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In 2021, I began my collaboration with al Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art (al Mawrid) to digitize the archive of my father, Mahmoud Hammad—Syrian painter, and one of the most influential artists of modern Arab Art and Hurufiyya abstraction. Since 2010, I have been managing Mahmoud Hammad’s estate, and about a decade later, I began my collaboration with al Mawrid. In this article, I will walk the reader through different independent and institutional archival efforts I have taken to preserve my father’s archive and legacy.
Born in Damascus in 1923, the Syrian multi-skilled artist Mahmoud Hammad was a painter, printmaker, medal engraver, and sculptor. Hammad attended the Italian School of Damascus and the Jawdat al Hashemi secondary school where his teachers, given his remarkable talent, encouraged him from an early age to study art.
Hammad took part in initiating many art associations in Damascus in the forties and fifties of the last century including the Arab Society of Fine Arts, the Society for Fine Arts Lovers, the Syrian Artists Society for Painting and Sculpture, and the Syrian Society for Fine Arts.
Hammad was granted a scholarship from the Ministry of Education in Syria to study art at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome where he settled between 1953 and 1957. Upon his return from Rome, Hammad married the Lebanese artist Derrieh Fakhoury in 1958. He became an art teacher in Daraa’s schools, where he lived for two years, and started a series of paintings depicting the social scenes of the Southern area of Horan, Syria. In 1960, the artist moved back to Damascus and helped with the establishment of the Faculty of Fine Arts. By 1965, Mahmoud Hammad, alongside artists Nassir Chaura and Elias Zayat, founded the Damascus Group “Group D,” an affiliation of Syrian abstract artists.
Two years later, a UNESCO grant led Hammad to Europe for a few months, this time again to Rome, as well as to Madrid and Paris, where he encountered renowned contemporary European artists and displayed his works to a new audience. In 1970, Hammad was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts where he remained until 1980.
Hammad had a distinct approach to art making that influenced many generations of Syrian artists and was acclaimed internationally during his lifetime. He depicted abstract compositions that revealed an extraordinary balance between form and color and evoked both his academic and aesthetic savoir-faire. He was awarded with the “Knight Commander Award,” “Commendatore” from the Republic of Italy in 1976, the “Syrian Highest Medal of Merit in Arts and Literature” in 1977, and the “Syrian First-Class Order of Merit” by the Syrian Republic in 1989 after his decease. Posthumously, the Syrian government granted him a few other prizes for arts and culture.
An artist's estate first grows by the effort of the artist himself; keeping track of everything from exhibition flyers and invitations, to letters, notes and sketches, and work in progress pieces—materials which all act to show us the creative process of the artist. Hammad used to also photograph his work when he completed it; he had a dark room at home, where his studio was also located, where he developed and printed his photos.
On a visit to Syria in 2010 with my brother Amin, a professor at Concordia University, we discussed the importance of archiving the oeuvre and estate of our father, preserving and keeping his legacy alive. In order to begin, we needed a structure to organize his works featuring different media and subject matter produced over different points within the span of his fifty-year career.
We started by organizing the works and divided them into four periods: The Beginnings period (1939–1953); Rome period, where he studied art (1953–1957) and where many well-known Arab artists were studying; Horan period (1957–1963); and finally, the Calligraphy period from 1963 until his passing in 1988. The Beginnings period includes materials on the first art associations in Damascus in the forties and fifties. Materials from the sixties, seventies, and eighties include information about The Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, the visiting professors from abroad, the first Arab conference of fine arts that took place in Damascus in 1971, followed by the first conference of the General Union of Arab Plastic Artists organized in Baghdad in 1973, and many other details that are important for recording the history of the modern art movement in Syria.
Next, in order to create the digital archive with high-resolution images, we worked with a professional photographer to photograph all the paintings that we had in the studio (front and back when information was written on the back), the large pieces on paper, and the medallions.
According to the designated artist’s periods, we then organized the archives based on the types of media including drawings, sketches, and photographs. We also kept records of documents including, letters and correspondences, exhibition catalogs, educational materials, articles, and translations written by Hammad. We arranged all the available publications, such as interviews in magazines, newspapers, and books.
Finally, we went through all the photos, slides, and negatives and scanned them. We also transferred all the video tapes with interviews on the Syrian T.V. to C.Ds. The tapes include interviews with other artists like Nassir Chaura, Naim Ismail, and Elias Zayat. We also discovered that Hammad had also kept internal records, documenting details of works, places they were exhibited, records of what was sold or published, and in some cases, the names of the buyer. Such extensive documentation allowed us to record the details of the works we had information for.
On the other hand, most of the works from the “Beginnings,” “Horan,” and “Calligraphy” periods were numbered. This was additional information to be added to the work details, and allowed us to identify the missing works in the archives. More importantly, maintaining a numbering system helped us to authenticate the works and to recognize attributed ones.2
So far, there are around 4600 works archived on canvas, panel, and paper. However, there are works that are still not archived, like some medallions and relief works in plaster which Hammad designed.
The Mahmoud Hammad archive serves as a tribute to his generation of artists. The generation preceding Hammad’s was passionate and worked under difficult circumstances, especially between the First and Second World Wars, and was persistent in their dedication to their art. It can be said that Hammad’s experience in the “Beginnings” period is common for the generation to which he belonged, which also experienced cultural and financial difficulties.
At this point, I felt it was time to name the archive and give it a purpose. In 2016, I attended a conference in Berlin, held by The Institute for Artists’ Estates, entitled: “Keeping the Legacy,” which addressed aspects of artist-estate planning and management. When you start an artist’s estate, you have to be familiar with the vision and the goals of the artist, which in my father’s case are explained in his papers, writings, and articles.
There are many issues, which need to be taken into account when leading or planning the activity of an artist’s estate. It is necessary to consider strategic and legal issues as well as questions of conservation and restoration. It is also important to consider how to keep it alive for coming generations. Reliable contacts in the art market are essential. Managing relations with museums, galleries and auction houses is important in terms of selling, evaluation, authentication, and consultation.
In order to make the archival material as accessible to the public as possible, we created a website, Facebook and Instagram pages. We made the online material accessible to everyone, albeit not the entire archive, in hopes to make the archive publicly available in the future.
Initially, the idea was to publish the archives in a printed catalogue raisonné. However, I found that this would be challenging in terms of funding. Additionally, an online catalogue raisonné would be more feasible to run and update.
Under the auspices of al Mawrid at NYUAD, the Hammad Collection can be part of the construction of a digital archive paired with a range of endeavors, both scholarly and artistic. This collaboration is adding more resources and expertise towards building and promoting Hammad’s archive.
We also signed a contract with Atassi Foundation in which we agreed to share the archives to be part of their Modern Art Syria Archive.
We are also working on archiving the works and documents of my mother, the Lebanese artist, Derrieh Fakhoury Hammad. The archives include some photos from her time at the Academy of Fine Art in Beirut (currently Alba) and from Rome, where she studied art, along with some exhibition brochures and correspondences.
Despite the great progress the Estate has made until now, much remains to be done. It’s only the beginning of what the Estate has in store to keep the Legacy of Mahmoud Hammad alive.
1 This text was originally presented by Lubna Hammad in the panel “Saloua Raouda Choucair & Mahmoud Hammad - Preserving a Legacy: Custodians of Arab Art,” at Abu Dhabi Art (November 2022). The panel was co-organized by al Mawrid Arab Center for the Study of Art at Abu Dhabi Art.
2 One of my roles within the estate is providing information upon request to scholars, art historians, researchers, museums and galleries. Authenticating the works and providing certificates of authenticity for free to encourage people to show us what they have in their collection. Another major reason why we provide certificates of authenticity relates to people contacting us with regard to possible forgeries. The number of fakes is not that big, at least to my knowledge, and it is also easy to spot them.
Cite this article as:
Hammad, Lubna. "Mahmoud Hammad Archives: Independent and Institutional Archives." Sawt al-Arsheef, al Mawrid NYUAD (June 2023).