This is the first in a series of articles featuring interviews with Syrian artists about their work since the onset of revolution in their country.
BEIRUT: Authoritarian regimes often dislike and fear artists, whether or not they work with political themes. Poets and painters, novelists, filmmakers and musicians are regarded with suspicion as much for their unmediated relationship with domestic and foreign audiences as for their ability to express partisan sentiment via metaphor, or undermine the ruler through satire.
In times of political turmoil, the challenges facing artistic expression can be more serious than state censorship or self-censorship. Witness the arrest of filmmaker Jafar Panahi in the wake of Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, the brutal beating of Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat last year and the death of renowned Syrian sculptor Wael Qastun, reported to have died under torture in July.
In the 19 months since the first uprising in Deraa, the Syrian art scene has become more fragmented, its artists divided between those dispersed among isolated expat communities and others who remain at home. In Syria and abroad, there are artists whose work has been altered by the conflict and others who’ve labored to keep their work free of political overtones.
The Daily Star spoke to two Syrian artists whose work has changed dramatically over the past year, and who, unlike many artists, are not afraid to reveal their perspective on the country’s politics through their work.
Before the uprising, Jaber Alazmeh’s fine art focused on finding abstract patterns in nature. Now based in Qatar, Alazmeh has produced two distinct series of photographs over the last 18 months, both markedly different from his previous work.
The first series, “Wounds,” is comprised of a series of 16 two-tone, digitally manipulated photographs in red and black – “the colors of love, blood and death,” Alazmeh calls them – which are metaphors for revolt.
One photograph combines several shots, layered to create multiple images in a single frame. Silhouetted against a red background, a figure reaches above his head to where a dove, wings spread wide, appears to be poised in mid-air, just out of reach. The man’s grasping hands are captured again and again at different points as he strives to take hold of the bird.
Alazmeh’s latest series also takes the Syrian revolution as its subject, but is more openly political. Entitled “A Small Group of Syrians,” the black-and-white photographs depict Syrian activists, artists, writers and intellectuals, each holding a copy of the Baath newspaper, on which they have been asked to write their own thoughts on the revolution.
“We have been raised and oppressed and taught not to speak out since our childhood,” the photographer explained via email. “I chose to take on one of the Syrian government’s most prominent symbols, The Baath Newspaper ... The paper is turned upside down in the photographs – toppled – and used as a surface of new and free thoughts, written by the Syrian people, thus overturning the daily chronicle of government lies.”
The people photographed include journalist Amer Matar – arrested several times for aiding anti-regime activists – with the words “The chains will break” scrawled across his upside-down paper.
Actress Louise Abdelkarim holds a paper reflected in a mirror that declares “There is no turning back.” The paper held by Egyptian poet Ahmad Fouad Najem, who was several times imprisoned for criticizing the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime, reads, “Rising to the Fall.”
Among the photographs is one of Youssef Abdelke, one of Syria’s best-known international artists. Abdelke peers around the side of his raised newspaper toward the camera, face half-hidden like a child playing peekaboo. One hand holds the paper aloft, while the index finger of the other has been pushed right through it, puncturing the pages.
The revolution in Syria has also had an impact on Abdelke’s work. Although, as he said in a recent telephone interview from Damascus, his working process is much the same in spite of the unrest.
“I work almost as usual,” Abdelke explains. “What is troubling is not my personal situation, [but] the overall situation and it’s that which has a crucial effect for all artists, for all intellectuals, for all citizens. When it comes to personal circumstances I don’t have any impediments ... I live and work in an area which is not really touched by the violence.”
The artist is known for his enormous black-and-white charcoal drawings, rendered with photorealistic accuracy. Since the onset of the uprising, however, his subject matter has changed.
“I’m [drawing] figures,” the artist says. “Men and women, the martyrs, the mothers of the martyrs. This is something completely new for me because for 15 years I have worked on still life and haven’t really used human beings in my work. It’s new, but at the same time I think it’s natural because of the situation.”
One of Abdelke’s recent pieces, “The Knife and the Bird,” is a still life, but its subject matter and message are far from the traditional bunch of flowers. In what may be a play on the French term for still life – “nature morte” or “dead nature” – Abdelke has captured a dead songbird, lying on its back on a wooden table, feet raised in the air. Behind it, plunged into the wood with lethal force, is a carving knife.
“I have just finished a picture of a mother who weeps before a photo of her martyred son,” he says. “I like to tackle these difficult moments, this pain and sorrow ... At the same time I’m working on the light, the black and white – things that I have always done. But there is a measure of noble sentiment which is present today in my work which wasn’t there before.”
Abdelke exhibited two pieces in a group show at Espace Kettaneh Kunigk in Beirut in March, but in spite of rumors of a 2013 solo show at the gallery the artist says he wants to show his latest work in Syria, before exhibiting it abroad.
This is not currently an option. “I think if I searched I would not find a gallery that could show my work, simply because that would be forbidden by the government,” he explains.
“The people who would come to put a stop to the exhibition – one cannot really imagine or guess what they might do. What I make is not tanks, or planes or bombs. I make drawings. But they are not capable of valuing even a drawing which is outside their control.”