Sy­rian Ar­tists in War and Exile

Art Press - - SYRIE -

Is there still a place for art amid the mer­ci­less war the Sy­rian re­gime is car­rying out against its people? Since most Sy­rian ar­tists have joi­ned their coun­try’s dia­spo­ra, what can be said about the coun­try’s contem­po­ra­ry art scene and its abi­li­ty to pro­duce work be­fit­ting its cur­rent rea­li­ty, “art through which an era iden­ti­fies it­self”?(1) What has been the im­pact on contem­po­ra­ry art of the Sy­rian revolution that be­gan in March 2011, and the in­ter­na­tio­nal scat­te­ring of the coun­try’s ar­tists?

Ea­sel pain­ting came to Sy­ria with the ope­ning of a fine arts school in 1923, du­ring the per­iod when the coun­try was ru­led un­der a French man­date (1920-46).(2) It in­tro­du­ced Eu­ro­pean Orien­ta­lism and Im­pres­sio­nism, as the pain­ter Kha­led Ta­kre­ti re­calls. He em­pha­sizes the in­fluence of Eu­ro­pean art and the lit­tle contact with the Ame­ri­can avant-gardes un­til the 1990s, when an ope­ning to the in­ter­na­tio­nal art scene went hand in hand with the re­gime’s pro­gram of economic pri­va­ti­za­tion. The pho­to­gra­pher and film­ma­ker Mo­ha­mad Al Rou­mi speaks of the in­fluences of Vien­nese Ex­pres­sio­nism as well as Kan­dins­ky and abs­tract art star­ting in the 1960s.To­day pain­ting re­mains the main trend among the coun­try’s ar­tists, but fi­gu­ra­tive art has over­ta­ken abs­trac­tion and in­crea­sin­gly ar­tists are tur­ning to pho­to­gra­phy and other vi­sual arts. The art mar­ket, po­la­ri­zed by the in­fluence of Du­bai, has played the cen­tral role in this in­ter­na­tio­na­li­za­tion. In Da­mas the ope­ning of the Ayyam gal­le­ry in 2006 and ri­sing va­lua­tions spur­red the emer­gence of lo­cal ar­tists and a gro­wing in­ter­est among col­lec­tors and the ge­ne­ral pu­blic. For the first time, the bour­geoi­sie en­ri­ched un­der the dic­ta­tor­ship of As­sad fa­ther (1970–2000) and son (since 2000) be­gan to flaunt its buying po­wer by ac­qui­ring Sy­rian contem­po­ra­ry art­works, be­fore the confis­ca­tion of wealth that took place du­ring the years im­me­dia­te­ly pre­ce­ding the 2011 po­pu­lar revolution. In the context of the mi­li­ta­ry and po­lice re­pres­sion that met the 2011 in­sur­rec­tion, ar­tists found them­selves for­ced to choose bet­ween ris­king im­pri­son­ment for po­li­ti­cal ac­ti­vism or an en­ga­ged ar­tis­tic prac­tice in exile. In ei­ther case, pru­dent neu­tra­li­ty was

not an op­tion, ex­cept for a few pain­ters who re­mai­ned in Sy­ria such as Sabhan Adam and Fa­di Ya­zi­gi. The lat­ter, a sculp­tor as well as pain­ter, re­fuses to al­low his work to be shown in Da­mas­cus and lives on sales el­sew­here in the Middle East. The self-taught pain­ter Adam, born in 1972, shows his work all over the Middle East and Eu­rope, in­clu­ding Pa­ris, but al­so in Da­mas­cus, wi­thout that si­gni­fying a pro-re­gime po­li­ti­cal po­si­tion. Still, the ci­ty’s main gal­le­ries have clo­sed, and ar­tists close to the re­gime and dis­po­sed to sup­port the po­li­ti­cal re­pres­sion are the prin­ciple be­ne­fi­cia­ries of the art scene such as it still exists in the ca­pi­tal. Exile of­ten leads to economic im­po­ve­rish­ment. Ar­tists are constrai­ned to mo­di­fy their prac­tice and take up me­dia that re­quire less space, such as the di­gi­tal arts, lea­ding to a for­mal re­vi­ta­li­za­tion. Ar­tists in exile such as Tam­mam Az­zam and Am­mar Al-Beik, among others, have adop­ted a po­si­tion in fa­vor of the people whose suf­fe­ring they de­pict in works meant for both the Sy­rian dia­spo­ra and the non-Sy­rian pu­blic. In ap­pro­pria­ting and sub­ver­ting ce­le­bra­ted art­works like Gus­tav Klimt’s The Kiss, Az­zam seeks to alert re­gio­nal and world pu­blic opi­nion. His pho­to­mon­tage title Klimt, Free­dom Graf­fi­ti from his Sy­rian Mu­seum se­ries is a pro­jec­tion of the fa­mous pain­ting on a wall in ruins that seems to re­present Sy­ria. Si­mi­lar­ly, Al-Beik’s di­gi­tal work Lost Images com­bines a cri­tique of Ba­shar al-As­sad and a mes­sage of hope for the Sy­rian people, with their his­to­ry stret­ching across mil­len­nia. Both men make a li­ving as ar­tists, the for­mer from sales in Du­bai and the lat­ter from the fi­nan­cing of his short films. Uni­ver­si­ty re­search grants and as­sor­ted gigs help out. They al­so re­ceive fun­ding from lo­cal sources and non-pro­fits that en­able them to show their work and win a wide au­dience.

IMAGES OF THE WORLD Re­fe­ren­cing mo­dern art, Jacques Ran­cière em­pha­sizes the role played by po­pu­lar art in the de­mo­cra­ti­za­tion of sub­jects. As for Sy­rian ar­tists, their re­pre­sen­ta­tion of the people bor­rows from ni­ne­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eu­ro­pean Orien­ta­lism. In the context of the coun­try’s in­de­pen­dence (since 1946) and the rise of na­tio­na­lism, this re­pre­sen­ta­tion of the people consti­tu­ted a com­pro­mise with the need to adopt fo­rei­gn ar­tis­tic tech­niques, a bor­ro­wing that so­me­times led to a quest for au­then­ti­ci­ty.(3) There emer­ged a cur­rent of so­cial­ly cri­ti­cal art and po­li­ti­cal en­ga­ge­ment, of­ten in op­po­si­tion to po­ver­ty. In a search for his roots, the pho­to­gra­pher and film­ma­ker Al Rou­mi has ma­ni­fes­ted an in­crea­sing in­ter­est in ru­ral people and Be­douins. This al­so re­sponds to an in­ter­na­tio­nal de­mand for land­scapes and images of eve­ry­day life on the Sy­rian steppe. In ad­di­tion to po­pu­lar mo­tifs, the de­mo­cra­ti­za­tion Ran­cière des­cribes in Le Par­tage du sen­sible in­volves a wi­der ac­cess to art-ma­king. Thus the condi­tions for this aes­the­tic equa­li­ty are ba­sed on “a dif­ferent cir­cu­la­tion of in­for­ma­tion and images in the contem­po­ra­ry world […] Ma­ny ar­tists to­day are more concer­ned with consti­tu­ting al­ter­nate modes of the cir­cu­la­tion of in­for­ma­tion and images of the contem­po­ra­ry world than with pre­sen­ting art­works that would be an end in them­selves.”(4)

THE CARAVAN, FOR THE PEOPLE The Sy­rian revolution contri­bu­ted to far more use of the In­ter­net, es­pe­cial­ly by ar­tists who re­mai­ned in the coun­try for whom ano­ny­mi­ty is a mat­ter of se­cu­ri­ty. The Net is be­co­ming both a mode of cir­cu­la­tion for re­vo­lu­tio­na­ry art and a source of ins­pi­ra­tion. This new ar­tis­tic di­men­sion of cy­ber­ne­tics is lin­ked to the im­por­tance of the new so­cial net­works in the cir­cu­la­tion of po­li­ti­cal news and re­la­ti­ve­ly de­mo­cra­ti­zed ac­cess to them. Hun­dreds of Fa­ce­book friends re­ceive and share di­gi­tal art­works, pho­tos of street art and news of po­li­ti­cal ac­tions. The Web is be­co­ming the re­lay and mains­tay of po­li­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, re­trans­mit­ting in­te­rac­tive ac­tions and ge­ne­ra­ting a di­gi­tal pu­blic space.(5) Since 2011, Sy­ria, and in par­ti­cu­lar its contem­po­ra­ry art as well as its rich pa­tri­mo­ny, has cap­tu­red the in­ter­est of in­ter­na­tio­nal pu­blic opi­nion. In res­ponse to this cu­rio­si­ty, the Sy­rian Cultu­ral Caravan seeks to sup­port and re­present contem­po­ra­ry cultu­ral and ar­tis­tic pro­duc­tion. As its name in­di­cates, this is an iti­ne­rant pro­ject, tra­ve­ling around Eu­rope to pro­claim that Sy­rian ar­tists have not gi­ven up. The Caravan’s mem­bers seek to sup­port the re­vo­lu­tio­na­ry Sy­rian people, vic­tims of both the As­sad re­gime and ISIS. With the slo­gan “Free­dom for the Sy­rian people,” it ad­dresses a broa­der au­dience than gal­le­ries and mu­seums. Spe­ci­fi­cal­ly, the Caravan brings to­ge­ther and shows the work of dia­spo­ra Sy­rian ar­tists, about twen­ty in all, in ur­ban street set­tings, in or­der to reach and in­form a pu­blic that can serve as an in­ter­lo­cu­tor for the Sy­rian people in revolution. This non-pro­fit as­so­cia­tion is run by a hand­ful of ar­tists who or­ga­nize ex­hi­bi­tions,(6) no­ta­bly the pho­to­gra­pher and film­ma­ker Mo­ha­med Al Rou­mi and his life part­ner, the jour­na­list Amé­lie Du­ha­mel, and the pain­ters Wa­laa Da­kak and El Mas­ri. The lat- ter has trans­mit­ted a mes­sage of hope in his de­pic­tion of trees and a co­coon, a sym­bol of life and op­ti­mism, while Da­kak, who al­so makes ins­tal­la­tions, uses the mo­tif of eyes to re­present the po­li­ti­cal pa­ra­noia of state ter­ro­rism since 1970. Some Caravan ar­tists sup­port them­selves through their art and others work at va­rious jobs in their coun­tries of re­fuge. Da­kak works with the­ra­peu­tic art, while El Mas­ri is able to sell his works in Middle Eas­tern coun­tries. He has en­joyed pri­vate sup­port in Pa­ris, thanks to which he has been loa­ned a stu­dio. The Caravan al­so holds concerts and rea­dings of the work by the poet Khou­loud Al Zghayare (a PhD in so­cio­lo­gy), who al­so or­ga­nizes cultu­ral events for the group. As a plat­form for ex­changes, the Caravan bring to­ge­ther Sy­rian in­tel­lec­tuals like the au­thors and jour­na­lists Sa­mar Yaz­bek, Yas­sin Al Haj Sa­leh and Ha­la Kod­ma­ni, and the ar­tists Su­la­fa Hi­ja­zi and Iman As­ba­ni, whose work illus­trates to­day’s vio­lence and, more per­so­nal­ly, ex­plores the ques­tion of iden­ti­ty. Both en­joy in­ter­na­tio­nal ca­reers and Hi­ja­zi al­so works for Ger­man ra­dio and te­le­vi­sion broad­cas­ters. The Caravan seeks to re­present the whole of Sy­rian so­cie­ty and at the same time a re­vo­lu­tio­na­ry pro­ject that can be an al­ter­na­tive to the dic­ta­to­rial re­gime and the Is­la­mic State. In that, it em­bo­dies po­li­ti­cal re­sis­tance and, in em­bryo, the so­cial re­cons­truc­tion to come.

Trans­la­tion, L-S Tor­goff

(1) Ca­the­rine Millet, L’Art contem­po­rain. His­toire et

géo­gra­phie, Flam­ma­rion, Champs, 2006. Al­so see An­dré Rouillé, La Mode du contem­po­rain.­ri­ (2) Re­naud Avez, L’Ins­ti­tut fran­çais de Da­mas au Pa­lais

Azem à tra­vers les ar­chives, Presses de l’IFPO (3) Sil­via Naef, “L’Ex­pres­sion ico­no­gra­phique de l’au­then­ti­ci­té (asâ­la) dans la pein­ture arabe mo­derne,­lumes/1993/Pages/ (4) Jacques Ran­cière, “Le mo­ment es­thé­tique de l’éman­ci­pa­tion so­ciale,” in La Re­vue des livres, 1 Sep­tem­ber 2012. www.ema­nan­­to­rial/li­bros/de­talles.aspx? IDL=769&IDN=79 (5) Cé­cile Boex, “La gram­maire ico­no­gra­phique de la ré­volte en Sy­rie : usages tech­niques et sup­ports,” www.aca­de­ (6) An ex­haus­tive list of events, par­ti­ci­pants, ex­hi­bi­tion sites and fi­nan­cial part­ners can be consul­ted on the Caravan web­site: http://ca­ra­va­ne­cul­tu­rel­le­sy­­te­go­ry/les-par­ti­ci­pants/

Vic­to­ria Am­bro­si­ni Che­ni­vesse is the au­thor of a the­sis en­tit­led, “Art po­pu­laire, art contem­po­rain et pra­tiques po­li­tiques au Moyen-Orient : entre orien­ta­lisme et Ré­vo­lu­tion égyp­tienne, 2000-2014” (EHESS).

Sabhan Adam. « Sans titre ». 2007. Tech­nique mixte sur toile. 305 x 146 cm. (Court. ga­le­rie po­lad-har­douin, Pa­ris). Mixed me­dia on can­vas Su­la­fa Hi­ja­zi. « Nais­sance ». 2012. Im­pres­sion nu­mé­rique. “Birth.” Di­gi­tal print

De haut en bas / from top: Am­mar Al-Beik. « OE­di­pus Com­plex ». 2013. Tam­mam Az­zam. « Sé­rie pa­pier 05 ». 2016. Col­lage pa­pier sur toile. 120 x 160 cm. Col­lage, pa­per/can­vas

De haut en bas / from top: Fa­di Ya­zi­gi. Un­tit­led. 2016. Tech­nique mixte sur pa­pier de riz. Mixed me­dia on rice pa­per Wa­lid El Mas­ri. « Co­coon ». 2014. 150 x 200 cm

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