The story of the Litehouse Gallery cannot be told without mentioning Art Residence Aley, the first major contemporary Syrian art-related project initiated by Mrs Raghad Mardini in Lebanon. Upon seeing deserted stables for the first time in 2011, a relic from the Lebanese civil war, and abandoned for many years, Mrs Mardini, a civil engineer, decided to restore the building, The project took her one year of hard work to achieve its goal. A single walnut tree, suffering sadly in the grounds, yet possessing life within, inspired Mrs Mardini to ponder about her home country, similar to the walnut tree, exhausted and in ruins, yet still possessing inner beauty and resilience. Upon these reflections, Mrs Mardini decided to transform the space into a haven for the exiled Syrian artists in Lebanon.
Thus, 2012 witnessed beginning of Art Residence Aley, the first arts space devoted to contemporary Syrian artists. This project was very successful, and was met with public appreciation from multiple local, foreign and worldwide-renowned organisations, such as the UNHCR, CKU, AFAC, British Council, Agial gallery and various institutions in Europe. Moreover, artworks created by the artists-in-residence were shown and gained recognition by different and various audiences during exhibitions in Lebanon, Kuwait, Germany and the United States.
Only two years later, in 2014, a documentary movie titled ‘Art of Resilience’ was released. Introducing the viewers to the space and its artists, this film is a great insight into obstacles faced by contemporary Syrian artists. In 2015, following the visit of Mr. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations to Art Residence Aley, in collaboration with the UNHCR, the publication of the book ‘Syrian Art in Hard Times: 2012-2015’ (ISBN: 9789953033051) took place. This publication was possible thanks to the generous support of the UNHCR and formal endorsements of the Secretary Genera,l who was impressed by the space, projects undertaken and the works performed. The book was released during a collective exhibition for the in-residence artists at the Villa Paradiso in Beirut.
So speaking, 2017 approached and marked the official splitting of Mrs Mardini and the brainchild project. Whereas Art Residence Aley remains active in Lebanon, the London-based Litehouse Gallery made its first appearance in February 2017. Though still in close connection with Art Residence Aley, the fundraising event of selling the ‘Syrian Art in Hard Times: 2012-2015’ book and artworks recently produced by the young Syrian artists, the success of the event opened up opportunities for Mrs Mardinis’s newest project.
Nevertheless, setting up a new arts space would not be possible without necessary foundations consistently laid down since 2015, when Mrs Mardini moved to London with her family. Upon her arrival and performing a market research, she realised that there is strong gap in representation of Syrian art in the art spaces, even though it is highly appreciated in auction houses. Moreover, leading British institutions, notably the British Museum, are acquiring works of art of many emerging Syrian artists, i.e. Adel Daoud or Monif Ajaj. Seeing huge possibility in the local market to promote contemporary Syrian art due to the rising interest in Syrian situation, Mrs Mardini decided to develop the market for Syrian artists in London. Since then, she participated in numerous events during which she could showcase contemporary Syrian art. In 2016, she participated in a panel during the ‘Arab Women Artists Now’ festival at the Rich Mix in London, UK, organized ‘Celebrate Syria’ multi sensory event with art exhibition at the University of Westminster in London, UK and gave a talk for the ‘Arab Refugee crisis in the 21st Century’ conference at Duke University in Durham, USA. After every appearance during these various events, she was met with vivid interest in contemporary Syrian art as well as high regard and sympathy towards her idea.
Thus, the newly set-up ‘Litehouse Gallery’ is expected to continue the work of Art Residence Aley in serving as an art space for displaced Syrian artists, currently residing in various European countries. In close cooperation with local institutions it will become the main hub for Syrian artists. The main activities will be evolving – apart from serving as a commercial art gallery – around organising talks, workshops and exhibitions aiming at giving space for young Syrian artists to voice their beliefs and concerns, and have social implications on the British scene. The activities will evolve around many topics: from art and politics, war and exile, through human relations and everyday life, towards dreams and visions portraying the real image of modern Syria.