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Syrian Art Comes of Age

004 / 21 November 2012

The revolution in Syria has brought both danger and new possibilities for the little recognised Syrian art scene. According to the German art historian Charlotte Bank, who lived for 12 years between Damascus and Berlin and is an expert on the artistic scene there: 'Because of the lack of opportunities to show at home, there was never an art scene as there is in Beirut and in Cairo. The Syrian art scene had a lack of exposure that was quite dramatic.'



Bank curated Virtual Agoras: Artistic Virtual Activism in Syria in June 2012 for Impakt, an arts and audiovisual space in Utrecht. At the same time the exhibition I co-curated, Creating Spaces for Freedom: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria, was being shown at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery, in Amsterdam.[1] We had been discussing the Syrian art scene when she explained that the so-called Arab awakening had been a surprise for many artists and intellectuals in the Middle East, who thought that they would be, she said, 'the avant-garde for change. Instead, the Arab revolutions were a manifestation of a popular will for change.'


After the protests began in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, the noted Syrian documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay attempted to get the artistic community to demonstrate against conditions in Syria, but only a few bothered to show up. By the time the uprising started in earnest in Damascus in March of that year, Amiralay unexpectedly passed away. Artists, Bank maintained, became involved first as activists, and hesitated to address the revolution in their artwork. 'They wanted to see it evolve before they were going to use it', she said.


The situation changed dramatically six months later, when there was a proliferation of pro-opposition artwork, invariably anonymous – from traditional painting and illustration to short films, and animations to those mixing collage and documentary film footage – available online. Bank is now working on Visual Arts Festival Damascus, a nomadic touring exhibition with the French curator Delphine Leccas, who in September curated Syrian Anonymous Exhibition for WEYA (World Event Young Artists) in Nottingham.


Initially, Leccas – who spent 14 years in Damascus – had been asked to select two Syrian artists for WEYA. However, she turned down the proposition because by the time she left the capital in August last year, she observed, writing via email:


So many collective things were going on in Syria...Also…my contact with the artists was exclusively through the Internet and I decided to share pictures I was receiving on my Facebook page. Some of them were posted on a collective page created during the revolution, most of the time anonymously, so I decided to present a collective anonymous exhibition. I was thinking this exhibition would have a unique collective voice witnessing the events in the country.


Is there a difference between exhibiting art on a wall and digital art made for the Internet presented in a gallery space? And which is longer lasting? Leccas, whose art practice in Syria was hampered by the few available exhibition spaces and the difficulty involved in negotiating government approval for such facilities, has learned flexibility. She explained:


During my first festival in Damascus, a photo festival I launched in 2001, photography was printed and presented as posters stuck on the walls in the city centre of Damascus. In Nottingham, I wanted to show my digital wall on a gallery wall. It made sense to print it on posters. You receive the picture or the video on Facebook, you see it, then it disappears, covered by other pictures, text, video. It's the same in Nottingham. The exhibition disappears at the end of the festival and [its] dismounting.


Leccas keeps a file of images available online and shares it with future festivals interested in presenting the exhibition. A catalogue documenting the digital exhibition will be published next year by Editions de la Martinière.


One of the few facts known about Hafez al-Assad's heir apparent was that his second son, Bashar, had been head of the Syrian Computer Society and was in charge of the Internet. The year he became president in 2000 was the same year the Internet was launched in Syria. That year, 0.2 per cent of the nearly 18 million-strong population were online, a percentage that grew to nearly 20 per cent of 22 million by 2010.


According to Leccas, once the Internet became available, artists immediately began using it 'as a platform to present their artworks (painting, photography, video art), to apply for grants and to be in contact with international festivals'. But more recently, they have been posting reactions to the violence.


While anonymity has several advantages, chief of which is avoiding retaliation from the regime, it has also encouraged artists to bypass the self-censorship inevitably developed from living for many years under a totalitarian regime. Despite the rise in anonymous, engaged Syrian art, veteran artist and painter Youssef Abdelki insisted that artists should sign their work as an act of solidarity with the victims and prisoners of the revolution and started the Facebook page entitled  'Art.Liberte.Syrie' aka 'Art and Freedom'.


The revolution also changed the visual language of some Syrian artists. Before the uprising, observed Bank, their vocabulary was 'a refined and sophisticated system of metaphors and symbols. Now the art shows a much freer language at the expense of the artist's identity'.


Interestingly, the violence of the Syrian uprising encouraged Issa Touma, curator of the country's first contemporary photography gallery, Le Pont, to think differently about the role of art during civil conflict. Touma, an artist and photographer who is featured in the V&A's exhibition Light from the Middle East: New Photography, which opened earlier this month, recently outlined his predicament to 'The Story' radio presenter Dick Gordon at American Public Media. At a time when many artists have fled the country, Touma is not only staying put, he has initiated a new project, Art Camping in his home city of Aleppo.


'I want to make a positive cultural movement. That's why I'm staying here and that's why I'm working, because I want to understand everyone around me, whether it's opposition or not opposition', he told Gordon in June.


Although the country's fine art tradition, particularly painting, was first imported from the west, the visual lingua franca of ordinary Syrians stems from a lively street and souk culture very much formed by the country's humour and manufacturing traditions. The Syrians are adept at taking a technique or product produced elsewhere and re-creating it in their own image. One of Art Camping's first projects involved smiley faces – not as easy as it sounds. In the 2012 art installation, Give a Smile to the Sky and Hope to the Streets by KeviG Tatios, the iconic ecstasy smile appears on bright yellow satellite dishes across the city's rooftops.


'It was the idea to give a smile to your neighbour, even if he is opposition or a government man', clarified Touma, speaking to me over Skype in August. 'We have hundreds of smiley faces in Aleppo. We stopped counting them. People have been doing them without asking us.'


In the Art Camping series, Texture of a City, young Aleppans capture the mood of the situation through something as simple as tracing. In one of the Art Camping workshops that have taken place in Le Pont on a regular basis since March 2012, Finnish artist Jani Leinonen asked participants to bring in their favourite advertising brand and conducted a workshop on subverting product identity through collage and wordplay – via Skype. During the 2012 performance The Wish Stall, conceived by Nairy Dikranina but carried through the streets by a 21-year-old art newcomer Victoria Mouzenian, passersby were able to make a heartfelt wish. However, it is the lively, short film CD + CD / New Corner New Look - Art Camping on YouTube, which shows the power of the art installation, particularly in a place like Aleppo, where art is rarely made in the public domain.


Many of the people involved in Art Camping are young graphic designers and photographers and because of the uncertainty of the situation they are living in, their work has both power and charm. Bringing art to ordinary people has always been Touma's forte in Le Pont's major biannual exhibitions, Women's Art Festival and Aleppo International Photographic Gathering. On the 15th of September this year, Touma held a modest launch for the 11th Annual Photo Festival with the theme 'Global Change Personal Stories' at the Le Pont Gallery, during which 40 works were shown. He plans to post a version of the exhibition on Le Pont's website.


In one his emails to me in September, he described being forced to flee his home because of the violence. Since then, his apartment has been ransacked and parts of his building destroyed. Just last week when we were talking over the phone, he described crossing a checkpoint to get to his gallery and purposely keeping a low profile so as to not attract the attention of the soldiers.


Considering the ongoing situation, it is understandable that not everything in Art Camping is apolitical. As Touma admitted: 'Some of the young artists are doing political art, and we are having political discussions. But in this project we are thinking more about the country than about ourselves. It is another kind of politics. We are on the side of the people.'


In Aleppo, there have been significant outages. Touma explained during his most recent conversation with me: 'When the electricity is off, the Internet is working. When the Internet is on, the electricity isn't working. When electricity and Internet are on, the water's off.' Most of the time, art is being produced under the most difficult circumstances.


Because of US sanctions against the Syrian telecommunications giant Syriatel, which owns the country's largest Internet Service Provider, SAWA, the majority of the country's Internet traffic now goes through a Hong Kong-based telecom provider, since China has been supporting the Assad regime. As long as the broadband is working – even intermittently – artists will be sending their images, reports and messages from their war-torn homes.

[1] The other curators who worked on the exhibition Culture in Defiance include Aram Tahhan, Leen Zyiad and Donatella Della Ratta. The exhibition, which closes on 23 November 2012 in Amsterdam, will open at the Round Tower Museum in Copenhagen in March 2013, organised by the Danish Fund for Culture and Development and Prince Claus Fund.


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About the author

Malu Halasa

Malu Halasa is an editor and writer living in London. She is the co-author of The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, and Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its inspirations. Presently she is Editor at Large for Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing about the City, from Beirut.