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The Daily Star
FRIDAY, 25 APR 2014
11:06 AM Beirut time
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Syrian suffering in a gallery near you
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BEIRUT: In “The Red Balloon,” an Oscar-winning 1956 featurette by French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse, a small boy finds himself a new friend – a sentient red balloon that follows him wherever he goes. When a gang of jealous bullies pop his silent sidekick, all the helium balloons in the city come to comfort the small boy, lifting him up and away over the rooftops of Paris.

An unforgettable image, the cluster of balloons with their precious cargo are evoked in a bleaker context in the latest series of work by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam. “Bon Voyage” consists of a six digital images, which capture a war-damaged Damascene house, its exterior walls blasted off to reveal the remains of furniture crushed by rubble within, being carried by a mass of colorful balloons to famous landmarks around the world.

The work is on show at Ayyam Gallery until the end of January as part of Azzam’s solo show, entitled “I, the Syrian.” A simultaneous exhibition at Ayyam’s London branch displays different editions of the same works.

Azzam, who fled Syria with his family for the safety of Dubai in September 2011, says that the airborne house symbolizes memory for all those who have lost their property to the war. He selected countries whose political clout means they play a key role in Syria’s future, he explains, and juxtaposed the specter of violence against treasured landmarks.

In Beirut, the house is captured flying over the natural arch of the Pigeon Rocks, which exhibit traces of an enormous crack, as though they have been struck by lightning or damaged in an earthquake. In Geneva, a chasm has appeared in the earth in front of the United Nations Office. In New York, where disaster already struck on 9/11, Azzam has captured the balloons flying past the flaming Twin Towers.

By bringing the ruin being wrought on Syria’s infrastructure and people home in such a visceral way, Azzam hopes to engage the interest and sympathy of an international audience. It’s an aim that succeeded at the end of last year, when one of the images in his “Syrian Museum” series made headlines in newspapers around the world.

Azzam, who worked as a painter before the war, has been producing digital art since he moved to Dubai, leaving his studio and materials behind him. In late 2012 he created a photoshopped image of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” superimposed on the side of a Syrian building pitted with bullets and scarred by shelling, as though it was a work of graffiti. The image went viral and within hours had been shared thousands of times online.

The work was part of a series of images that juxtapose elements of famous paintings by Western artists with photographs of the destruction in Syria. A number of these works are on show in the current exhibition, including part of a painting by Francisco Goya, entitled “The Third of May 1808,” commemorating a massacre in which 80 people were killed, placed against a photograph of rubble-filled Syrian streets.

Azzam wanted to highlight the scale of the violence in Syria, he says, where more than 200 deaths each day barely make the international news. The artist aimed to make his message resonate internationally, he says, choosing works by well-known Western painters to ensure that audiences unfamiliar with Arab artists would identify with the digital artwork.

Azzam seems a little confused when it comes to the purpose of his work. Having explained his hopes of influencing a worldwide audience he adds: “I don’t like artists who use their work as a means to send a message ... I do my art and if people take a message away from it that’s great.”

When pressed, he explains that his work does aim to send a message, but a humanitarian, rather than a political one. There is an exception, however. “United Colors,” consists of three light boxes, which spell out the words “United Nations,” “United States,” and “United Russia,” in Arabic calligraphy, a gun or a sword displayed beneath them. Colored red, black and green with white writing, the pieces together display the colors of the Syrian flag and deliver a clear political commentary.

“These different powers make the decisions everywhere,” Azzam clarifies, “and for me it’s funny that the U.S. support Saudi Arabia and no Americans can live there, and the opposite way around. If a Saudi went to America, they’d say it was a sinful country and if an American went to live in Saudi, they’d say it was a third world country.”

“The flags are a new thing,” he adds, admitting they clash with his nondidactic approach. “For me it’s like an artist’s political statement, but not an artwork.”

A few of Azzam’s nondigitally generated artworks are also on show. One print, entitled “Syria Next Spring,” captures a hand grenade covered with brightly blooming flowers. Another, “We Were There,” shows two young girls in silhouette against a globe, one pointing to Syria, which appears on the sand-colored land mass as a splash of vivid blood red.

Two works of virtual graffiti complete the exhibition, showing Azzam’s latest conceptual direction. Simple pieces, resembling black stencils sprayed on a white wall, one is entitled “Syrian Olympics” and captures the five Olympic rings hovering above a scene in which two runners sprint away from three gunmen. The other, entitled “Exit,” shows a line of soldiers in regimented formation, while to their left a hunched figure carrying a sack sneaks away.

Azzam explains that while he is unable to produce physical graffiti in Syria he believes the simplicity of street art makes it more accessible. “The people are found in the street,” he says, “where the demonstrations happen, so I thought it would be more direct. Street art is maybe closer to people than paintings. It’s easier for them to understand the work and grasp the message.”

That said, he clarifies that his work is not aimed specifically at a Syrian audience. “I’m trying to make something more iconic,” he says. “For all people, everywhere.”

As for the title he chose for the exhibition, he says it is not intended to be personal: “‘I, the Syrian’ means for me: ‘We, the Syrians.’ In Syria today everyone, from Bashar Assad to the smallest child, is living a nightmare.”

Tammam Azzam’s “I, the Syrian,” is up at Ayyam Gallery until Jan. 30, 2014. For more information, please call 01-374-450.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 16, 2013, on page 16.
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