Introduction to Life, Death and Art in Syria: A Fanack Academy Project
The project which spans over half a year of collecting art, interviews and perspective from six Syrian artists who have left their country and are now residing in the Netherlands and Germany. The artwork and interviews will be showcased on Fanack Academy, and also put on exhibition. The exhibition shall open Wednesday, the 8th of June 2016 and will run through 15th of September, 2016 at the Nieuwspoort gallery in The Hague. The project and exhibition aim to highlight this reclamation of individual agency with the refocusing of the realities of the six Syrian artists, their communities and their particular perception the Syrian experience. By bringing artists and their stories to the foreground, the project aims to not just share novel and enlightening stories, but also to empathize with the experience of being Syrian in post-2011.
The majority of the headlines originating from Syria since 2011 make for grim reading. They tell of a conflict that is so convoluted and pervasive that the possibility of an end feels fanciful. Within the borders, they say, the belligerents are numerous and fluid in their identity, complicating and spreading the conflict. At the same time from abroad, interfering states pour fuel onto the fire by using Syria as a proxy war in their regional and global power struggles.
Primarily framing the conflict within this larger picture of the clashing ambitions of armed groups and geopolitical wrangling has its strengths. Based only on the current coverage, it would be possible to give a fairly accurate summary of the reality on the ground in terms of battle lines and the impact of political and military strategy. Focussing on Syria from above also allows the actors that are most likely to be the cause of significant change in the conflict, like Assad, the US, Iran or Russia, to claim the limelight. The problem though, does not arise from this angle’s use but from its overuse. Looking through its lens, the 60 killed on the 30th of October in Douma’s vegetable market are reduced to a contribution to a death toll that currently stands at a minimum of 210,000. Similarly, the shifting front line is understood in terms of its impact on the power balance rather than the ruined homes it leaves in its wake. If what we are told about Syria is limited to knowledge gleaned singularly through such a top-down window, we know nothing of the experiences of the millions of people who live the daily reality individually. Despite being armed with the knowledge that there are between 6-8 million people internally displaced within Syria, we cannot understand their experiences without hearing their voices and personal stories. A coverage, which does not shed light on the humanised face of the conflict, squashes Syrians’ identities as autonomous individuals. As a consequence, Syrians have been disproportionately cast as the passive stage on which the violence of the powerful has been conducted.
Amongst the din of a war that threatens to silence Syrians, art provides them with, as it has with many other refugees and war-torn people before, an independent voice. It reclaims the window of perspective from the aggregated clumping of individuals and instead refocuses on the specific reality of the artist, their community and their particular perception of the Syrian experience. Take Syria as told by the music of Ayham al- Ahmad, known commonly as the Yarmouk Pianist. Living in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, which has played host to some of the bitterest fighting of the war. Ayham would wheel his piano into the ruined streets and play partly in hope and partly in defiance. Or the puppeteer group Massasit Matti, who posts satirical finger puppet shows that revolve around a caricatured depiction of Assad. Matti, strikes a very fine balance between ridiculing the Regime and its violence and grieving the suffering caused by the war. The performances that are uploaded to Youtube, provide a telling commentary on the changing mood of the revolution in Syria. As the conflict has dragged on, and the hope of a quick end to the violence has vanished, the mood of the shows darkened from the optimistic calls for mass participation in the protests, to the use of black humour to cope with the loss of life and country. Their music and videos respectively illuminate the reality of Syria in a way that current mass media coverage never could.
Furthermore, the development of and the changes in Syrian art have been significant characteristics of the conflict within Syria. Since the inception of the conflict, the struggle for political power has been simultaneously played out in both the artistic sphere, and on the battlefields. It was an act of graffiti that ignited the revolution. Following an incident in Daraa in late February 2011, where fifteen children were arrested and tortured by the Syrian police for painting anti-Assad slogans and murals, protests broke out around the country. In addition, the exponential rise in the exposure and prominence of the Syrian artistic world has been one of the most notable changes since the revolution. Before 2011, artists were heavily repressed by the consecutive Assad regimes. Room that allowed for free-expression, perceived as a form of dissent, was not tolerated. Therefore, the possibility of artistically contributing to society was only available to a select few seen as acceptable by the Assad Regime. Now, although the Assad regime still stands, it’s universal and unquestioned authority has crumbled; removing the restrictions on freedom of expression that had suffocated Syrian artists and political activists alike. The newly available space was, and continues to be, intensively exploited by anti-Assad groups in a multitude of ways. Arts is being used as a means of defiance, catharsis, coping, propaganda, story-telling, as well as building identity. Furthermore, artistic expression for Syrians has become a tonic to the previously entrenched mental dominance of the regime and a device to coordinate mass movements.
Fanack’s Project Life, Death and Art in Syria, hopes to achieve two aims. Firstly, to provide a space where we showcase artists and their work to better illuminate the reality of the Syrian situation; diversifying a story that all too frequently disregards the individual. Secondly, to begin an open conversation that will leave us all, both the readers and the writers, in a more knowledgeable position after it closes. Writing from outside the country, based on observations and second hand information, the scope of the conflict we can cover on our own is limited simply by our distance.
By bringing art and artists to the foreground then, we hope to be able not just share novel and enlightening stories but also to learn ourselves about what it has meant to be a Syrian since 2011. Consequently then, Life, Death and Art in Syria will take an organic approach to generating content. Although there will be pieces produced solely by Fanack staff, Life Death and Art in Syria will primarily rely on material that is shared and co-created. This means the discussion generated will be largely directed by interviews conducted with the artists, and you, the reader’s, insights and contributions into arts in Syria.