JASMINE, ANOTHER SYRIA
Jasmine, Another Syria
During those troubled times, it seemed to us essential to offer another vision of Syria through its culture and the artistic creation of its artists.
Jasmine, Another Syria was born from the meeting of people from different horizons and cultures: French, Franco-Syrians and Syrians wishing to show their solidarity with Syria and its people.
The focus will be given on the artistic works of Syrian artists, the history of Syria (and its links with France), its literature and poetry, its cultural diversity and wealth.
Jasmine, Another Syria is meant to build a bridge between two languages, two cultures, two worlds.
This magazine with independent and non-profit funding will be published on a quarterly basis online on our Website syriaartasso.com, and annually as a print edition. It will be edited partially in French and in English languages.
Syrian Contemporary Art: A 70-Year Evolution
Text by khaled Youssef
Editing by Danii Kessjan
Syria is located in the Middle East on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea and is bordered, from the north down to the west, by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine/Israel and Lebanon.
In 2009 the population was estimated at 23 millions inhabitants: c. 11,560 males and 11,440 females. Syria is home to diverse ethnic groups, including Syrian Arabs (from various ancestral origins), Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Circassians and Turks, and diverse religious groups, including Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Druzes, Ismailis, Yazidis and Christians (Orthodox and Catholics).
The surface of Syria covers 185,000 km2 and is a country of plains, mountains and deserts that used to be also a land of exile: Armenians and Assyrians escaped the Christian Genocide of the early 20th century to become a part of the Syrian society, later 500,000 Palestinian migrants arrived in 1948 and 1967. More than one million Iraqis escaped the Second Gulf War and settled in Syria.
Syria is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world with archaeological finds near to Aleppo dating to 700,000 years ago (The Dederiyeh Cave). The first evidence of the presence of Modern Humans appears c. 100,000 years ago.
In its early written history, the region was known as Eber Nari (“across the river”) by the Mesopotamians and included modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine/Israel (collectively known as “The Levant”).
The modern name of Syria is claimed by some scholars to have derived from Herodotus’ habit of referring to the whole of Mesopotamia as “Assyria”, which comes from the Akkadian “Achur” and designated the Assyrian’s chief deity.
Early settlements in the area, such as Tell Brak, date back to at least 6000 BCE. The two most important cities in ancient Syria were Mari and Ebla (Mari in the 5th and Ebla in the 3rd millennium BCE).
There are many different time periods of domination of the Syrian regions since the beginning of known history: the Akkadians, Hittites, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Turks, and, finally, the French till the independence of the French colonization in 1946. Many civilizations between the oldest and most creative ones were built in the Levant: Akkadian, Phoenician, Sumerian, Assyrian, Amorite, and Aramean. The Aramaic language was the most spoken language during the area between 1500 BC and the 7th century when Arabs arrived, which is the reason why it was the language of Jesus Christ. The only place in the world where Aramaic is still spoken is Maaloula, a Christian village near Damascus which is since the 1960s until today an endless source of inspiration for painters.
Damascus and Aleppo, the two biggest cities in Syria, are among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
It is really difficult to mention all the cultural contributions of Syria to humanity during the course of history. It is not only about power and domination, even if Syria gave to Rome 4 emperors, and it is not only about religions, even if all gods were created in our land, and Saint Paul claimed to have had a vision of Jesus while on his road to Damascus.
Let us just remember, for example, that the first alphabet was created in Ugarit with 30 letters in the 14th century BC, more than 3 centuries before the alphabet of Byblos (in the actual Lebanon) where it was distributed to Europe.
Apollodorus of Damascus: the architect and creator of the column of Traiano (Trajan) in the 2nd century that you can see in Rome nowadays.
Churches like “Saint Simeon the Stylite” are the reference of architecture for all Byzantine churches, and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus is the archetype of all mosques in the world till present times.
So the history of Syria has never been disconnected from art and creation, its history significantly inspired the contemporary Syrian art.
For many centuries, art in Syria was restricted by religion, since in Islam it was not allowed to draw the figures of a human being or an animal; for Muslims, the creative spirit being concentrated in sacred geometry and calligraphy, and for Christians, in religious icons. If other creations were allowed and prospering during many centuries in the Islamic civilization, such as astronomy, medicine and philosophy, the Ottoman occupation starting in 1516 and lasting over 4 centuries annihilated all kind of creativity in areas under its control and imposed a strict religious vision in the Middle East, banning all kind of philosophic reflections about life, and suppressing all kind of possible evolution but in architecture of mosques and palaces.
In 1917 the “Arabic Revolution” could end the Turkish occupation, helped by England and France. However this so-called “help” was sheer deception aiming to colonize the whole Middle East trough a new strategy called “protectorate”: England and France shared the domination of the Middle East after the First World War. This happened not of bona fide generosity by any means but of subterfuge. Syria was liberated from the Ottoman colonization in 1918 and tried to fight for its independency by refusing the French authority, but after the bombardment of Damascus by General Gouraud in July 1920 killing a great number of Syrian nationals who tried to fight back with swords and simple guns, the government of Damascus had to bow to the domination of the sophisticated French army.
Yet the French colonial army needed 3 years to take control over the whole Syrian territories, since the resistance of the Alawites and Druzes was very strong in Aleppo and in the mountain areas. However, this domination lasted until April 14, 1946 when the last French soldier left the country, and after many momentous revolutions against the occupation, Syria became an independent republic.
Despite the turmoil-filled era of the French Mandate, this time period had a huge influence on the Syrian artistic evolution. Syrian artists did not only want political freedom, but they were also eager to show their capability to evolve and to create.
Syria was visited by a great number of European people during this time: archaeologists, artists, poets, and all kind of adventurers and lovers of history and culture who had contacts with Syrian artists and an influence on them. French and European people felt attracted by the culture of the Middle East, the beauty of the traditions and handcraftsmanship. By that time many Syrian people started to travel to Europe, as well. Influenced by the many parallel artistic currents and movements of the European eras, the Syrian artists became enthusiastic to create art, yet by appropriating diverse range of inspiration from their homeland. In parallel to these artistic influences they wanted to explore the glories and traditional stories by drawing and painting Syrian and Arabic legends and other important historical events. And even some of them, usually Christians, were sent to Paris to study art, such as, for instance, Michel Kirché who was influenced by Impressionism that he defended till his last days.
The National Museum of Damascus was created in 1956, with a special section dedicated to the contemporary Syrian art. At the beginning this art section was obviously poorly representative compared to the archaeological sections that contained numerous valuable artifacts, but quickly the Surrealistic Art Movement in Syria that took place in the early sixties provided huge momentum in creation and production. Later in 2010 the above mentioned art section could boast over 3,000 modern and contemporary artworks.
If the Syrian art used to be Realistic Art, many artists understood that the key of their expression must be “the discovery of the casual complexes of their society” (Bertolt Brecht), and that all new schools of Modern Art are the best way to express emotions and that the painting must express the personal perception of reality and not reality itself.
Visual and plastic arts started to gain an identity of their own during the 1920s, inspired by a new national conviction that was translated by historical paintings and Orientalist compositions reminding heroes and idealized stories of the region and culture, before starting to show more about the lifestyle and also particular scenes of the Syrian quotidian life.
The Syrian art started to find recognition during the last years of the French Mandate. The first known and acclaimed visual artist might be the painter and architect Toufik Tarek (1875-1940). Besides working on the restoration of the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque, Toufik Tarek painted some wonderful paintings inspired by the history of the region, such as “The Battle of Hattin” where Saladin takes back Jerusalem from the Crusaders (the painting is now exhibited in the Republican Palace of Damascus).
He was quickly followed, with the same style of painting (Classical Realism) by Abdelwahhab Abou Alsouud (1897-1951) who, pushed by his father, was supposed to study Religious Sciences in Cairo but left everything behind to escape to Paris to study Fine Arts instead, before coming back to Damascus; and Said Tahsin (1904-1985) who was an autodidact who studied art by reading books he could find under the Ottoman domination ‒an extremely difficult era for all things that were related to art and culture‒ and who established the first independent art studio open to the public.
If the first artists started to paint in Damascus, it is from the famous city of Aleppo that the first emerging Syrian artists of that time went to Rome in Italy in order to study fine arts, and since then and for many decades Syrian artists tried to study there.
The movement grew up especially after the end of the Ottoman colonization to become more structured during the French Protectorate (1918-1946). Inspired by the relative development of culture and the curiosity of Europeans towards the Middle East, the first “Visual Art Corporation” was created in 1940, which was the only official (or kind of) organization for artists by the time. After the independency of the country many independent organizations (corporations, collectives, groups, etc) were born, and even the State organized an exhibition with a competition of painting, which became annual afterward.
The most important period of the early artistic evolution in Syria was between 1955 and 1965. At first it was the creation of the Ministry of Culture in 1958, then the apparition of art galleries:
The first art gallery opened October 20, 1960 under the auspices of artist Mohamad Daadouch and under the name of “International Modern Art Gallery”. It was a house divided into 6 rooms displayed around a spacious lounge, which could host 200 visitors in the same time, but most of the time, the opening events and vernissages hosted from 800 to 1,000 visitors.
This day Colette Khouri, a renowned Syrian writer, said: “I can see my country dancing; I can see pulsing life inside these wonderful paintings”.
This was the real start of the transformation of the Syrian art and the adoption of a customary path towards Modern Art.
This step was a huge step indeed because it was not only an occasion to present the Syrian artists but also to initiate exchanges with artists belonging to the international art scene. Especially before the creation of the first faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1961, studying art was exclusively done in Europe and more particularly in Rome, Italy, which was not only a wonderful city blessed with a rich history, but also one of the most up-to-date connected cities in the world and the capital of all kind of artistic and cultural opportunities. At that time, Syrian artists were mostly sent to Rome by the government itself.
For the Syrian art scene, Rome of the 1960s not only played the role of a showroom, but also of a gallery, a cultural center, and even a publishing house. Conferences, salons, discussions, meetings, concerts, recitals and poetry readings were held there, and there was even a dedicated place to celebrate the wedding of artists. Another major matter was also the export of the Syrian art outside the country to exhibitions held in Rome, as it was usually done in Moscow.
In April 20, 1961 they organized a competition entitled “Miss Artistic Inspiration”. Hala Al Midani, the young Syrian lady winner of this contest, had the opportunity to move to all big Syrian cities to be painted by young talented artists, each one in his own way, and then they organized a final exhibition featuring the 50 best paintings of the winner.
Some 40 Syrian artists came back from Rome after completion of their studies in fine arts and started to work in Syria and more particularly in Damascus. Some of them were distinguishably brilliant and their names remain nowadays a reference, such as Louay Kayyali, Adham Ismail, Fateh Moudaress, Nazir Nabaa and Nazir Choura.
During the same time period in the 1960s, the first institution for the teaching of art was created: the “Institute of Fine Arts” that became 2 years later a faculty belonging to Damascus University. The Faculty of Fine Arts gave a number of very important names like Asaad Arabi, Sakher Farzat and Faek Dahdouh.
According to the memories of some artists, despite the existing unstable political atmosphere with the end of the union between Syria and Egypt (during 3 years), all discussions and conferences held there were nonetheless always exclusively focused on art and social issues, and never on politic subjects.
Mohamad Daadouch’s brother, Mahamoud Daadouch, established in Damascus, Tajhiz Street, another gallery in 1968 called “Ornina Modern Art Gallery”, yet moved in many different places in Damascus before closing everything down and opening a gallery with the same name near Rome in 1985.
In order to give an idea about the personalities and way of thinking of the artists of this time period, three artists among them were particularly representative of the Syrian contemporary art’s identity:
– Louay Kayyali (1934-1978): the artist of silent pain or the painter of noble sadness. He used to “paint the soul”. When we talk about madness and art, Louay Kayyali is the Syrian example. This wonderful painter, born in Aleppo, was so utterly sensitive that he could be affected deeply by some brutality of life of any kind. He was known to be kind but able to behave like a monster criticizing others, to quit a conference all of a sudden in the middle of his speech, or even worst, to destroy his own artworks, like he did with a whole exhibition in 1967, because he was disappointed by the political events in the region. Kayyali died because of a fire in his studio, almost everybody agreed to say that he put the fire by himself, he was 44 years old. During his artistic career, Louay assumed “the refusal of the given social condition” and insisted to draw the emotion and the mood in his portraits. A look at his prophetic painting “Then What?” from 1965 is sufficient to understand his desire to express emotions.
Nazir Nabaa (1938-2016): the creator of colors, “The Teacher”, because he was a professor of visual arts at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus and a real spiritual father for all artists. When he died recently in 2016 we saw the global social media submerged with photos and artworks of him posted by all his students and people who used to know him; they wrote emotionally: “Farewell, Dear Professor”. Nabaa was extremely concerned about all political issues in the Arabic world and he used to express his concerns in his paintings: Palestine, the Iraq Wars, his exhibition entitled “Burned Cities” about Baghdad after the First Gulf War.
But we will always remember him as a lover of Damascus, he embraced his native city with each one of his paintings, someone even wrote “When you look at one of his paintings about Damascus, the city reveals itself to your eyes the way you love to see it”. He painted the Syrian women like no one else before and no one else will ever, showing beside their striking beauty, an unmistakable touch of Syrian traditions.
Fateh Al Moudaress (1922-1999): a painter, musician, writer and poet, he was the leader of the Modern Art Movement in Syria. Initially self-taught, Al Moudarres studied later at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Rome, where he was influenced by Surrealism. He is considered the most renowned and distinguished artist among all and the one who was able to export the Syrian art outside of Syria (he sold c. 300 artworks in Europe within a few years).
We may touch Al Moudaress’ soul by reading his poetry:
“Gazes fall down too
Like autumn’s leaves
Like a whistle of a child in the street
Like a disappeared perfume
Ends and life can always be renewed.”
“I put a color on a color
Then I stop to smell
Lineaments of tomorrow
There is no window in the sky
It’s a dead wall…”
Some people used to say that Al Moudaress was like Solomon, “he speaks to flowers and insects in the nature”. Actually he was merely a real artist finding inspiration everywhere, especially in the nature, yet also in his own life and hard childhood as an orphan who grew up in poverty, which led him also to paint and draw scenes of martyrdom, crucifixion and departure.
It is difficult to present all artists from this rich era, yet we cannot ignore Michel Kirché (1900-1973), the godfather, the defender of Impressionism. For him all the new directions of artistic expression were vain and useless, but he was always curious about the creations of the “new” generations and always willing to attend the many trendy exhibitions that took place to give his opinion, surrounded by a swarm of students and beautiful girls.
Said Makhlouf (1925-2000): the sculptor of the Syrian cultural heritage, and the first real contemporary sculptor in Syria. After a long period of stunning carvings and sculptures made from olive wood influenced by his birthplace on the Mediterranean coast, he started to create modernist sculptures in stone and then in marble.
Adham Ismail (1922-1963): Law student who left everything behind to study Fine art, and graduated in 1951 (12 years before his death in Damascus). One if his most outstanding paintings was “The refugees”; it is a strange feeling to see how much this painting is topical today. In the lower part of the composition sits a woman who is consoling a debilitated man, perhaps her husband. As she kneels down to tend to him she also holds a small child, who appears distraught. An adolescent boy stands behind them, staring off into the distant image of a village that is depicted in twilight. As clouds hover and stars veil its streets, it is inferred that the village is actually the vision of the family’s former home. The main street of the village leads towards the foreground into yet another apparition, one of wide-open land that they have also left behind. All that remains of their former lives are the few belongings with which they travel, their destination unknown. Adham’s narrative elucidates the displacement of Palestinians after the Nakba in 1948, making it one of the most explicitly detailed depictions of their plight.
Elias Zayat (1935): he renewed the art of Orthodox Christian icons, which was created by his ancestors, and more specifically San Luca who spread this religious art in the world. He studied in Sofia, Cairo, and Budapest, and his oeuvre remains intimately concerned with the history, terrain, and psyche of his homeland, like his last exhibition “After the Deluge” about Palmyra recently devastated by ISIS.
Nazir Choura (1919-1992): a lover of nature and his native city of Damascus. The fact that Nazir was also a musician rendered the lines of his paintings smoother; he was one if those artists who believed that a painting must be beautiful enough to caress the spectators’ eyes and soul.
He created the “Society of Art Lovers” with fellow Impressionist Michel Kirché in 1951 after opening the Damascene art hub “Atelier Veronese” with painter Mahmoud Hammad a decade before.
We can better understand the artistic spirit of that period by reading the “Manifest of Artists” written in 1962: “Art is a transparent humanity connected to the 4th dimension of the existence.” (See annex*)
During the period from 1970 to 2000, all these artists continued to create during these years, but visual and plastic arts started to become secondary.
In the classical socialist regime of this period of the Syrian history, arts are supported by the government, but only as one of a cultural aspect placed under its control. Education was an important issue and was free for everyone, but there were priorities to respect: the Arabic national interests in political and military conflicts in the Middle East. If there were huge advantages on the levels of education and woman rights, the whole period, especially the 1980s was extremely unsettled and equivocal. Although many outstanding artists appeared in that period, some of them decided to move away, to find a better and more fertile land for their art, especially to Europe. This was what we could call “the chosen artistic Diaspora”.
Asaad Arabi: born in 1941, he graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus before moving to Paris, France in 1975, where he received a diploma in painting from the Higher Institute of Fine Arts, and subsequently earned a PhD in Aesthetics from the Sorbonne University. Asaad renewed the aesthetic of Islamic art in his period of geometric abstraction in the 1980s.
Boutros Romhein: born in 1949 in the south of Syria, he created his first sculpture when he was 16 years old, rapidly gained a reputation as a sculptor both inside and outside the country before decided to settle in Carrara, Italy’s White Marble Mecca. Boutros now has also become a distinguished personality of the Italian artistic scene, also through his international school of sculpture “Arco Art”.
Marwan Kassab Bachi (known as Marwan) (1934-2016): he moved to Berlin in 1960 and spent the rest of his life in Europe; he saw Germany and Europe divided into two camps and then the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet through his paintings he kept a close relationship with Syria and the Arabic world. His art roots deeply in the tradition of Sufi philosophy, the ancient Oriental “wisdom of the heart” that emphasizes the connection of heart, soul and spirit in the Unity of Being.
Other artists could, for diverse reasons, not leave their homeland ‒the origins of their artistic inspiration‒ and so developed their art inside the country, yet exporting it to Arabic and European countries.
We can mention:
– Ghassan Jedid: born in Arwad in 1946 (the lonely Syrian island in front of the Syrian coast), he painted cities as he used to dream them, windows full of colors opened up on vast spaces and possibilities.
– Mustafa Ali: born in Ugarit in 1956 and living in Damascus, he is renowned for his elegant, monumental sculptures in wood and bronze, sculptures which pierce the consciousness and underscore the fragility of Mankind. He used to say: “Damascus is in my heart and I am living in the heart of History”.
Some of the Syrian artists had the opportunity to study in Europe and to return to Syria, but many of them studied in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, which was easier according to the good relationships of those States with the Syrian government and the cultural exchanges involved.
– Edward Shahda and Nizar Sabour, professors at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, studied both in Moscow, Russia.
But actually most of the Syrian artists kept studying in Syria and produced wonderful works of art, such as Asaad Ferzat, Yasser Hammoud and Ahmad Moualla, while many of them were autodidacts, such as the self-taught artists Nasser Nassan Agha and Haitham Shakkour.
Expressionism and Symbolism were the keywords of that period. Political issues in the 1980s, which resulted in the violent conflict between the political regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the enhancement of internal control and security, followed by the severe isolation of the country in the early 1990s, influenced the perception of human beings in the Syrian art.
Translations of these social and political conditions were depicted through deformation of bodies and discordance between the head and the body, the heads being overloaded with thoughts and the shoulders unable to bear the burden of emotion.
Other artists, such as Safwan Dahoul translate the brightness of the streets into singular white and black portrayals and compositions, while Nihad Al Turk makes all details disappeared to draw atypical silhouettes mostly with dark colors. Saad Yagan’s artistic expression, inspired by Francis Bacon, is one of the most reflective as regards the psychology of the society, yet remains universal, since expressing joy, depression, loneliness and even sexual desires.
After 2000, the arrival of the new president marked this period. If the “political spring” of Damascus did not last, unfortunately, for more than one year, the “artistic and economic springs” were now a reality: economic reforms policies opened new possibilities. It was a real upheaval: the establishment of new faculties of fine and applied arts has been made in different cities, like Souaida, Lattakia and Aleppo.
The Opera opened in 2004 and Damascus became the “Arab Capital of Culture” in 2008. The Syrian art was represented in most international important events, such as, for instance, the Venice Biennale in Italy. The old cities of Damascus and Aleppo started to become the centers for all creative havens: artist studios, showrooms and commercial art galleries started to open in great number. As examples: Kozah Gallery and Mustafa Ali Showroom and Galleryin Damascus, and also Gallery Le Pont in Aleppo opened by the photographer Issa Touma.
Galleries started to open everywhere, not only in Damascus but also in Aleppo, Latakia, Homs and in many other cities. This art market development coincided with the discovery of the arts in the wealthy Gulf countries, better relationships with Europe during few years, and an increased growth of tourism (relationships being kept very limited though because of political considerations, yet despite the cultural wealth of Syria and lower costs of life).
The commercial uprising: in previous time periods, Syrian artists were probably not evaluated to their true market value or even they were abused. After 2006, from the growth of art as a capital asset to new sources of market, the sales of Syrian artworks within the country or region itself were evaluated to c. 25 million dollars.
Khaled Samawi, an established art dealer settled formerly in England and Switzerland, came back to Syria, opened Ayyam Gallery and said: “An artist who does not sell is a failed artist”.
Although extremely commercial, this point of view helped many talented artists to show their work in Syria and outside the country and to sell it, thus allowing them to go forth with the creation of their art.
Something new came up in the Syrian artistic scene: this new direction allowed the Syrian art to be not only a state of mind within a creative process but also a way to earn money. While before the 1960s a painting made by a renowned artist like Louay Kayyali used to cost 10 $, after the 1960s it started to cost 200 $. In more recent times, talented young artists started to earn between 5,000 and 10,000 $ per month, which used to be a really great deal of money in Syria before the current war.
In 2010 Damascus itself had a total of 32 art galleries (among them 26 private galleries), without mentioning the many showrooms and cultural centers. In Aleppo there were c. 25 established galleries. This is a huge number of art galleries for an Arab country.
Many artists who moved earlier from Syria started to come back to resettle in their country or to participate in exhibitions: we could see the great work of the Syrian Kurdish Bahram Hajou in Attassi Gallery in 2005, and the work of the Damascene Youssef Abdelke whose only wish was to create his art in his homeland again (Abdelke migrated to France after having been a political prisoner for 2 years from 1978 to 1980).
During this time period, new generations of artists, freshly graduated from all faculties of Fine Arts, entered in successive waves the artistic scene.
Notwithstanding the recent commercial trend in the arts, the global quality of art was not affected by any means. During those 10 years there was an explosion of emerging talents with very distinguished styles who breathed new energy and new spirit to the old Syrian school of art.
We can mention:
Houmam Al Sayed, Kais Salman, Mohannad Orabi, Khaled Akil, Oussama Diab, Khaled Takreti, Manhal Issa… the list is very long. We can recognize a revolution of colors, the introduction of pop-art, digital art and photography.
It is utterly interesting to note that this artistic uprising ‒defying all codes of the traditional Middle Eastern society‒ happened despite increasing religious practice, in comparison to previous decades. It seemed like if several parallel societies were coexisting at a time: a very trendy and totally atheist society, a trendy but still religious society (mostly issued from the old bourgeoisie in major cities), and finally a rural very traditional and/or religious society (poor or wealthy).
However in general, the young generations of artists started to speak their voices, to create, to imagine a brilliant future inside the country, and not anymore only in far foreign countries, like it might have been the case before 2000. Nevertheless this creativity was controlled by the regime and some red lines appeared, especially in internal political issues. But we can say that it was a period of innovation and hope, a slow transition to increased freedom of expression, and definitely to a larger horizon of creation for the future ‒ at least this was the inner wish of a large majority of Syrians artists.
And then the war broke out in Syria in 2011. How can we call it? Revolution? Foreign conspiracy? Civil war? Factually none of these terms is true, but yet each one contains a part of truth. In any case, whatever may be said, it is a war with all its consequences: thousands and thousands of victims, destruction, millions of refugees inside and outside the country, international geopolitical considerations, media manipulations on all sides, deceptive reporting and propaganda campaigns, the rise of religious extremism, etc.
Finally, Art and Culture are also always collateral victims of the wars.
At first glance ‒and this was the opinion of many people‒ it looked like as if the conflict would quickly come to an end. Since the very start however there were huge differences of positions between cities and rural regions and even inside each region or city; Syrian people were quickly divided even inside the same family. Differences of opinions and diverging political stances about what was happening in 2011 has caused deep dissention and discord among friends, couples, parents and children, brothers and sisters. Many divorces happened as a result of discordance of opinions regarding the current events. The artistic scene suffered the same dichotomy: the division among intellectuals, writers, artists was abysmal. It has neither been black nor white, it is never this way; opinions go from black to white including all nuances of grey.
The visual art depicting the so-called “revolution” in a harsh and direct way ̶ by attacking directly this president or that political leader ̶ was and is mostly foolish and exaggerated, and also most satirical or caricatural kind of art done of sensationalism and hate-mongering within the social media war, what still continues to be the case presently. Although this art of its own kind may also be considered art, there is still a drastic difference between art defending and adopting ideas from specific political positions versus a kind of art in which themes and topics are overhyped to present partial and biased impressions on events or individuals, which may cause a manipulation to the truth of a story.
But as it turns out, a picture is worth a thousand words, no matter whether the basic opinion is right or wrong. In the meantime, many great artists showed their opinions through wonderful works of art, utilizing the medium of painting, sculpture, digital art or photography.
Even though he is basically a painter and conceptual artist, Tammam Azzam used Digital Art to express through his images, his opinions, sadness and anger against the bombings.
In some of Abdullah Omari’s paintings, the painter showed his viewpoint on the topic, imagining some political leaders responsible for the wars, queuing for their meager meal in a refugee camp.
In a most subtle way, some of Khaled Dawwa’s sculptures depicted a “leader”, fat and hungry, sitting in his chair of power that he is not intending to leave.
In some of Kais Salman’s artworks, we can see the artist pointing out religious extremism, in others he depicted a typical member of ISIS, or made a reference to some Arabic leaders, proudly holding the World Cup in their hands. Kais utilizes satire to subvert the normalization of ideological and religious extremism that is rapidly defining our era, and its influence in Arabic countries, as one of the causalities to what is happening in Syria and in the global world.
Other artists preferred depicting their sadness in front of the continuous division of their country by taking a deliberate distance from the political realm. As an example, we can mention the work of the young and talented Omar Shammah who draws his impressions and emotions as a young Syrian living inside a country ravaged by the war. In his series “Me”, we acknowledge his neutrality in regards to his city of origin, Aleppo, which is ripped into two pieces ‒in the image of the situation on the ground in which the city is divided between the rebels and the Syrian army.
Sculptor Nizar Ali Badr searched for his roots and his Phoenician origins and found an answer in the stones. His stones recount Syria’s great sadness. Nizar chooses to sculpt his work using stones from Mount Zaphon, known as Jebel Aqra, located some fifty km from Latakia. He has a moral human relationship with his friends the stones, because only those who form part of the land of the poor shall feel their sadness.
Nizar explains that he has personified the displaced Syrian populations in 10 characters. He transforms these stones into stories woven by his imagination, mixed with the bitterness of reality. Nizar considers this work as being the closest to what he feels “It is the cries of the poor at a time where everyone has become mere numbers awaiting death”. For the Syrian sculptor, the stones are words through which he recounts tales and stories. “These stones can shout, and their voices are louder than the bullets”.
This type of pictorial dialectic of subtlety transmitting positions and emotions is superior to any other type of blatant visual narration that can only be considered as “poor art”. Unfortunately the mainstream public seems to react less sensitively to a kind of sophisticated art than to images that address roughly and equivocally a given topic, especially in Arabic countries.
Images are much more than mere information; there is a message behind them, something to believe in and to be affected by.
Quickly, Syrian artists felt the responsibility to express the suffering of their people; inside and outside Syria they focused on the war and its consequences through various topics and narratives.
Childhood in time of war became one of the most significant topics in Syrian artworks since recent times. If it is of utter importance to most of the artists to denounce the death of Syrian children, to draw attention to those children under siege and caught in the crossfire, their disastrous life conditions in refugee camps and their critical situation in the war-torn country.
Children are the only vision of tomorrow, the ultimate hope for new generations to rebuild what has been destroyed, a way to believe that all of this will finish soon, and that a better future will open up for Syrian people.
The “burned city” narratives were used in paintings by many artists, mainly the ones from the Diaspora, as a reaction of intense anger and helplessness in front of what occurred: they saw their possessions, homes, houses or art studios destroyed, bombed or occupied by armed militias. To paint the destruction in a realistic way, independently of aesthetic concepts, can be therapeutic in so many different ways, and to get loose of emotional distress or even to admit reality.
The proud historical Aleppo is one the cities of Syria which suffered the most from this endless war. Its destruction affected the heart of all Syrians who were devastated to see the “Pride of the North” loosing centuries of civilization within a few years of conflict. The reactions were sometimes a mixture between reality and memories. In the middle of this complicated conflict, many artists claimed for tolerance and reconciliation, insisting on the unity of the Syrian people and land, and the possibilities of a civilized dialogue without weapons, violence and external influences.
Increasingly we notice the rise of an artistic direction insisting on the culture and traditions of Syria, such as a call to all Syrians to reconsider their country and society in a more positive way, or to reaffirm their identity. Sufism and turning dervishes are recurrent topics for many artists, these practices remain a symbol of peaceful spirituality and respectable tradition, and using them is an answer to violence and its pretenses.
Many Syrian artists took their artistic inspiration in the legends of Syria, and insisted on the Syrian historical idols and mythical gods. Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, remains one of the most popular figures in painting and sculpture. Zenobia symbolizes the modern and educated Syrian Woman capable to face the world and to build a strong country. She became a Syrian icon and a source of inspiration for modern, secular Syrians and the ideal of emancipation for Arab women alike.
Let us remember that the war lasting in Syria for almost six years, has seen a new generation of artists freshly graduated from the faculties of Fine Arts. As young people are searching for a future, many of them decided to leave the country. A whole generation of new Syrian talents found itself lost with no perspective of a clear future because of this endless war. Even if many of them can exhibit in some places like the Opera in Damascus or in some art galleries or showrooms (Anas Farah’s exhibition in Mustafa Ali Gallery, and recently Ammar Khaddour’s exhibition), many others took the road to exile, sometimes as students, and sometimes as refugees.
I have met many of them: Germany and The Netherlands remained their favorite destinations because these countries offered a qualitative assistance to refugees in general and to artists especially.
About 500,000 Syrian refugees are living in Germany nowadays, beside students and the older Diaspora, thus creating the largest Syrian community in Europe (while in France, for instance, there are only c. 10,000 Syrian refugees).
Berlin became the capital of the Syrian Art in Europe, beside Beirut in Lebanon, and Damascus in Syria, where many great artists are still working, such as Fadi Yazigi, Omran Younes or Mustafa Ali who, beside his sculptures and his art foundation situated in the old town, created “The Place”, an association of Fine Arts which helps talented young people to seize their opportunity in the field of sculpture.
Beirut, the sister city of Damascus is only two hours by car, despite many increasing difficulties to pass the borders. Beirut has become the de facto capital of the Syrian contemporary art scene since the war started five years ago. For many Syrian artists, Beirut is a place to reconnect with their art and to get a respite from the violence tearing apart their homeland. Almost each month there is in Beirut a solo or a collective exhibition of Syrian artists.
Beirut-based Canadian-Syrian civil engineer Raghad Mardini founded the Art Residence Aley near Beirut in 2012. Her aim was to introduce young Syrian artists to organizations, galleries and art players of the Beirut art scene. Not only do the Syrian artists use the beautifully renovated residence as a workspace, but their works of art are also regularly featured in exhibitions.
In Beirut, Samer Kozah Gallery, in collaboration with Artheum, have launched the first edition of the “Syria Contemporary Art Fair Beirut” in 2013, which is a comprehensive annual exhibition featuring more than 45 contemporary established and emerging artists from Syria, working in a variety of styles and techniques.
Syrian artists are moving beyond a sort of “instant art” as an immediate expression of war and exile, reflecting a broader aesthetical and political horizon merging from several directions. They are living today a painful experience, yet are following a path of deep artistic transformation and evolution, they are spreading their colors towards different horizons.
There are many Syrian artists and art-lovers inside of Syria or issued from the international Diaspora ‒with people of all social classes and socio-economical backgrounds living mostly between Europe and the Middle East‒ who created communities, such as our non-profit association “SYRIA.ART – Association pour la Promotion de l’art Contemporain Syrien“, as well as our related page “Syria.Art”, which has become a sort of archive or encyclopedia for the Syrian art and Syrian artists. “SYRIA.ART” is deliberately neutral, a-religious, a-political and devoid of any ideological or ethnic considerations.
The emergence of Syrian talents and the extension of the Syrian art scene on international levels are facts, but how can this affect the Syrian conflict? Will this artistic creation have an impact on it or change anything to the destruction?
Nobody has the answer, but the truth is: it is not going to stop the war. A paint brush is not going to stand in front of a firearm. Yet the Syrian art can participate in the intellectual revolution which is mandatory to achieve positive changes in the future, against dictatorship but also against religious extremism, obsolete traditions and residual consequences of colonization and wars.
According to the singular Dasein of contemporary Syrian art in today’s times, we believe that by bringing together all these young artists, we would be able to create a sort of artistic “supra-community” independent of any toxic considerations, and advocating the love of Art and the love of Syria. This would be a first giant step to start making changes for the country’s future. The current Syrian conflict may become one of the worst conflicts of this century. The artistic upheaval, on the other hand, is a precious human experience. It is one thing that makes us believe in the future.
Let us remind following words by famous Syrian artist Fateh Al Moudaress: during the 1960s, when a journalist asked him “Who are you?”, he said: “I am the art, I am the sand of the East that contains madness and wisdom, blood and flowers, I am the hate of the daily bread and I am a divine desire for freedom. I hate injustice wherever it acts, and consider Humanity as the only possible identity and nation. I believe that Art will save humanity to build tomorrow… I am tomorrow.”
ANNEX*: The Manifest of Syrian artists (April 9, 1962) (Signed: "Mahmoud Daadouch, Fateh Moudaress, Abdel Aziz Aalwan") 1 - Art is a transparent humanity connected to the 4th dimension of the existence; 2 - The role of Art is to enrich the human culture and to add more emotions to life with small and big creative hints; 3 - The real art is a part of the creative process of the world: When an artist creates, he lives a momentum of loneliness independent of material things and external effects; An artistic trace does not stop when it radiates but it must keep growing up; 4 - Art is a contemporary mysticism: We must take off the dryness of the painting material caused by industrial production and give it a divinity through the power of what it is able to do when it is included in the artist production; Each dead material becomes as divine as the human skin when it is included in a creative art; We do not believe in the death of things, but in their birth and motion; We are connected to life inside the walls of life, architects still building ugly walls which impede the space of the Universe; we ask architects to assume their responsibility of building a world which can breath beauty, and to follow our manifest; 5 - We believe that tomorrow will be powerful and spontaneous to find new dimensions and connect the depths of our souls with the Universe: We believe in the cultural superiority of an artist; We refuse symbols; We follow Cezanne in his refusing of the literary reflection; We consider the artist as a perforating head in the human machine to puncture the wall of time; Humanity adopts the artistic creation and works to make it continue and grow up; 6 - Art and artists are the two arcs of the same circle; 7 - An artist does not think of community when he is creating because community is living inside him: We deplore human beings who are passive with art because the universal dimensions are eclipsed inside them; 8 - An artist is responsible of both colors, physical and social, of the sun radiation on the spot where he lives, because it is a source of enrichment of the human culture; We can not forgive the fault of Arabic artists to use these colors: yellow, golden, and purple; 9 - Mating of things in the nature to be united in the human brain, then to break down again and decompose, must push the artist to keep a childish mist making him swinging between shapes and no shapes: Non-form is an entity like form that is totally accepted in an artistic work, and it is made of the recurrence of a movement destroying the recurrence of the precedent movement, a form disappears when the center of recurrence is lost; When a human being is born, he understands the form in a global and instinctive way, but when he grows up the third dimension grows up with him too, then he starts to analyze subjects and refuses to do it inside the form, which makes the form disappear, and the human being can live inside the non-form world as he lives in the transparency of the space of the Universe; 10 - We consider the artistic culture: critics, science of beauty and history of art, as a part of the connection between the artist and his public. Having an artistic culture allows the person to test his humanity: We believe that the role of art critics is the observation of the radiation in artworks; We feel sorry for art critics who do not believe in the evolution and can not see in a new artwork a window opened on the future; 11 - We consecrate freedom of human beings and more specifically artists, because freedom is the natural atmosphere for art: Freedom is a requirement in the life of an artist; The revolutionary spirit of art is evidence, as each artwork is a human position in front of the existence; We believe that there is a revolution inside each artwork which needs a total and unlimited freedom; Traditions are chains and we are free to take them or leave them.