The Art of War: Syria’s Artists Find Pain and Fame on the Front Lines

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"Freedom Graffiti" by Tammam Azzam
Tammam Azzam / Ayyam Gallery

"Freedom Graffiti" by Tammam Azzam

Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss projected onto a bullet-pocked wall in Damascus. Goya’s iconic execution squad from Third of May 1808 superimposed onto a bombed-out alley. Matisse’s nudes from The Dance skipping over rubble. When digitally manipulated photos by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam went viral last week the images were both familiar and shocking. For a world grown deaf to the Syrian war’s endless bombardment of horrors, the juxtaposition of high art and human depravity introduces a new voice to the conflict that is neither regime spokesman’s nor opposition warrior’s, but that of the Syrian artist. As both sides in the conflict gird for what is expected to be a pivotal battle for the capital, Damascus, in the coming weeks, Syrian artists are attracting attention in the international art world, sought out for their visual commentary on the conflict just as exile from their homeland propels them into view.

“There has been an increased level of interest in art coming out of Syria,” says Khaled Samawi, whose Ayyam Gallery represents Middle Eastern artists in London, Beirut and Dubai. “The attention on Tammam Azzam is a perfect example of how the current difficulties in Syria are giving greater exposure to Syrian artists, especially those who are making work about the effect that the regime is having on the country.” The uprising, he adds, has sparked considerable interest by international museums in the work of several of the gallery’s Syrian artists, including Azzam, who had his first solo show in Dubai in December.

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The artists themselves may feel conflicted about the opportunities that war has brought them, but for Samawi, it is recognition long overdue. Seven years ago the successful Geneva-based banker returned to his native Damascus, just as economic and social reforms put in place by President Bashar Assad were starting to take root. An urban consumer class was growing in tandem with newly developed private banks, businesses and a stock exchange, and Samawi saw an opportunity in the country’s well regarded but poorly marketed contemporary-arts movement. In 2006, together with his cousin Hisham Samawi, he launched Ayyam Gallery as a showcase for local artists; six years on, with his fifth branch set to open in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, at the end of the month, Samawi has single-handedly proved that Syrian artists deserve a place alongside Iranians and Iraqis as the rising stars of Middle Eastern art.

But these days, the flagship gallery is closed for sales. Samawi, who is now based in Dubai, turned it into a refuge for artists who had lost studio space, and in some cases, their homes, to the war’s ongoing destruction last year. For a while the gallery was home to a lively group of artists whose creative impulses were galvanized by the group setting and ferment of uncertainty. But as fighting surged in Damascus, artists lead the exodus from the capital. They have settled in Dubai, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and even Europe, where forced exile has introduced them to a receptive audience. “I have clients coming in thinking that Syrian artists will be selling cheaply because of the war, but on the contrary, prices are going up,” says Beirut-based gallery owner Alia Hilal. “They are seeking refuge in places like Paris and London and Dubai, so automatically they are being snapped up by galleries and getting that international exposure.”

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While some artists have capitalized on the commercial aspects of war and exile to advance their careers, many saw little choice but to leave. For Tarek Butayhi, whose current show in Beirut has been both a critical and commercial success, the sign came when unknown brigands — he suspects regime thugs, but has no proof — torched his Damascus studio five months ago, decimating a decade’s worth of work. But the move to Lebanon, while painful, has also been a source of inspiration. His show, “Women on Canvas,” is a scathing meditation on Lebanon’s dubious designation as the plastic-surgery capital of the Middle East. Bold slashes of color depict silicon-enhanced cleavages, lifted butts, raised cheekbones, nose jobs and lip injections — treatments that have robbed women of their individuality, culminating in uniformly mashed and distorted faces.

The images on display in the gallery would seem a far cry from Butayhi’s paintings about the war that spill in an anguished slide show on his iPad, images he doesn’t dare show publicly so close to Syria, for fear of repercussions on family members still inside. There, his signature strokes evoke the decapitated bodies, bullet-riddled chests and pools of blood that have become the daily fare of opposition YouTube videos. But both his women and his corpses reflect the costs of wanting too much, be it an idealized form of beauty or an idealized form of freedom, and how greater efforts to achieve either paradoxically result in ugliness and death. Butayhi, 30, struggles with the conflicting desire to speak openly about the revolution in his work and the need to protect his family back in Damascus. “Every artist has a duty to address what is happening in a realistic way,” he says, brushing shaggy bangs from his eyes, “but even [in Lebanon] it is too close to Syria. If I were farther away I could address it in a more direct way.” In the meantime, his women on display are his proxies.

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Even in exile, fear of the regime stalks many Syrian artists, who eschew confrontational politics in favor of an examination of the conflict’s impact on human lives. Heba al-Akkad, who came to prominence in 2009 for her luminous collages made of sheer fabric layered over paper and canvas, has recently started incorporating passport pages, family registration papers and letters from friends in jail into her work, a reflection of her own personal dilemma. Shortly after her marriage, al-Akkad, 32, whose depictions of the ravages of war had already earned the ire of the authorities, fled Syria with her husband when he refused to appear for his mandatory military service. She remembered to pack the Syrian silk essential for her work, but forgot her marriage certificate, an omission that would haunt her nine months later, when her son was born in Lebanon. Without a marriage certificate, the baby cannot be issued identity papers, and now al-Akkad and her husband, whose own passports have expired, are trapped in an earthly purgatory, unable to return to Syria, unable to leave and unable to settle in Lebanon. Paperwork — or rather a lack of paperwork — defines her now, she says, so she has incorporated it into her work. “I am no longer human,” she says. “They took away my flesh and they turned me into a stamp. My son does not have papers, so he does not exist. It is the same for so many Syrian refugees. We have become numbers, not people.”

In some ways Syria’s artists owe their success to Assad, not least for the economic reforms that allowed an art market to flourish in what used to be a centrally planned economy. As long as their work wasn’t overtly critical, artists were granted a certain leeway unavailable to writers and satirists. Assad and his wife positioned themselves as patrons of the arts, funding museums, sponsoring exhibits abroad and amassing a substantial private collection of local works. Assad even presented the work of Syrian artists to visiting dignitaries, furthering recognition abroad. Artists weren’t necessarily wealthy in Assad’s Syria, but they could make a living. The ones who thrived under those conditions now find themselves torn, longing for the freedoms promised by Syria’s revolution, but still loyal to the Assad clan for promoting them. “As an artist you might not love the government, but when Bashar is your best client, it’s hard to separate the political from the personal,” says Hilal, the Beirut-based gallery owner.

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Sabhan Adam, whose provocative self-portraits have garnered an avid following among international collectors over the past decade, in part because of enthusiastic promotion by the Assads, is similarly caught in the middle. As one of Syria’s most recognized artists — one of his paintings, a monstrous self-portrait that invokes both revulsion and fascination, was featured at the 2011 Venice Biennale — Adam has been asked by both sides to take a stance, something he staunchly refuses to do. “No one is happy with me now,” the self-taught painter says with a deep sigh. “The media wants to make me a voice for the opposition, the powerful people want me to stand with them. But I am neutral. To me, everyone has made mistakes. Syria has been destroyed from taking sides.” To critics who say it’s an artist’s responsibility to react to the current events, Adam, 40, counters that his work over the past two decades prophesized Syria’s dark days. Indeed, his tortured imagery, full of contorted bodies, severed limbs, misplaced eyes and bright red gas masks are echoes of the current grisly conflict.

The situation in Syria, he says, has quite literally brought him to the point of not being able to paint at all. Adam can only work in a specially constructed studio in his hometown near the Iraqi border, an eight-hour drive from Damascus. Six months ago the road was bombed, and Adam, now in the capital, has not been able to return home since. “My paint is dried out and my canvas is rotted,” he says, a metaphor for his own blood and flesh rendered speechless from depression and terror. “I have been dead for six months.” It’s a fitting irony, perhaps, for an artist of such dark matter, that just as international interest in Syrian art is at its peak, Adam, the country’s best-known artist, is unable to lift his paintbrush.

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