Distressing pictures of Syria are everywhere these days: photos of children lost in war-torn streets, of men trying to protect their families, of women crying over the bodies of their fallen sons or husbands. Translating this image of Syria that we have seen a thousand times into evocative and sometimes achingly beautiful testaments to the destructive nature of this brutal war are its artists, many of whom have chosen to leave the country and join millions of their fellow Syrians in exile.
Some of them thought they would quickly return to Syria, but many have found themselves stuck in exile in Beirut, Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Syrian cousins Hisham and Khaled Samawi, for example, run the successful Ayyam Gallery in Dubai and have helped many Syrian artists flee the country and re-establish themselves abroad. While a major motivation for their efforts is to help their countrymen and rescue Syrian art from the destruction of the conflict, there is also a commercial interest: Ayyam and other galleries are seeing a mounting interest in Syrian art from collectors worldwide.
The growth in popularity of Syrian art must please Syrian artists, even though many of them also feel understandably conflicted about the commercial exploitation of the war. Many artists are critical and stress that their creations, rather than being commercial productions, are a way of dealing with the situation in their homeland. One of them is Remy Al-Haddad, an artist who was born in Damascus, who says: “The problem is that for some painters, art is no longer art, but simply a trade.”
Some maintain, in the words of artist Tarek Butayhi, that “every artist has a duty to address what is happening [in Syria] in a realistic way.” But most of the work these Syrian artists produce is, while certainly very much about the conflict, not overtly political in nature or message. In many cases, the pieces focus on either an abstract rendition of certain aspects of the war, or on depicting the effects of the conflict on the everyday lives of ordinary Syrians. The work is not so much about making revolutionary statements, but about showing the reality of life in Syria.
Rabee Kiwan, a Syrian painter who has moved to Beirut, Lebanon, and whose work is quickly becoming popular in the capital’s galleries, described the inspirations for her work: “I am not a political artist. My work is about the human element. My paintings reflect the human condition. As a result of the events in Syria, my use of color has become more austere. The dark colors, the black and white, deepen the feeling of the conflict lived on a daily basis. The human presence in my work has been replaced by symbols, remnants of an existence, like an old bus that is out of service or a piece of a tank.”
The work of Fadi Al-Hamwi, a painter from Damascus who also now lives and works in Beirut, shows this same preoccupation with translating the human experience of war, rather than producing art with a political message. An installation by the artist last year featured broken concrete blocks with a television sitting on top. Visitors were invited to climb the rubble to see what was showing on the television. Once there, they were presented with live footage of themselves standing amid the debris and destruction. Hamwi said his aim was for visitors to feel for a moment what it would be like be victims of the Syrian conflict.
While these artists work to show the human side of the war, most understand they are unable to change the outcome of the conflict, or to even affect its course. Tammam Azzam, who shot to fame in 2013 when he superimposed an image of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss onto a photo of a war-torn building in Syria, harbors no illusions about the impact of his work or about the war, which he has acknowledged is getting worse and worse. In spite of this pessimism, he continues to comment on the political situation in his country through his art, and he remains indignant about the West’s refusal to take action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. As he asked rhetorically in an interview with The Majalla in December last year, “How many gassed bodies of children do you need?”
In spite of the deteriorating situation and their own relative helplessness in the face of it, Syrian artists do see a role for art in the circumstances of war, for its ability to provide an escape. Rania Moudaress Silva is a painter who still lives and works in Damascus. She is one of those artists who tries to focus on staying positive by creating positive work. Even though her life is under threat on a daily basis, she does not want to surrender to despair: “People think [my art is] too happy and bright,” Silva told the Washington Post at the outbreak of war in 2011, “but I don’t want to give in to the dark. These images are my only escape.”
Silva is just one of the many Syrians who are trying to make the best of a desperate situation. Syrian artists at home and in exile are aware of the transformative qualities that art can have, and that it can provide a temporary refuge from reality. While not as important as a physical refuge from the war, the importance of the mental refuge and sense of hope that art can provide should not be underestimated. As Wissam Shaabi, a painter from Damascus, says: “For now, hope is the only thing that keeps us living.”