If there is a place where using the word “revolution” in the context of Syria does not result in endless and highly heated conversations, that is in arts and culture. Unlike politics – a slippery slope terrain where the 2011 Syrian uprising against Bashar al-Asad can take unexpected shapes and be easily turned into a “foreign conspiracy” or a “civil war” – the domain of contemporary Syrian cultural production seems to be deemed, unanimously, the one and only where an actual “revolution” is in the making.
By Donatella Della Ratta | FREEMUSE INSIGHT
To be sure, a cultural scene existed in Syria prior to the uprising. Even the country’s darkest times, marked by a tight control over artists and intellectuals’ creative expressions under Hafez al-Asad’s rule, witnessed the rise of a generation of talented cultural producers.
As beautifully documented through the work of Lisa Wedeen and Miriam Cooke, this generation of writers and filmmakers had staunchly worked to push the boundaries of what was deemed possible or permissible at the time, sometimes producing remarkable works of art.
During the first decade of the 2000s, under Bashar al-Asad’s presidency, however, the elite of cultural producers was mostly composed by people working for the tv industry, or by already well-established artists (several of whom were closely tied to the regime). Very few opportunities of experimenting and expressing themselves were given to the Syrian youth, indeed the most considerable part of the population demographically speaking.
This youth carried a creative and innovative potential within the domain of arts and culture. Syria enjoyed relatively good music, art and theatre schools where young Syrians could study and experiment new formats and artistic languages; yet, this creativity was left behind closed doors, with very few opportunities to be displayed, performed, and discussed in public. It is mostly with the March 2011 uprising that this artistic potential has emerged, pushed both by a strong political cause – the uprising – and by an interactive technology – the Internet, particularly social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
During the first couple of years into the uprising, writers, scholars and journalists have celebrated the amazing outpouring of Syrian creativity, and its ability to exploit the potential of social networking sites to spread and reach out to a wider public with a clearly disruptive political message. This emerging creativity has been put into connection with the shaping of a self-conscious civil society movement, well aware that expressing itself through new creative formats could contribute to forming a powerful active citizenship.
Creative artists and activists
Emerging Syrian artists have caught the world’s attention, such as Tammam Azzam. The young artist was already active inside Syria prior to the uprising; yet, it is his 2012-2013 series “Syrian Museum” – and particularly the tender, sensual painting ‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt transported into Syria’s destroyed homes and walls – that has gained him international reputation.
Art exhibitions have been put together, from Amsterdam to Copenhagen to Washington D.C. and Paris, to highlight Syrian creativity and the Syrian people’s resilience through arts and culture. User generated creativity has been widely celebrated; such as the posters, banners and slogans originating from the small village of Kafranbel, in northern Syria, with their dark humor and their ironic insights on international politics.
‘The Kiss’ by Gustav Klimt interpreted by the artist Tammam Azzam. Source: ayyamgallery.com.
And then, there was Da’esh. When the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” gained international attention with their brutal yet high-tech (and pretty “appealing”, in media terms) propaganda, even that little spotlight that, through arts and culture, was given to Syrian civil society, was turned off. Yet, the outpouring of Syrian creativity has never stopped; this is an ongoing phenomenon even right now, at a time when the media and the international community can only see two sides – the regime and Da’esh – being engaged in a violent battle for the control of Syria’s future. Dark humor and parody – features that have marked Syrian creativity throughout the history of the country’s cultural production – are now used to counteract Da’esh and its violent message.
A good example is ‘Daya al Taseh’, a series of video sketches by Youssef Helali, Maen Watfe and Muhammad Damlakhy, lampooning life under the self-proclaimed “caliphate”. Parody is also employed by activists in campaigns to raise awareness on Syrian civil society being crushed by both the regime and Dae’sh: “same shit”, as the banners and posters designed and spread online by KeshMalek (‘Checkmate’) say.
In the past years, activists’ websites and repositories for user-generated creativity and civil awareness have boomed within the Syrian Internet. Lately, new online initiatives have been added to web platforms such as SyriaUntold and Dawlaty which in 2012-2013 pioneered the idea of archiving Syrian digital creativity and creating easy-to-access web repositories out of the Facebook “jungle” where the majority of Syrian creative works is buried.
The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution is one of the latest additions to the rich universe of Syrian digital archives for arts and creativity. Graffiti, photos, films, posters and banners, music, all sorts and formats of digital creativity are stored on this web platform. There is also a section dedicated to the “critique of revolutionary art”, where newspapers’ articles and more scholarly oriented reflections are posted. And yet there is more to come: Zakera, the latest online platform dedicated to storing and preserving the memory of the Syrian uprising through the creative material that has been produced in these past years (videos, posters, songs, etc), is due to launch in a month, slightly after the fourth anniversary of the 15 March uprising.
At the same time when initiatives for storing and preserving Syrian grassroots creativity are intensifying, with the aim of maintaining some attention on Syrian civil society movements and their incredible creativity and resilience; Syrian artists’ creative expressions are getting more mature.
Lately, in the domain of cinema and experimental filmmaking, two extremely interesting works have caught international attention. Ziad Khalthoum’s ‘The immortal sergeant’, which premiered in August 2014 at Locarno International Film Festival, is an incredible account of the schizophrenia that Syrian civil society is obliged to live in on a daily basis.
In a Damascus divided between regime-controlled and rebel-held areas, life goes on, and so does filmmaking: Khalthoum’s camera savvily documents the changing moods of a city struggling to stay alive and human. Ammar al Beik’s ‘La Dolce Siria’ (‘The sweet Syria’), presented this year at Berlinale’s Forum Expanded, is a surreal tribute to Federico Fellini’s world set in contemporary Syria, where a circus supposed to bring joy to Syrian children turns into a pervert mechanism for the production of violence and fear.
Despite being related to the current events in Syria and carrying a clear political stance, both works are, first of all, works of art. They are far from the “art of the Syrian uprising” types; pushing forward a much broader aesthetic and human question and, while doing so, attempting at finding a new language to tell their stories. To this extent, it is impossible to forget the lesson of Osama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s ‘Silvered Water – Syria’s Self Portrait’, presented last year at Cannes Film Festival.
Mohammed is an established Syrian director living in exile who gets to rediscover his beloved (and lost) Syria through a young Kurdish woman filming for him in besieged Homs; and through the eyes of hundred thousands of Syrians, anonymous filmmakers who have sacrificed their lives to film and upload their visual documentation. ‘Silvered Water’ is an extremely sophisticated attempt at reading into a country’s personal and political history; at digging into the accumulation and the juxtaposition of digital memories, finally finding a way to tell the history of violence, and of the visual documentation of this very violence.
Signals that Syrians are moving beyond a sort of “instant” art as an immediate expression of the post-uprising moment, and reflecting within a broader aesthetic and political horizon, come from several domains and directions. To some extents, there is also a community of Syrian artists of a sort in the making. Syrian diaspora is now a harsh reality, with people of all classes and socio-economical backgrounds living scattered between Europe and the Middle East. While experiencing the living-in-exile situation, many artists have nevertheless recreated small communities, either through social networking sites – such as Facebook’s Syria Art – Syrian Artists page – or in real places. Berlin and Beirut are probably, right now, the most vibrant sites for Syrian contemporary art to happen, and for Syrian artists to gather.
Especially Beirut, being so close – geographically and, to some extents, culturally – to Syria, is experiencing a boom of community-gatherings, exhibitions, public talks and private meetings revolving around Syrian art. Some of the most interesting contemporary Syrian artists live and work there, such as Yasser Safi with his incredibly powerful series of paintings evoking childish-like colored playgrounds haunted by adults’ twisted behaviors which place the act of killing and torturing within the most innocent yet pervert human gesture.
Or like Abdel Karim Majdal al Beik with his mixed media works, and his most recent installation carrying the telling title of ‘Postponed Democracy’ as a reaction to the media hype for the so-called “Arab Springs” now turned into “winters”.
Talented young Syrians are also part of this new artistic Beirut landscape in the making; visual artists such as Fadi al Hamwi, with his Francis Bacon-like atmosphere of human beings turning into animals, and animals being pervertedly humanised.
Or performer Alina Ameer, with her powerful bathroom performance where her body bleeds while violently trying to brush away the dirtiness of decades of dictatorship, submission, and violence.
The Syrian Beirut-based arts and culture community offers a wide range of artistic disciplines and typologies of creative languages to reflect upon for those who are interested to understand where contemporary Syrian cultural production is heading. Not only visual arts and performances, but also music (including hard rock and metal, such as Tanjaret Daghet); filmmaking (watch out for Sara Fattahi’s upcoming documentary ‘Coma’ premiering at Nyon Film Festival ‘Visions du Réel’ in April 2015); and fiction-writing (Mohammad Dibo, one of the most promising Syrian journalists and intellectuals who penned a series of articles on al-Asad’s “secular sectarianism” has just published a sort of mémoires from Damascus whose title loosely translates into “As witnessing your own death”).
The gathering of this arts and culture community is facilitated by collective initiatives that are blossoming thanks to the personal efforts by committed Syrian individuals. A remarkable effort towards generating an intellectual debate (and promoting training sessions, publications, public meetings and conferences, etc) around the concept of citizenship has been initiated by Hassan Abbas, a professor of Arabic language and literature at the Institut du Proche Orient (IFPO) in Beirut. Abbas, who has been very active inside Syria since the start of the uprising, promoting humanitarian and citizen-related initiatives, has now moved to Beirut where he just launched a new study and research center aiming at creating knowledge and awareness on active citizenship.
On the art side, it would be unfair not to remind of Raghad Mardini and her pioneering effort of putting together a community of Syrian artists around her amazingly beautiful art residency Aley, situated up in the mountains nearby Beirut.
In a couple of years of activities, Mardini has gathered more than 50 Syrian artists, hosting them in her residency space and giving them the opportunity to produce and exhibit their artworks, but also to connect with fellow peers and initiate a debate revolving around creativity and artistic expressions in a state of turmoil and unrest.
What does it mean to make art and produce culture when your country is involved in a daily armed conflict? Does the creation of beauty and art have any meaning whatsoever if violence, killing and destruction are the daily bread of the Syrian human being? Can arts and culture contribute to make any change in Syrian society even when political change is unlikely?
These questions are raised on a daily basis within the Syrian artistic community in Beirut, and elsewhere. The mere fact that they are being raised hints at a positive change in the making. Whether you call it “revolution” or not, it is definitively worth watching to see where this might be heading to.
Donatella Della Ratta is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Copenhagen focusing her research on the Syrian tv industry.
This article is part of a Freemuse INSIGHT series edited by Marie Korpe. It was published on 29 April 2015.