EDUCULT Talks: with Sami Ajouri
Sami Ajouri was born in Syria in 1980 and studied sculpting at the University of Fine Arts in Damascus. In 2006 he moved to Vienna and in 2011 obtained a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts with a focus on printmaking. His works have been exhibited in many cities in both eastern and western Europe, as well as in Lebanon and Damascus. Sami Ajouri displayed several of his pieces in an exhibit entitled “Auflösung_Dissolution” hosted by EDUCULT from December 2019 to October 2020 as part of its Salon of Cultures program.
EDUCULT: Dear Sami Ajouri, according to your biography you came to Austria in 2006.
Sami Ajouri: At the end of 2005.
What was your reason for setting off specifically to Vienna?
I had already started to think about emigrating a few years before. One aspect of this was to escape military service, which in Syria is very unpleasant. At that time, the unrest had already been going on for two years. Even when I was at University in Damascus, I was already starting to think: where to? This was the question for most students, where to and when, especially for the men, who faced conscription. I started to learn French and then immediately gave it up [laughs]. I have three uncles in Germany who have been there since the 70s. I always had a connection to Germany, because cousins who lived in Germany would come to visit Syria. I learned “1, 2, 3” when I was young, “Monster,” “Fleisch,” and “Tomaten”. Things like this. I had a bit of a feel for the language. Then, I really put the pedal to the metal and started to learn German with the end goal of moving to Germany and continuing to take courses there. My goal was Berlin and Tony Cragg, the sculptor. Bur Germany didn’t want me. For some reason, I couldn’t get a visa—probably for financial reasons. Some of the German language students I met in Damascus studied at Angewandte in Vienna. They told me that Vienna was great; the Art Academy is very old and well established, and they also speak German there. I applied for a visa and got was told yes by the Austrian embassy in Damascus.
So here it worked right away?
Yes. Then I landed in Vienna. I always tried to see if I could still move to Berlin, but Vienna was also very interesting and exciting. Because of that, I stayed.
When you were in Vienna, did you notice right away that it had a certain flair that made you imagine you could stay?
That would be a bit exaggerated. I wasn’t totally set. It came off as a little snobby to me, especially in the first district. I thought, nobody lies in these “Hollywood- Disney” houses. I couldn’t believe it. I thought they were just facades, propped up by wooden planks. I looked behind it like a cat in front of a mirror. At first it was a little strange. I was fascinated by this image of Berlin as a brave city. Here you have Sachertorte and waltzes.
You arrive somewhere with pictures, you already have pictures in your mind. The first things on your minds were Sachertorte and classical music?
That was my first impression. I got taken up by Gunter Damisch. His class was so good. Everything worked right away, very well. That’s also Vienna—things just work out. I got a scholarship, met really nice people, and found weekend jobs. I arrived with €1500 in my pocket and I didn’t know how things would go. I had some support from my family, but they were all at their limit. I was able to find jobs right away and a year later recieved a scholarship from the Afro-Asiatic Institute. I stayed and overtime grew to love Vienna.
This love seems like it grew step by step. You didn’t come upon much resistance, but rather found support?
I was fascinated by the Academy, especially on the first floor in the mezzanine, where theory was taught. I missed this when I was in Damascus. In Syria we learned a lot of practical craft work. It was a traditional art school. I studied sculpture. Casts, clay, polyester—but I longed for more and wanted to learn about art history, theory, critique, and philosophy. This was immediately accessible at the Academy, as many of these courses were taught in English. After 6 months of my grammarless Germany, I was able to slowly build a sentence in a lecture by Peter Sloterdijk. I understood about 20% of what was being said, but for me it was just a joy and a pleasure to be in this atmosphere. I had so much fun. I brought my craft stories, my skills. I didn’t ask for anything more from the Academy in order to learn, and I didn’t need anything more, as I was already well on my way. The free thinking was what I enjoyed most and took away from my studies.
What was your experience with the art world and market in Syria? How can it be described ad the time, in contrast to what you became familiar with here? Can you make a living as an artist in Syria?
I understand this as two questions. Art in general is either in the sphere of kitsch, decorative—here as well as in Syria. The other side of art is the obedient art that sucks up to the government.
How would you describe this?
I took sculpting classes for three years. The ultimate goal of a sculptor in Syria was to make a sculpture of the president. Our professor told us that we should work on our art in order to get an assignment like this. There’s a lot of money in it, in depicting Assad with his arms stretched in the air, greeting people, or his son, or his second son—always figures from history, to carry forward their pride. 90% of this is propaganda art.
So, the idea is for the artist to learn the craft so well that can sculpt a person—in this case Assad—as realistically as possible? It’s not about using their creativity, but rather about a beautiful representation?
Zero creativity. Critics or a critical view had no place. In the underground we quietly read and thought, someday we’ll get away.
How was the Underground? Did you meet regularly?
In your circles of trust, you can talk about things. It wasn’t so organized—at least, I wasn’t part of such an organized group. But we had a lot of discussions. The Muslim Brotherhood planned certain things for a long time in the Underground. I’m against violence.
Were you able to express your creativity for yourself? Were you able to make sculptures that had value to you?
The goal of the dictatorship was among other things the suppression of Islamic society. The dictatorship is a socialist dictatorship. It’s linked with Russia. There are quotes from Assad, where he says these great things, and afterwards your read that these words originally came from Lenin or Marx. The total structure. Since elementary school, I wore a uniform, and then later a military uniform. In middle school and before final exams. The military uniform from age 12 to 18. You have to imagine it like North Korea. The other half of the society was the Muslim Brotherhood, the organized Islamic movement. This was the opposite, but more of a shadow where they continued to practice their religion under suppression. This again reflected onto society, and lead to the growth of religious and conservative thought. At the art university, we were not allowed to practice figure drawings. If we were, the models would be clothed. So all we really saw were the face and the hands. We often did figure drawings of women with head coverings.
Could you then draw those women nude?
No, clothed. But in the evenings we would meet in the studio and sketch each other nude. That was our revolution, our reaction to the fact that we weren’t allowed to do it. We had to learn a lot of anatomy from books. Those had nude pictures. We had many professors from eastern Europe, who were good at anatomical sketches. As sculptors, we had to learn this. But we could only do live modelling and sketches in a locked room, among friends. Society didn’t allow it.
You’ve probably exhibited in Syria as well. What did you exhibit? What could you display in a gallery?
There was a scene, the islands of freedom were the European culture centers, for example, the French culture center, which was part of the French consulate. There was a small gallery in the Goethe Institute. The Spanish culture center, or the British council. These three, four organizations were the places, where you could see abstract and performance art, and could think freely. I already knew of many contemporary European artists, and as the internet became more accessible in 2000-01, I saw what people on the outside were doing.
What did you exhibit?
At the time I built abstract steel sculptures. This was accepted, it was even what I did as my thesis at the art university in Damascus. It was monumental but not figuratively monumental. Long steel sculptures. I was very influenced by Richard Serra and Eduardo Chillida, sculptors from the USA and Spain. Them I made more expressive paintings, more characteristic. I also displayed these. The culture scene was very narrow at the time and was just on its way to expanding. In 2000, Baschar al-Assad, the son of the then president, took over. He promised that we would slowly get more freedom. Everything was very restricted, there were only a few uncensored newspapers and media that were newly founded. They lasted for about two or three years and then the Regime arrested them all. It was a short period of openness and giving people freedom, but the second people really started to work it was already too much for the dictatorship.
The consequences were massive.
Yes: jail or exile. That’s why the revolution was so bloody, because the pressure had been there for so long. At that time, private galleries had also begun opening. There were a few established galleries in Damascus, maybe 6 or 7. You can’t compare that with the number of galleries in Vienna. The new market was in the Gulf States: Dubai, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia. There were two projects where commercial galleries started to display abstract or expressive paintings and sculptures. More modern art, not post modern, but surely Picasso, Matisse, these styles and forms. That was very in at the time. The new bourgeoise, Syrians, that lived in the Gulf or in Lebanon, started to raise prices, to buy pieces. There was a mini art market. There were Syrian artists who sold paintings for many thousands of dollars. There was an explosion in the market. Then came the revolution, the economy crashed, and lots of violence. Most artists are outside, 90%.
You probably have contact with a few of your artist friends from that time, who are now spread out over the world.
Yes, many. I’m connected with my friends from my time as a student in Damascus—between 1999 and 2004—on Facebook. They’re in France, Germany, Sweden—spread out everywhere. Very few remained in Syria.
Let’s take a big step forward into the present. How are you doing now, at the moment?
Since then I’ve been on a journey. This is very important as a background for the works that I displayed here at EDUCULT. I got my diploma in Vienna in 2011. The revolution and country of Syria were burning at that time. Before that, I was in Syria once a month each year, with my parents and with friends. And at that time, I couldn’t bear any longer to just watch what was happening there on a screen. However, I couldn’t fly officially to Damascus, because I never did my military service. Because of that I was at risk of being drafted. Many activists here started to gather donations and old ambulances to send to Syria. This was at the beginning of 2012. I was active with a few political groups here at the time, including the Muslim Brotherhood. We met them and tried to organize action against the Assad regime. This later revealed itself to be a huge mistake. I eventually decided to drive to Turkey myself. There was a convoy, several cars carrying things like medication. They were heading from Vienna to the Turkish-Syrian border. I went with them. We ended up in a refugee camp with 30,000 people on Syrian ground, but guarded by the Turkish government and army.
Did you cross the border?
We came to the border next. It was in a state where it wasn’t totally clear where exactly the border was. There was war, and Turkey wanted to take control over the who area. This was a good chance for Turkey to provide humanitarian aid while also gaining more influence in the area. I stated there for one and a half years. I worked with the humanitarian organizations and took a lot of pictures. After that, I moved to Istanbul. Total, I spent three years in Turkey. I came back to Vienna in 2015.
Did you decide there that you would stay?
Yes. It was all overwhelming and challenging. It’s a catastrophe. It was a shock for me. We were naive, and thought that revolution would be beautiful, pink and democratic. But it was bloody and the revolutionaries themselves weren’t any less violent, aggressive, and undemocratic. Because of this it was a very important discussion for me. It was also part of the search for my identity.
That sounds like a very formative time.
I needed therapy for years in Vienna before I was finally awake and could understand what kind of a time and phase that we, as a collective, as people, and as individuals, went through. When I moved back to Vienna in 2015, I suddenly felt very at home. There was also the wave of refugees. There were people at the border. I wasn’t involved in activities because I was too personally broken. I felt like Vienna was a blessing for me, a place where I could feel good. I have good old friends, and people who supported me. Vienna is my home now. My old homeland popped, it revealed itself to be a bubble. It doesn’t totally work anymore. Now I feel at home in Vienna and in Austria generally. I’m not yet a citizen, but I am Viennese.
When you have your citizenship, then you can vote too.
I thought I could already vote in the district elections. Nobody knows. I have a residence permit.
How are you doing as an artist? You’ve been through a lot of personal evolution. That probably is reflected in your art. Are you able to support yourself with art?
No. I do different things and jobs, I do some graphic and web design. Since I’m good at practical and craft work, I build things, take over construction sites, lots of different things. Supporting myself with art—this was more of a therapeutic project for me. I came back and had pictures of the young men there [Sami points to his pictures on display at EDUCULT]. I have so many portraits. This was a way for me to process history. I showed it to a few curators. It doesn’t sell well, the poses are horrific, the posture, the faces, or I didn’t sell it well. That could be the case too. I’m not an ego driven artist who’s able to sell himself. I try to survive and do what’s in my heart. I haven’t tried to support myself with my art yet. Honestly, I don’t have to do it. I wouldn’t know how to.
Would you like to be able to market your art better, or are you satisfied with being able to make the art that you want, that’s in your heart, without being under pressure to earn money off of it?
To feel pressure related to my art isn’t an option for me. If I were to market my art, then it would have to be the same way I make art now, if it ever sells or reaches something. I wouldn’t know in what respect the art world demands something like this. I can see that people adapt to the art world. I wouldn‘t know how that works either. But it would be nice to live off of art. It would be better than my present situation. The thing that holds me back is that the art world—the art scene, and the people that you meet there, the discourse that occurs, the overall knowledge and culture—is unfamiliar to me. There’s something elite about it. I come from a poor, down-to-earth background. We had a lot of education at home. My father was an officer in the army for 20 years. Ever since I was a kid I read a lot of literature. There was no shortage of knowledge. But I don’t see myself as being above other people. I don’t see myself as superior. I don’t like that feeling in the art scene, that you need to present yourself as better than others. I would rather be around normal people.
I get the sense that at art viewings, you sometimes are speaking to facades more than you are to real people behind them.
I feel out of place there. Maybe that’s held me back from building a career in art. Maybe I need to overcome that.
Or, you go your own path and it unfolds ahead of you. Maybe you don’t have to have to force yourself in one direction, but instead things open up step by step.
To live off of your art is a good idea, if it works.
Thank you for the interesting conversation and good luck with your future plans!