Beneath Syria’s high politics, a population is at work
A new mouth emerges for my mouth
A new voice emerges for my voice
And my fingers
Become a tribe
Damascus, what are you doing to me? by Nizar Qabbani
A young boy’s piercing stare looms over the gallery space. Hamza Bakkour, a 13-year-old boy who sat in a field hospital in Homs with the bottom half of his face blown off pleads for justice as I stand, eye-level, at the canvas through a glass wall in the P21 Gallery in Euston. The boy is desperate to escape from his material confines. Nails project from the canvas, the edges of the image fraying as the artist purposely chose to abstain from colour on the sides, making the piece look as if it is stretching to encompass the parameters of the room, the walls of the building, the surface of the world. To ensure his story lives on. The jagged outline of his deformed face contrasts with his hazy, terror stricken eyes as he asks us, “where were you?”
Over time, culture and the arts have been used as part of the analytical prism in exploring the revolution. The global community’s normalisation of massacres and it’s insensitivity to the demolition of entire cities filled with ancient history, sacred spaces and memories of its inhabitants has motivated Syrians to explore new ways to attract an individualistic and insular world population.
The “new” or, many would argue, suppressed voices of resistance of the people of Syria have emerged over the past three years. Amidst the remnants of homes and livelihoods came the witty cynicism of Kafr Nabl’s political sketches and chants of “Allah, Syria, Freedom. That is all.”
As attacks from both sides ensue beneath the circus of diplomatic envoys and talks – away from the high politics – a population has been at work. And this current exhibition has created a stage for some of these Syrian artists’ personal performances.
The not-for-profit NGO Mosaic Syria successfully smuggled some of the work from inside Syria. Some artists refused to sign their pieces for fear of backlash by the Syrian authorities when moving through checkpoints. Although it may not have a direct impact on Assad’s fall, it is an ideological threat that adds weight to the culture of Syrian resistance. Prisoners lined up against the wall of a dingy Damascene police headquarters in Light After Dark by Hamid Sulaiman, emphasise this risk and its consequences.
Normalisation of events in Syria is sonically represented through the monotonous and industrialised drone playing around a small room with disturbing images of the war along a wall. The final kiss of a mother against the cheek of her dying baby, a child standing before devastation on a bright red scooter, a dead baby wrapped in off-white cloth like a bouquet of flowers, the blood stained laundry on a washing line and a glimmer of hope amongst the dread towards the left of the wall, as a man stands raising his hands to the sky in prayer.
The tumultuous brush strokes of Qamishli-born Zaria Zardasht capture the vivacity of the protests at their birth. Whilst the subject matter, of a murky grey shadow looming over the fierce shades of red in The Widow of a Martyr provide a sobering recognition of the sacrifices made by these people, towards an immaterial gift – what is thought to be an inalienable right – freedom.
Current debate on the legitimacy of the opposition and pressure on world leaders not to arm the rebels due to the ever-present “Islamist threat” have left Syrians wondering: will Bashar Al-Assad and his government, Russia, Iran and allies from Hezbollah be held accountable? This worry is expressed in Tarek Tuma’s series Homo Sacer.
Tarek Tuma, lead curator of the exhibition, explores tyranny within the Syrian paradigm. With Homo Sacer (The Accursed Man) a metaphor for the status of Bashar Al-Assad is created. This is the status imposed on him, as he has broken, or failed to promise in the first place, an oath of humanity to his people. The Syrian people banish him from civil society. Whoever kills the Homo Sacer is not a murderer, as this man has already broken the law himself. Through this series of portraits, of Adunis the Syrian poet, of Hamza Bakkour and Nietzsche, he aims to explore this concept of a noble death.
The insight into human nature continues with Khaled Abdul Wahed’s raw footage entitled Our Daily F***ing Meal It is a bare portrayal of torn people. “F*** your sister, Bashar,” a woman exclaims as she makes a fire to keep warm. Here there is no sitting on the fence, in the refugee camps there is no sympathy for political sophistry and “deep concern” as it is estimated that there are around 4.25 million internally displaced Syrians.
The opposition is under the threat of being redefined into a monolithic entity. Although all factions may be working towards the same goal, the means to freedom are very different, and a failure to recognise this has created a lack of faith in the Syrian people from abroad, and vice versa. The varied media used in this exhibition represents the multiple narratives of this civil war, its alternative visions and means towards a free state. It is important to remember that, just like the politics of the uprising, this did not spring up out of nowhere. A nation did not exclaim in unison one morning “I fancy having a revolution”. This was a 30-year process of political tension against a regime who believed their legitimacy existed without its people’s consent. Syrian art did not begin in March 2011 but it was certainly under tight reins during the Assad rule. Did it take a revolution for people to search for their artistic identity? Of course not. It took a revolution for the world to care about what Syria has to offer.
The #withoutwords exhibition at the P21 Gallery in Euston continues until 1 September 2013.
*Title of article taken from sculpture in the exhibition by artist Ronak Ahmed. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, not necessarily the intended interpretations of the artists mentioned.
Image from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/22/syria-art-smuggled-exhibition-london-uk#_
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.