Syrian Art – Narratives of Hope, Despair and Resilience

Syrian artists have contributed alternative, rich and nuanced, angles and raised awareness on Syria.

24 November 2016

Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Nathalie Rosa Bucher is a features writer with a passion for cinema and cycling, a keen interest in culture and means of transport, as well as social and environmental subjects. Her mixed French-German origins possibly explain why she is drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: she called Cape Town in South Africa home for 15 years before coming to Beirut in early 2012.

This is an introductory piece of a new series on Syrian art.

(Beirut, Lebanon) Nearly six years after coming to Beirut in significant numbers, many Syrian artists have claimed new segments of the city’s artscape, although they have always been part of the Lebanese art scene, especially visual artists.

When galleries started to close in Damascus and the conflict escalated, Syrian artists moved to Beirut, which provided more freedom of expression, a receptive audience and the possibility to make some money from art.

However, although Syrian artists typically knew Beirut, most faced considerable hardship – and racism – given the strained Syrian-Lebanese relations and the small, competitive art market. Their presence has given the art scene a boost and provided more visceral and nuanced perspectives.

Quickly, Syrian artists established which cultural venues, restaurants, cafes and bars were supportive of the revolution and welcoming, where collaborations were possible. Some foreign embassies and institutions as well as foundations had funds in response to the Arab Spring and became a port of calls for Syrian artists.

Lebanon’s art scene being larger, better connected internationally and more competitive forced Syrian artists to become more business savvy, to engage with the market and to learn to market themselves.

By 2016, many had succeeded in establishing themselves or moved on to Turkey or Europe; others struggled to survive. For some Beirut and the violence at home proved to be too hard as was exemplified by the suicide of Hassan Rabeh, a young dancer and member of Sima Dance Company.

Effect of the Revolution

The violence and the war have obliterated memories of the genesis of the Syrian revolution, which unleashed a remarkable creative energy. Through an avalanche of social media and output on online platforms, the world came to see a Syria that was creative, eloquent, defiant, brave, young and thirsting for change.

Taking stock in 2014, Elie Abdo writes that “one of the effects of the revolution was to free the arts in Syria from the stagnation that was one of the products of its domesticated culture. […] A new authority had imposed itself on the scene: the street.” Possibly one of its greatest merits, Abdo continues, was that “the Syrian revolution opened a space for everybody to participate in creating the “revolutionary moment”, whether by singing, playing music, chanting or reciting poetry.”

Few Syrian artists dared to comment on the repressive political situation well before 2011. The outspoken Youssef Abdelke, famous for his dark, evocative charcoal drawings, had spent two years in jail under Hafez Al-Asad and was detained for five weeks in 2013. Still living in Damascus, he has painted harrowing portraits of mothers grieving their ʻmartyredʼ children and objects that pierce the viewer with their sombre aesthetics and honesty.

A most repressive, yet lively, context

“I got to know about Omar Amiralay when he died!” self-taught animation artist Wael Toubaji said about one of Syria’s most accomplished documentary filmmakers. “People like him received no support, no national media covered them so they had to work abroad. When we had good art we did not get to see or hear about it.”

Ghiath al-Jebawi, an architect and urbanist who moved to Beirut before resettling in Italy in 2012, remembered the Damascus University Fine Art Faculty: “None of its five sections engaged with contemporary art. They had no clue about it and there was no window of experimentation. The rigid, centralized structure reflected the political system. Discovering a place like [the Lebanese NGO] Ashkal Alwan when I came to Beirut was a shock! I read, discovered and learnt so much there.”

Visual Communication student in that Fine Art Faculty, Laila1 recalled how after Yasser al-ʻAbbar, an academic, had been arrested in Darayya in 2013, a professor, glaring at her said: “This is what you get when you want freedom.”

Unknown and not connected to the West, Syrian art was sought after by Arab collectors. The scene gained momentum in 2004 with the inauguration of Dar al-Asad for Arts and Culture, the new Opera House in Damascus and the opening of Ayyam Gallery, its first space in Damascus in 2006, which contributed to the promotion of Syrian artists internationally. The budding art scene even caught the attention of international media.

Wissam Qaddur, currently a Beirut-based cultural practitioner, recalled how a veritable coffee shop boom occurred in Damascus around that time. “I managed the Pages Café in Shaʻlan, which became a popular meeting point. It was a community bringing together all kinds of people, including artists of all ages. Every Tuesday we had open mic for musical evenings.”

Syrian artists and galleries started gaining the attention of international galleries, collectors and auction houses, further facilitated through Damascus being the Arab Capital of Culture in 2008. That year, animation artist Toubaji and his friend Sam Haddad, were provided with the rare opportunity to access funding from Damascus Arab Capital of Culture for “Shadows”, an animation short film that went on to screen at various festivals.

The French Cultural Centre (CCF), the Goethe Institute, British Council, and other foreign institutions greatly contributed to the Syrian capital’s cultural life. “The most popular place was the CCF,” Toubaji explained, “It was famous for good taste, there were always good exhibitions there. Especially before the Internet, arts and culture would provide a window to other kinds of worlds.”

“Damascus was really alive, inspiring, there were many exhibitions and plays to go to and they were not expensive at all. I’d get in for free to most events; the opera could be $2,” Toubaji recalled.

One of the places John Wreford, a photographer who had been living in Damascus for ten years before having to leave in 2013, remembered were Monday nights at Bayt al-Qasid (the House of Poetry), set up at the Fardoss Tower Hotel in 2008. Initiated by poet and writer Lukman Derky, these nights were as much about poetry as about poetic license, scrutinized by secret policemen, like all public events.

“Especially painting was quite advanced by 2011, but the artists I knew could not make a living out of it,” Toubaji underscored. And in as much as the Asad regime was parading a liberal face with world-class boutique hotels and Western acts providing a veneer of openness, dissident voices were being summarily arrested at the same time.

To exhibit in public spaces, and to engage with wider audiences, required special permissions. “I exhibited some of my work with [self-taught photographer] Issa Touma in Aleppo in 2003 at the train station and passengers arriving or departing would be able to view the work,” Wreford recalled. “It was a great event, I remember farmers from Deyr az-Zawr showing a lot of interest in my photographs of Cairo.”

Cataclysm and Exile

“The beginning of the revolution were the most beautiful days,” cultural practitioner Qaddur emphasized. “We spoke about freedom, what we had to do, what we needed, but when our friends started going to jail one by one we shared the fear… We put a candle at Pages, we stopped the open mic – you can’t celebrate when people die.”

Laila drew posters and banners for protests. “It had to go fast, five minutes and the police or security forces could be here,” she remembered. “This is all I could do. I wished I could do more but we lived in a regime area, and we were really afraid, thinking of our parents.”

She left for Turkey in 2012 and went on to create posters for the Centre for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSD). One of her posters, against the arming of children, was widely copied and disseminated – even by regime forces, according to Leila, though without the NGO logo.

[Image: Centre for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSD) campaign against the arming of children. Syrian artist Laila designed the poster's logo (courtesy of CCSD and Laila)].
[Image: Centre for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria (CCSD) campaign against the arming of children. Syrian artist Laila designed the poster's logo (courtesy of CCSD and Laila)].
“With the revolution going on I felt useless and helpless, until I realized that I can do something with my art,” Toubaji put forward. “I was trying to survive in Istanbul and Beirut and to do something useful I would not regret.”

Once in Beirut, he did a short animation on the Syrian revolution (“One Hand”, 2012). “As an artist I was confused about the reaction of the audience – people felt sorry about me being Syrian. That made me do another film: ʻMetaphorʼ.” Completed in 2014, “Metaphor” is deeply painful and beautiful at once, revealing how challenging it had become to remain defiant and hopeful.

Since 2011, a considerable number of Beiruti galleries and art centers have hosted group and solo exhibitions and screenings of Syrian artists. Production companies provided Syrian filmmakers with post production support and facilities. Theatres, dance and puppet companies and bands integrated artists from Syria, regional and international foundations created special funds.

Raghad Mardini, a Lebanese engineer, referred to by Qaddur as a “godmother”, set up the Art Residence Aley (ARA), 15 km uphill from Beirut, which stands out as a unique oasis, allowing Syrian artists to stay for up to a month, offering assistance to connect with local galleries and collectors.

Syrian artists have contributed alternative, rich and nuanced, angles and raised awareness on Syria. Tammam Azzam achieved international acclaim for his Freedom Graffiti for which he photoshopped Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” onto a bombed out building in Homs.

“What is needed is less of an ad-hoc but more longer term sustainable approaches, to not push for artistic production but to support the very artistic process and artists’ development,” a Beirut-based Syrian cultural practitioner urged, citing the example of Germany, which has provided an enabling environment and a positive example to emulate.

To support the Syrian artists' development in Europe means also to stop pitying them as mere refugees. “I’m categorized a refugee, so whatever I do, is seen through this label,” Toubaji, now based in Denmark, strongly objected. “I don’t want to be the refugee artist – I had my work before the revolution, the revolution just added to it.”

[Main image: "Martyr's mother" by Youssef Abdelké, 2012, Charcoal on paper mounted on wood 100 x 101 cm (Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Tanit - Beyrouth)].

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