The Khawam Gallery, located in Florida, is a beacon of contemporary art and culture. Established by Syrian-born artist Tony Khawam and his wife Mirna Asmar, the gallery recently hosted a booth at ArtExpo in New York City in April of 2018. Among the work on display in the gallery’s booth were Tony’s own paintings which were inspired by the war-torn urban landscape of Syria...which he often renders in color to depict hopefulness amid the war and chaos.

Tony was so deeply affected by the events of September 11, 2001, that he stopped painting. He re-established himself as an artist in 2015 and, through his gallery, promotes his work and the work of others.

Tony recently discussed his experiences as a Syrian immigrant, his artistic inspirations, his decision to open a gallery, and more via a recent and exclusive interview.

Painting, galleries, and Syria

Meagan Meehan (MM): You grew up in Syria and came to the United States with your family in 1976. What was it like to change countries and cultures, and do you think the move had any effect on your creativity?

Tony Khawam (TK): I was a painter at an early age and enrolled at Aleppo visual arts center when I was in middle school. Also, I was a frequent visitor to the national Museums of Aleppo and Damascus which house the best collections of ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and Arabic art.

I was a teenager when my family immigrated to the United States in 1976 and immediately attended Fair Lawn high school in New Jersey, I knew little French which helped me learn English quickly. I was the only student from Syria among the majority Jewish community of Fair Lawn, and the students were very nice. Every young man in Syria and Lebanon dreams of visiting or immigrating to the US, my dream always been in the arts, influenced by the American culture and cowboy movies and wanted to be an illustrator of Hollywood movie posters especially for Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson movies.

The move to the US definitely helped me pursue a career in the arts. After high school, I went to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, studied and practiced painting and sculpture with the best visual artists in the world which contributed to my creativity.

MM: How did you establish yourself as a painter and, prior to 9/11, what themes most inspired you?

TK: I hold a Bachelor degree in Fine Arts from SVA and continued my education in graphic design, advertising and secured jobs on Madison Avenue which provided me a steady income to have a family and raise three children, also continued painting and exhibiting during the nineties until 2001 which I stopped painting after the 9/11 events and closed my newly established gallery in NJ.

MM: After you started painting again in 2015 you have made Syria a focal point of your work and you often include colors to represent hope. What do you wish more Americans knew about Syria, its people, and the conditions there?

TK: The focal point of my artwork in the 1990s was the urban and industrial areas around New York City especially New Jersey.

The series are named “New York Metro Urbanism” that meant to convey my perception of the speed and flux of modern life with geometric lines with 3D effects and multi-layer of accumulated brushstrokes to form semi-abstract paintings.

The Syrian crisis deteriorated, and many of my relatives and childhood friends residing in Aleppo city were deeply affected by the war, many lost loved ones, their homes either damaged or collapsed and some of the youth left for Europe, Canada, America and left behind their elderly family members. In 2015 I decided to switch my subject from the “New York Urban landscapes” to “Aleppo Urban landscapes” which ancient city areas of Aleppo, UNESCO world heritage sites were damaged and in danger of destruction by the fighting, and I used the Aleppo “brand” as a symbol to represent the Syrian conflict.

The recent work showcases paintings of a semi-abstract vision of Syria’s urban landscapes in its war-torn cities. My primary focus is of my birthplace — the city of Aleppo with urban scenes of collapsed apartment floors, fallen balconies, curved rooftops and punched holes in the building facades. My new direction is expressed primarily through the use of accumulative strokes and the manipulation of paint to create an abstract interpretation. My aim is not to focus on the politics of the conflict, but instead, to raise awareness in the hope of changing the perception from destruction — of haunting and disturbing scenes to hopeful, colorful neighborhoods that are filled with life.

The debris of the destruction and ruins of haunting scenes were horrific and I wanted to bring them back to life through color and expressionist painting method to construct visual means with human-to-human connection to inspire hope and future through the creation of unique contemporary Works Of Art that can be understood by people from different cultures of all ages in a positive way despite all the negative news and images that the mainstream media injected into the minds of many Americans.

MM: What prompted you to open the Khawam Gallery in both Florida and New Jersey?

TK: The completion of twenty-four small paintings of Aleppo Urban Landscapes prompted me to communicate with cultural organizations in South Florida to exhibit the works, but due to many scheduled exhibitions the works will not be showcased for at least a year in advance, and I was in a hurry to exhibit them to the public. I’ve visited some galleries and was not impressed by their contemporary works of art exhibiting at their galleries or the art fairs and realized the need to open a contemporary art gallery in South Florida and New Jersey.

The South Florida Cultural & Arts invited me to participate in Florida Int'l Trade & Cultural Expo 2017 (FITCE) at Broward county convention center in Fort Lauderdale.

I showcased some recent Aleppo painting series in front of Int'l trade ministers and government dignitaries from fifty countries which was an inspiring experience based on the audience positive responses toward the work.

My wife Mirna Asmar and I decided to open a gallery and contacted several of my artists colleagues to join our gallery and participated in Art Miami week at Red Dot 2017 which coincided with my solo exhibition at Bailey Contemporary Arts near Fort Lauderdale and a catalogue was published showcasing the works from 2015-2017, also participated at Art Palm Beach 2018 and ArtExpo NY 2018.

MM: How many artists do you currently represent and what styles of artwork do you prefer to exhibit?

TK: We represent between eight and fifteen artists depending on the level of showcasing their artworks at different art venues. We like any style as long as the artist’s work is contemporary, original and has the artist’s unique signature style in paintings, sculptures and public art installation. We want to bring Syrian contemporary visual arts into the American art market to help Americans who visit the exhibit to see the richness and beauty of Syrian arts and culture and to continue exhibiting American artists. The combination of cultures and art styles complement our vision to bring unique works of art to the art market.

Artist, exhibitions, and ArtExpo

MM: Typically, how do you find the artists that you exhibit at the gallery and what can guests expect from your art openings?

TK: Every good artist has a story, some more compelling than others and if an artist chooses art to express his/her vision with a contemporary approach than that’s what we’re looking for to exhibit at Khawam Gallery. The story method continuity of these materials and the execution are the differentiating factors in choosing artists that help sets us apart from very crowded so-called “art market.” Many galleries are commercial and exhibit what sells to the mass audience, exhibits only contemporary creative and unique works of arts that appeal and dazzle collectors, curators, and art lovers. The gallery pricing is between $5,000-$25,000 of mid-career to established artists.

MM: You recently had a booth at ArtExpo, so what was that experience like and do you also travel to any other fairs?

TK: ArtExpo NY was a great experience for our gallery, people responded positively about all the works that we exhibited, and some collectors acquired half of our exhibition. We featured five contemporary visual artists, two Americans, two Syrian and one Armenian-Lebanese artist. Our plan for future participation is to exhibit at Art Basel, Art Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Montreal and in major European and Middle Eastern exhibitions.

MM: What are your biggest goals for the future of the Khawam Gallery?

TK: To continue improving our exhibitions to reach more Americans and the art market with national and International exhibitions by introducing established artists that make a difference on bringing unique art ideas to advance art history into the future and to be among the top tier of International contemporary art galleries.

MM: Do you have any exhibitions and/or events coming up soon and is there anything else that you would like to talk about?

TK: We’re planning several exhibitions in New York City, Montreal, and South Florida, also we’ve been contacted by international art fairs in Europe and the Middle East and will be considering the ones that are in line with our vision to bring our gallery artist’s works to the art world.