Ou Ghareet) the birthplace of the Phoenician civilization. And I was raised with this relationship rooted with historic mound. The attention of the Phoenicians was not on the appearance but the soul of the thing emphasizing the spiritual side where the details of the surface all served the meaning. This side has been essential to my art experimentation.
In the Modern arts I like the German Expressionists and the sculptures of Giacometti and the art of Art Povera.
And I affirm that art belongs to an art family with a long ancestral age; it takes many forms and different modes according to need and time.
Q: As art progresses into the 21st century, can you reflect on art of the last century? What or who marks the importance of art in the 20th century? What or who has ushered in art of the 21st century?
A: The first event: is a transfer. The great coup in the history of art was at the beginning of the last century.
The big horizons: the strength of expression and the wide horizon, the art work has its own value by itself, so the harshness and contradictions, the immense and broad directions, honesty and disappointment.
Separators: emerging from the frame of plastic art and the appearance of new art. The political events and its large effects on the arts in an extensive way. The big events in the building of society and its affects on the art movement, the militarization, the game of democracy and the disappointment.
It has also arrived at new horizons, with art in understanding of the activity of mind and body, elevated over the frame of the artwork and the sculpture; it has taken the highest freedom of expression possible.
Mustafa Ali’s responses were translated from the Arabic by ArteNews.
Editor’s Note: an excellent resource on contemporary Syrian art is “Contemporary Art in Syria: 1898-1998”edited by gallery owner Mouna Atassi in collaboration with Samir Sayegh and published by the esteemed Syrian art space, Gallery Atassi in 1998.
Mustafa Ali studied sculpture at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, then pursued studies in Carrara, Italy. He has exhibited extensively, both in his native Syria and internationally, since 1979. His artworks are housed in private and public collections throughout the Arab world, including the Syrian Ministry of Culture, the Presidential Palace and the Syrian National Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum (all in Damascus), the Jordan National Gallery in Amman and Al Sharija Museum, in the United Arab Emirates.
Ali is also the director of the renowned Damascus art center The Mustafa Ali Art Foundation, which presents exhibitions, workshops, lectures and cultural events throughout the year to local artists and the public.