In the past month alone, work by Syrian artists has exhibited at galleries in London, Dubai, Beirut, and Los Angeles, and many more locations are planned for 2013. Borne out of struggle, this outpouring of contemporary art portrays not only the destruction and brutality that has affected so many Syrians, but also their incredible resilience.
London-based curator Nour Wali sensed that the interest in Syrian art extended far beyond the art-collecting community and sought to tell the story of the conflict, as experienced by the artists, to a wider audience. Her exhibition, poignantly titled Shattered Beauty, was a true partnership between artists, charities, collectors, museums, and the Syrian community living abroad.
Working with Randa Al-Azem, manager of the (now-closed) Rafia Gallery in Damascus, and with Takween, a group that champions emerging artists, Nour sourced pieces from a broad range of Syria’s diverse artistic community. The exhibition also partnered with Syria Relief, a non-political, non-partisan charity. Wali was overwhelmed by the support shown by “people [who] were really trying to find a positive way to help.” Syria Relief “provides prosthetic limbs and is a much-needed source of employment.” Wali spoke of the often-dire conditions facing Syrians: “There are more than one million people in Syria waiting for prosthetic limbs and each costs fifty British pounds.” As part of the partnership, the artists and the charity each received fifty percent of the profit from the pieces that were sold. The exhibition was a commercial success, particularly amongst the British public, and gave the Syrian community abroad a way to help friends and family who are still living in Syria.
For Wali, every small detail mattered, from the artists and their works to the choice of space. “I chose Gallery 8 in Mayfair, right next to the White Cube Gallery and the Royal College of Art, because I needed their art to be grounded in the right context. [The artists] have such talent and it needed to be put on a high platform and to be elevated.”
The popularity of the exhibition and the success of the project have further driven Wali’s love of Syrian art and her mission to have it taken seriously on the international stage: “They’re being sold in to some of the best collections. Syrians have always had a sense of pride about their art and the works I chose were museum-standard pieces.”
Yet despite the exhibition’s success, it has not all been plain sailing. The safety of the artists and their works was of paramount importance to Wali. Many of the artists are living in hiding. Just one example of this is Zavein Youssef, who is an abstract artist. His home and studio were burnt down in the conflict. Many of his works were lost, but those that remained formed a part of the exhibition: “We prefer not to use the term ‘smuggled.’ We prefer to say we ‘salvaged’ or ‘rescued’ these pieces,” explains Wali.
Whatever the ethnic, religious or political backgrounds of the artists, there are overlapping themes that draw their work together. One of the recurrent motifs is despair over the destruction that the conflict has wrought on Syria. Another, in contrast, is the symbolism of hope.
The revolution has drawn many of the artists together in their struggle. Hiba Akkad, whose work was exhibited recently at the Galerie Tanit in Beirut, told National Public Radio that, “My painting before the revolution was very individual; I would only care about personal things. Now, I care about what is happening in the country and my experience in the revolution.”
Akkad is not alone in her desire to share her experience and give a voice to those who have been silenced. Fadia Afashe, a Syrian contemporary artist and activist now living in the United States, said that “I believe that my art has significantly changed after the revolution.” Afashe, whose work is currently being exhibited at the Levantine Cultural Centre in Los Angeles, found she was inspired by the uprising to paint “people I knew personally” and speak directly to a mostly Western audience about an issue that many feel is overlooked.
Samer Pasha, a Syrian émigré and long-time collector of Syrian art, believes that the suffering of the Syrian people has become blurred in the Western and mainstream media. He is involved with many charitable projects and worked with the Shattered Beauty exhibit in London. “Our aim was to move away from the portrayal of Syrians as victims,” he said. “We want to convey the civility of the Syrian people, to bring people back on board and explain the nature of the message.”
Fadia Afashe echoed this sentiment: “I am so depressed with the coverage . . . it doesn’t explain anything . . . I feel like the world is allowing this genocide to happen every day and do nothing.” For an audience that has been saturated with images of violence, death, and near-daily protests, the work of Syrian artists has a unique purity and immediacy, something that Wali was keen to convey through her collection.
“People have had enough of the bullets, negativity and ugliness. The pieces I chose still convey the psychological and physical damage, but they do it in a way that is very haunting and yet still beautiful and accessible,” said Wali.
Despite—or perhaps because of—the violence, there is a remarkable resilience amongst Syria’s artists and a hopefulness that pervades Syrian contemporary art. As Fadia Afashe explained, “Even if it takes years to rebuild our country, we will rise.”