Interview with Yasmin Atassi, owner of Green Art Gallery in Dubai
The first gallery from Dubai to show in Art Basel in 2012 and one of the major players in the development of the art scene in the Emirates, Green Art Gallery has a long story to tell. In fact its origins date back to the 1980s in Syria.
How did it all begin?
The story of the gallery actually started in 1986 when two sisters from Homs, Syria, my mum and my aunt, opened the first bookshop. It was a major initiative at that time to open up in a small city like Homs, that opened the doors for much cultural and intellectual debates at a time when Syria was a very closed country. The two sisters used to bring some of the most important books on history, literature, and philosophy. Many of them used to be banned in Syria and were smuggled into the country from Lebanon during the civil war.
The bookshop enabled them to meet many artists from the country and as such they decided to turn the bookshop’s small attic into an exhibition space. After that the gallery grew and in 1990 my aunt moved to Damascus and opened up Atassi Gallery and my mother moved to Dubai and opened Green Art Gallery.
Green Art gallery was founded at a time when the Gulf art scene was very young and it was more of a salon d’art than a commercial art gallery. It hosted some of the region’s most important modern artists. In 2009 I took over the gallery after my mother passed away and restructured the program and the vision of the gallery.
What did motivate you to take over the gallery?
It was really a natural decision. I grew up in this ambiance with two very passionate women about the arts.
What is your background?
In fact my academic background has nothing to do with arts! I studied computer science at McGill University in Montreal and worked for a few years in IT consulting. From that I went straight away to take over the gallery. It was a massive step and crazy if you think about it as I knew nothing about the business and I was only 25 years old. But I was very passionate about the artists and had the sense of running a business.
From a small space above a bookstore in Syria to a white cube in Dubai: how did the change of location and the kind of exhibition space affect the gallery program?
When I first took over the gallery it was in a small villa in Dubai. I knew back then that I was more interested in contemporary art rather than modern, which was what my mother was working in. As such I knew that I needed to change the location to better suit the new program and the needs of the new artists in the gallery roster.
Why did you decide to move to Dubai? How was the art scene in Dubai back then, and how it has changed today?
My family moved to Dubai when I was 8, so it wasn’t really my decision, but when I finished university in Canada it was my decision to come back to Dubai and take over the gallery. By then it was 2005 and small scene that my mother operated in was already slowly waking up. We played a key role in the regional art scene in the 1980s and 1990s and I wanted to take the gallery further.
Tell us about art collectors in Dubai: are there many collectors? Who are they, and what do they look for? What are their peculiarities?
There are certainly some interesting collectors in Dubai and in the Gulf in general and they have been growing in numbers and taste in the last decade. They are also becoming quite mature in their collecting. Our collectors are also from all over the world, whether international collectors, or more regional, or the wider Middle East and Asia. Dubai is a hub for many of those people, and through the art fairs we meet international collectors as well.
What is the program of your gallery? Can you describe it making examples among the artists you represent?
The gallery program features artists working across diverse media, whose practices are rigorously researched, idea-led, and representative of our current moment. We represent a multi-generational mix of artists from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and beyond, including Turkish artists Hale Tenger and Hera Büyüktasciyan; Iranian artists Kamrooz Aram and Nazgol Ansarinia; and Shadi Habib Allah, Seher Shah and Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck, who are Palestinian, Pakistani and Venezuelan respectively. In this geographic mix, the gallery reflects Dubai’s position as a cosmopolitan, as well as artistic entrepôt, even as it boasts of a strong parallel Arab Modernist program.
Three emergent artists in the Middle East to follow?
I would say Nazgol Ansarinia, Kamrooz Aram, and Shadi Habib Allah
Why “Green” Art Gallery?
I have no idea! My mother! But when I took over the gallery I absolutely wanted not to change the name, I felt the gallery played such an important role in the evolution of the art scene that it seemed wrong to change it.
How did it feel to be the first gallery from Dubai participating to Art Basel? In which section did you participate?
Exhilarating! I was very proud of the achievement of course. We showed a project of Shadi Habib Allah in the Statements section. Since then we have showed in many other fairs including Liste, Independent Brussels, Artissima, Frieze London (forthcoming) and Miart among others.
Al Quoz 1, Street 8, Alserkal Avenue, Unit 28
25711 Dubai, UAE
Thursday to Saturday: 10am–7pm