In less than a year, much of the Damascus art scene has been brought to a standstill by events surrounding the Syrian uprising. Some artists continue to reside in Syria and are producing with apparent impetus—others mirror their efforts but have relocated to neighboring Arab states. Although limited, recent activity among the city’s commercial and non-profit art spaces includes impromptu organizing, as a few remaining galleries support a small network of artists and cultural practitioners through makeshift residencies.
With several prominent gallerists having already fled the country, the local art scene has been severely fractured, amplifying yet another instance in the Arab world in which a nation’s artistic landscape is spread among artists who remain under siege and those who are forced to create amidst the constant state of limbo that is exile. The impact of the current political situation on art has perhaps been most damaging to those who work tirelessly behind the scenes, as escalating violence descends upon neighborhood after neighborhood and tends to hit closer to home for those who live outside the realm of unchecked wealth that dictates the Syrian art world. This includes administrative employees, gallery attendants, exhibition installers, and maintenance crews.
From afar, artists abroad remain fixed to news of home and in step with a steady stream of creative responses that engage the altering dimensions of the uprising. With varied degrees of forthrightness, this work is spurring a new phase of the country’s contemporary art, one that will prove to be crucial to the survival of the Damascus art scene. Transmitted across time zones through an informal channel of artists, critics, gallerists, and curators, ideas and imagery are exchanged in digital form through online platforms, namely social media. After passing through this salon-style process, such art is then presented to the public in exhibitions throughout the region.
Given the industrious pace with which artists are now registering the daily impact of the political sphere, it is foreseeable that the birth of movements and/or schools will result from the early development of this period. Evidence of this already appears in the differences between the canvases of painters living in Damascus and those who are primarily working in the Gulf—although it could be that living under different (now opposing) authoritarian regimes makes for distinct sets of visuals altogether, despite the fact that both communities of artists are addressing the same subject.
As it was ignited by the simple yet brave act of expressive defiance that occurred in Daraa in February of last year (confirming the strength of graffiti, street art, and performance as interventionist forms), the uprising has inspired countless Syrian artists to take further steps towards breaking through the ominous system of policing (and self-policing) that has long hindered creative production. This applies to artists at home and in the diaspora, as fear of repercussions from the Syrian apparatus has stretched past the physical borders of the country. Those hoping to return to Syria one day have been made to understand that there can be consequences for expressing dissent even beyond the immediate reach of the Ba`thist regime. A note of trepidation among some is still evident even as great strides are made. The threat of severe backlash from various forces remains a reality. Accordingly, the following discussion will continue to speak only of the general makeup of this art and the themes and approaches that are fueling it. As Syria’s political outcome remains uncertain, it is best to respect the safe sense of ambiguity that appears in numerous examples of recent work.
Political censorship, in its current manifestation, has plagued Syria since the second half of the twentieth century. Official policies, such as those that demand preapproval of exhibitions and events by government agencies, have worked to maintain the Ba`thist regime’s firm grip on virtually every aspect of local visual culture. Intimidation tactics, including the court marshalling and imprisoning of artists and the ransacking of studios and art spaces, have created a pervasive climate of fear. While it is difficult to ascertain the extent to which this has impacted the formalist development of contemporary art in terms of its impeding of experimentation, it is widely known that barefaced criticism of its political system has remained off limits for generations of citizens. In the past, a large percentage of artists often tapped into a tradition of coded visuals that is characterized by subtle representational clues, weighty doses of allegory, and outside historical references that imply or signal notions of the abject through which dissent and disenfranchisement is communicated to a wide audience. Everything from ancient mythology to the ongoing Palestinian struggle has served as a vehicle for addressing the modern Syrian experience. Decades of dodging the secret police have made Syrian artists masters of triggering the intuition of viewers.
Today, although the use of representational clues continues to create a buffer, such historical references are no longer necessary. Artists are taking hold of the present by confronting their own history. Content is a driving force. Recurring subjects have taken on new personas. Titles are bolder. In many cases, simply viewing their work and being conscious of the fact that they are from Syria implies a great deal. A number of prominent painters, sculptors, photographers, and video and conceptual artists are from towns and cities that have endured the most vicious crackdowns on protests and from areas that are now caught in the crossfire of armed clashes and bombings. Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Damascus. These details are imperative and can be summoned as signifiers. Most understand how to use this strategically, as they must also tread lightly to avoid making art that sacrifices aesthetics and is riddled with sloganism.
As Syria’s predominant medium, painting has continued to be a popular form for its leading artists despite the logistical disadvantages of trying to exhibit canvases at home (amidst the chaos) or abroad (where the challenge of safely transporting pieces is quite involved). In fact, some of the more compelling examples to come out of the Syrian art scene at this time are paintings that reflect breakthroughs in the familiar styles of artists, especially in the ongoing narratives of figures.
Figurative painting—and its potential for exploring the physical and psychological relationship of the Syrian subject to the solitude of interiors or the negotiation of public spaces—has served artists well since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when the task of forging a new (modern) identity was first required. The individual (or body) in modernist painting of the 1950s established such representation as an emblematic reference to the oscillation of society as it weathered political upheaval(s). From riotous expressionist compositions to realist portraits and still lifes (as inanimate objects are often called upon to embody the seemingly innocuous), contemporary painters have continued to explore the impact of the state’s seizing of the self—the suspension of language, thought, and movement that results from the suppression of rights. Surveying the oeuvres of the many artists who have influenced the development of contemporary Syrian painting reveals a lengthy list of characters that have been cast as alienated alter egos, stand-ins for the masses, and somber icons of transcendence. Today something significant is taking place in the imagined lives of these recognized protagonists—they appear awakened or resuscitated (eyes wide-open), their physicality taking over the canvas, announcing their unmistakable transformation. They are no longer sedentary or frozen.
In other examples, keywords are used to label entire bodies of painting. References to royalty, militarized societies, and totalitarian rule are becoming commonplace. While inside Syria such work is bold and telling of an evolving aesthetic, removed from this context, especially when shown in commercial art spaces in the Gulf, a number of artists fall short of reinforcing the content and message of their work. Exhibiting art that challenges such authority can be an effective form of social commentary. Yet when it is shown (and sold) in places like Dubai, where an elite ruling class thrives through its own repressive policies and similar stockpiling of weapons, artists face the precarious territory of becoming co-opted as political pawns. As rallying cries for foreign intervention are led by an alliance of aspiring puppeteers from the Gulf and backed by international war-profiteers like the US, the very nature of the situation in Syria has changed. If such art is to speak truth to power and align itself with the idea of popular uprising it must do so unequivocally. Against the backdrop of mass demonstrations that continue to be met with state brutality in the Middle East and North Africa, there is no place for selective solidarity.
An unfortunate offshoot of this is art that produces a defeatist subtext, one that, while insisting to be in support of the uprising, is suggesting that Syrians now give in to horror. Depictions of mutilated bodies, severed heads on plates, and mangled crowds are employed to call attention to the havoc that has mounted since the Syrian regime began to address protesters with military force. Paintings, sculptures, photographs, and installations are submerged in red in references to blood. In a handful of short films and videos, actual footage from autopsies is incorporated for further effect. Drawing from the barrage of news media and amateur video and photography that is circulating and informing our perceptions of the situation on the ground, several artists are taking cues from the graphic elements of such content. While the indescribable has been set into motion and the catastrophic is quite real, reproducing these scenes will only fortify the devastation. Through a political system that attempts to capitalize on the trauma of hushed nightmares, Syrians have been instructed to expect the unthinkable—a tormenting of the national psyche that once pierced the everyday existence of millions. In order to honor those who have lost their lives, the artist’s gaze must be disengaged from the gruesome details of their demise. The act of expressing dissent, of placing one’s body in direct confrontation with peril is enough indication that Syrians are rejecting the tangible horror that lies before them. Asking them to relive it through art that is created exclusively for its shock value betrays the point of the uprising.
Notwithstanding the extreme ends of the spectrum that encapsulate this new chapter—Syrian artists are creating with an enlivened resolve. In the future, their stories will have to be rewritten. As historians, we look forward to properly documenting the specifics of their lives, the endurance of their work, and the myriad ways in which they have reflected the triumphs of their people. There is a great deal to consider and celebrate.