The silent language about Old Damascus

BEIRUT: Art exhibitions, fairs and Internet platforms the world over have been awash with the work of Syrian artists over the past three years.

For reasons of history and proximity (geographical and cultural) Beirut has been the natural platform for these works.

Starting with “Artists from Syria Today,” the group show hosted at the former Espace Kettaneh Kunigk in March-April 2011, and continuing with the AFAQ series of exhibitions and periodic group and solo shows by various Beirut galleries, galleries have catered to the international interest in Syrian production provoked by Syria’s ongoing civil war.

Some have found reason to argue that there are interesting developments in Syrian artistic production despite the destruction. Witness “Syria’s Apex Generation,” the impending group show at Ayyam Gallery.

Other critics and gallerists have remarked that many of the works to emerge from Syrian artists since 2011 are less a reflection of accomplished practice than they are a barometer of the anguish provoked by the political, cultural and emotional dislocation of the ongoing civil war.

Nassouh Zaghouleh’s work portrays a vision of Syria at peace.

“Silence in Damascus,” an exhibition of 23 of Zaghouleh’s photographs currently adorning the walls of Gemmayzeh’s Art on 56th gallery, seek to shed light on how Syria looked before 2011 – when the tragedy of arms overcame popular demonstrations calling for democratic changes to the state.

Zaghouleh (b. 1958) heads the Arab League’s Department of Visual Communication. He lived in Paris for four years and has had his work included in several international exhibitions, from Spain to the UAE.

Taken between 2006 and 2008, the works in “Silence in Damascus” capture glimpses of alleyways, old houses and street scenes.

When framing these photos the artist focused his lens on traditional Syrian edifices, so many of the spaces depicted here seem abandoned. The mute bareness about these black-and-white works – most of them bereft of human beings – has provided the inspiration for the exhibition title.

Meandering among these enigmatic depictions of shadow cut through by shafts of light, the viewer may find herself overcome by an eeriness that’s hard to place. It is as if the silence itself speaks to you.

This silence is rendered with great subtlety. If the lens has fallen upon a floor, not a single item – not so much as an errant leaf from an off-frame tree – litters it. Nothing betrays any type of movement. The spaces have been stripped of life and signs of human habitation. Spooky.

Games of light and shadow run through most all these works.

One piece captures a woman in the distance. Draped in black, framed by a narrow shaft of light between the long shadows of two Old City buildings, she gazes straight at the lens, the epitome of stillness.

Gallerist Noha W. Moharram informed The Daily Star that the woman was actually moving through Zaghouleh’s frame when the artist called out to get her attention.

This unnamed female is the sole human presence in Zaghouleh’s exhibition. It’s not unusual for historic structures like those in Damascus’ Old City to be portrayed as testimonies to history, as landmarks of the passage of time.

Here, these locations aren’t simply settings for absented figures. In this story of an irrevocable past, the figures are not absent. The characters are the spaces between historic structures, the interstices between light and darkness.

The frightening tranquility in Zaghouleh’s composition is that of the pause between breaths. It is the knowledge that, in the time it takes for this exhalation of wind, something will change, and not knowing what that change will be.

Nassouh Zaghouleh’s “Silence in Damascus” is on show at Art on 56th gallery in Gemmayzeh until June 21. For more information, please call 01-570-331.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 06, 2014, on page 16.




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