Art of the Mid East interview with Khaled Samawi, owner of Ayyam Gallery and collector/patron of Middle Eastern art.
T: Can you give us a brief background- where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where have you lived?
K: I was born in Tripoli, Libya in 1964. My family left Syria in the late 50s and moved to Libya. I spent my childhood between Libya and Switzerland. Then I moved to North America to complete my studies. My professional life was mainly in Switzerland until I moved to the Middle East in 2001.
T: From what I understand you were a collector years before you started your Ayyam Galleries; when did you first start collecting art? What type of art did you start collecting?
K: I was raised in a household that enjoyed art and collecting. I started personally collecting in the early 90s. I collected the same art I collect now, art that moves me. At the time it was mainly Western art. Today it is mainly Eastern art.
T: When did you first start getting interested in Middle Eastern art? Who were some of the first Middle Eastern artists that caught your eye?
K: I started getting interested in Middle Eastern art in 2001 when I moved to Damascus. I would say that Safwan Dahoul who has become a very close friend was the first to introduce me to Syrian art. Louay Kayyali was the first artist from the Middle East I fell in love with.
Ayyam Gallery Beirut:
T: What made you decide to open your first gallery space in Damascus? Was it a tough switch going from banking to becoming a gallery owner?
K: The decision to open the gallery was a no brainer. There was so much talent that was misrepresented. I though that by having the time and resources I could make a difference.
Ayyam Gallery Dubai:
T: How was Ayyam Damascus perceived by people in the region when it first opened?
K: With a lot of question marks. The more people question what we do, the more we are encouraged to do more and keep them questioning.
T: How did you choose your roster of artists initially with your first gallery in Damascus? Did you collect them before representing them?
K: I would say that the first few months were a steep learning curve. After that I figured out where I could add value the most, and where the talent pool is deepest is with young emerging and mid career artists. We created a competition and found some amazing young talent. Ayyam Gallery’s philosophy is to patron the most talented emerging Middle Eastern artists. Today, besides our roster of accomplished artists, we have around 50 young artists in our incubator that are doing amazing works that we will unveil in the next few months and years.
Ayyam Art Center Dubai:
T: How were sales the first year of Ayyam Damascus? How was the gallery scene in Damascus at the time?
K: Ayyam Gallery seems to shake the scene wherever it goes. I think we added a lot of value to the Damascus scene at the time and sales were brisk. Most of the sales however where not for the local market but were exports.
‘Yousra, Sinai’ by Youssef Nabil from the Samawi Collection:
T: Ayyam now represents artists from a variety of Arab countries, but you started off with mainly Syrian artists. Why did you chose to start by focusing on Syrian art? What appeals to you about Syrian art?
K: Ayyam gallery likes to be close to its artists and being physically present in Damascus was the main reason. Now that we are also in Beirut we also have a pool of Lebanese talent in our roster. And with communication infrastructure the way it is now, we can actually be close to our artists wherever they are. The next 10 artists that we will sign will probably not be Syrian. That said, I still believe Syria has by far the most important expressionist painters in the Arab world!
‘Then What’ by Loauy Kayyali from the Samawi Collection:
T: What made you choose Beirut as your second destination to establish your next Ayyam Gallery? How was Ayyam first perceived in Beirut?
K: Lebanese are extremely cultured and have a history of collecting. It was logical to open in Beirut for us. The very warm reception we got when we opened and that we still get from the Lebanese is proof that it is was the right decision.
A work by Parvineh Etemadi from the Samawi Collection:
T: Ayyam Gallery Beirut is located in a beautiful space in downtown Beirut, why did you chose that location and that area?
K: A lot of what Ayyam Gallery does is based on gut feeling and being opportunistic. We have been like that since day one. I just loved the area and the space.
‘City Lights’ by Samia Halaby from the Samawi Collection:
T: Do you plan on representing more Lebanese artists in the future? Do you see artistic talent in Lebanon? How do you find the art schools in the country?
K: Yes, we actually have around 10 extremely talented young Lebanese artists that we are mentoring at this stage. We will reveal a few of them at MensaArt Beirut. Higher education in Lebanon being art or non art is by far the best in the Middle East.
A work by Rachid Koraichi from the Samawi Collection:
T: Your next stop for a gallery was Dubai. What made you chose Dubai as a place top open up a gallery. You opened up 2 spaces in Dubai- what is the difference in the functions of both spaces?
K: Dubai is the capital of the Middle Eastern art market. We have a gallery in DIFC and that is where we do the high profile solo shows. The Ayyam Art Center is the headquarters of Ayyam Gallery and we have a 1000 square meter exhibition space and another 1000 square meters for storage and logistics. While what you see is a space with a few paintings and a few staff in the Ayyam Galleries that you visit, there is a team of 20 people behind the scenes that make everything work like a Swiss watch. I am always asked how do you do all that you do … it is because I have a very capable team with me.
Works by Safwan Dahoul from the Samawi Collection:
T: Why did you choose to set up your galleries in the Al Quoz District and DIFC?
K: They are THE 2 centers of art in the Middle East.
T: How do you find the art scene in Dubai? Is it very different from Damascus and Beirut? What are the main differences in operating in these 3 cities?
K: There are no differences. The art we show is the same. The collectors we meet are the same, all refined and culture loving people.
T: Besides being a gallerist, you are also a major collector of artwork with your collection titled ‘The Samawi Collection.’ Tell us more about the Samawi Collection. What artists form part of the Samawi Collection? Is it specific to the Middle Eastern art? When did you first start collecting?
K: We collect what ever moves us and inspires us. If I like it and I can afford it I will buy it.
Self-portrait by Loauy Kayyali from the Samawi Collection:
T: Through the pubic exhibitions of your work, what do you hope to accomplish in the region?
K: Motivate other collectors to do the same.
T: Overall, how do you find the state of the Middle Eastern art scene? What about the market? Do you think Middle Eastern art prices will continually rise?
K: The Middle Eastern art scene is young but maturing quickly. The lack of many players creates frictions rumors, conspiracy theories, and back stabbings among the participating dealers and artists. That will soon stop as time is the best educator. As for prices, I think our aggressive approach says we are putting our energy and money where our mouths are. We will be opening in London later this year and that will inspire other dealers to do the same. Middle Eastern art is on the tipping point of becoming global.
T: Ayyam is planning on opening in London and NYC, can you tell us more about your global expansion. Why these 2 cities? Is it difficult to maintain so many galleries?
K: I believe that Middle Eastern artists need respectable galleries representing them in the global capitals of the global art market that puts their art first. There are some International galleries that deal with Arab artists but the artists are way down in the roster of those galleries. We will make sure that top Arab talent is on top of our roster.