Culture In Defiance
Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria
Culture In Defiance: Continuing Traditions of Satire, Art and the Struggle for Freedom in Syria is a new exhibition on show at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam. Carrying on the fund's preoccupation with studying culture's influence in inequitable social conditions, the exhibition, uniquely curated by a series of non-conventional exhibition makers, seeks to study the influence of satire in contemporary artistic practices emerging from Syria during a period of deep social change.
The project opened with an emotional speech from featured artist and the fund's laureate – the political cartoonist, Ali Ferzat – who detailed his exile from his native Syria after having been attacked publicly for his work. The artist's subversive political cartoons, as well as the bold dissidence evident in the rest of artworks on display, however, tell a different story. It is a story that finds humour and irony in the darkest of human situations.
Having their gallery debut in Culture in Defiance, is young Syrian art collective Masasit Mati, whose episodic puppet show, Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, creates a lacerating and hilarious portrait of Syria's Ba'ath establishment. While Aram Tahhan – who curated the exhibition alongside Malu Halssa, Leen Zyiad and Donatella della Ratta – discusses the significance of theatre in Syrian society in the accompanying publication, Halasa was quick to point out to Ibraaz Top Goon's uniqueness. 'Its level of satire is not traditional, since under Hafez and Bashar Al-Assad, there have been draconian laws about lampooning the leader. This level of satire is unique to what has been going on since the uprising'. What follows is a summary of the exhibition by Ibraaz's Contributing Editor Amira Gad and a statement from Masasit Mati's anonymous director Jameel, explaining the collective's creative motivations, in both Arabic and English.
The group Masasit Mati believes that art can function as a weapon against oppression. When censorship and freedom of expression are constraints, what approaches and tools are left for artists? Culture in Defiance: Continuing traditions of satire, art and the struggle for freedom in Syria is a group exhibition that posits how satirical art forms can play an important role in Syria today.
The exhibition – also accompanied by a bilingual English-Arabic publication – brings together artists and collectives that have used artistic practice as a means of expressing and commenting on Syria's oppressive system. Also included are prints from newspaper satirists, political posters, songs from a revolutionary hit parade, and photographs of graffiti works emphasising the non-violent creative dissent of the ongoing Syrian revolution.
Poignantly, many participants in the exhibition are anonymous, fearful of reprisals by the Syrian authorities. One such example, presented as part of the exhibition, is the video series Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator, a finger puppet show presented by an unknown collective known as Masasit Mati, who distribute their episodic videos lampooning president Bashar Al-Assad via YouTube and social media. With Top Goon, this group of ten young Syrians utilises satire and caricature – hiding their characters behind masks in the same way that its director, 'Jameel', also appears masked in public – as a way of concealing and sharing their political views. Such non-violent resistance, and the power of culture, are recurrent themes in the exhibition and in the accompanying publication, where journalist Leen Zyiad (a pseudonym) writes about 'revolution as carnival', a movement towards regime change manifested as a performance or a festival-like atmosphere, in which chanting, singing and choreographed routines feature as part of the demonstration-turned-free-for-all-party.