The World as a Battlefield: The Migration of Contemporary Syrian Art and the Prospects of Continuity
By Jumana al-Yasiri
Translated By: Karim Anani
The first draft of this text was written at an Ettijahat- Independent Culture workshop held in Beirut in September 2013 as an activity of the Priorities of Cultural Work in Syria program, framed within the context of the country’s current transformations. Most workshop discussions centred on the relationship of art and culture with relief work and development in modern times, as well as the migration of contemporary Syrian art and the prospects of its continuation in hosting countries. The two years which followed the first draft have seen further geographic and geopolitical changes affecting Syrian art; this, combined with the refugee crisis reaching new depths in the Summer of 2015, made it necessary to ask new questions regarding the reality of contemporary Syrian art as a process unfolding primarily in diaspora, affecting the world as much as the world affects it.
Four years ago, most Syrian artists were forced to leave their work environments and abandon their professional networks. Initially, neighbouring countries (Jordan, Lebanon, the Arab Gulf, Egypt, Turkey, etc.) proved to be the most immediate means of escape. But it wasn’t long before Amman, Cairo, Beirut, and other Arab cities turned into launching pads from which most Syrians chased those who had preceded them into the rest of the world, including Europe. With time, a complex chain of personal and professional hurdles arose for Syrian refugees to overcome: geographical distance from Syria and the events raging within; the stigma of helplessness in the wake of disaster; a complete restructuring of the social and professional dynamic to which they were accustommed; bureaucratic complexities to receive permanent residencies and work permits; foreign languages and different cultural backgrounds; and many more. The list is long, and artists are not helped by the certainty that there is no fixed date of return. Moreover, there also exists a need to establish oneself in a new place, which in some cases is an accidental destination arrived at after continual travel. Discussing the migration of Syrian art obligates us, too, to consider destination. It might be natural to think that European countries are the most difficult to access for these artists, but the truth is that regional problems make adaptation to life in other Arab countries more difficult, especially with greater travel restrictions for Syrians. Furthermore, Arab countries, unlike Western countries, do not offer clear, special rules for humanitarian and political aid, and do not make exceptions for artists. The opposite, in fact, may be true, and may have been the case long before 2011. There are also hundreds of cases in which visa requests, submitted by Syrian artists and cultural producers to join Arab cultural and artistic activities, have been declined. For example, all Syrian activities in the fourth annual Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (2014) in Cairo were cancelled, as Syrian invitees were not allowed to enter the country, regardless of the substantial efforts undertaken by organisers to secure visas for Syrian artists. Syrian artists who have managed to make their way to Paris or Berlin are today forbidden from free travel within the Arab world, undoubtedly increasing the difficulty of moving from Syria; Syrian artists are now not only exiled from home, but from the Arab world in its entirety.
We are not here to discuss reasons for departure, but rather to discuss the effect this forced migration is having on creative aesthetics, the transformations of production and publishing mechanisms, and the international reception of these new works. For example, European countries have often prioritised hosting Syrian artists and intellectuals, while remaining aware of potential problems which arise from an increase of refugees escaping the constantly escalating violence of the Middle East. A special mention goes to France, which began issuing visas to Syrian artists and cultural workers quite early, especially to those who were already entrenched in French communities in Syria. In early May 2011, only months after protests began in the Middle East, the French Ministries of Culture and Communication and of Foreign Affairs organised a roundtable discussion focused on initial cultural work on the Mediterranean coast in response to historical and social transformations; among the themes discussed by attendees was the ensuing exodus of Arab artists and cultural activists from repressive regimes and erupting violence. Questions were raised regarding economic and organisational trends at a time when the world economy is causing constant culture budget cuts. But the present migration of Syrian art does not lead to problems of cultural production mechanisms alone, as it affects long-term conceptual creative thinking: the responsibility of the artist; the risk of disconnection from Syria as a homeland; the close (and potentially problematic) relationship recently formed between art and relief work; the line between documentation and creativity; the importance of producing artworks which are representative of the time; examining this art within the context of pre-2011 Syrian art; reception of this cultural produce by the international art community and media; and other crucial points that may require deep and wide analyses from humanities experts.
The workshop, organised by Ettijahat in 2013, discussed the decentralisation of Syrian culture since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, focusing on the relationship between the capital, Damascus, and other areas in Syria. The reality is that we can, today, discuss the globalisation of contemporary Syrian art – by which we mean its production abroad – and the relationship it has developed with its new, foreign surroundings, Arabic or otherwise. In addition, we can discuss the prominent role played by social media as public publishers and virtual showrooms for texts and visual works created in different parts of the world. The examples are numerous: Aboud Saeed’s Facebook status updates, collected in The Smartest Guy on Facebook: Status Updates From Syria, published in German, English, and Spanish; Masasit Mati’s puppets; Abou Naddara’s films; the artwork of Sulafa Hijazi, which primarily condemns the military aesthetics created by the Ba'ath regime and the residual psychological trauma of repression; and Tammam Azzam’s placement of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss on a battered wall in Syria in an artwork called Freedom Graffiti, still one of the most-widely shared pieces of Syrian art on social networks. This is not to mention the tens, if not hundreds, of Facebook pages depicting the Syrian crisis with dark humour or creatively documenting modern Syrian history. Here, we want to take a moment to highlight an exceptional initiative undertaking a momentous task: to archive every piece of art posted on the internet about Syria: the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution.
Since the start of the Syrian crisis, there have been two main categories of Syrian artists: those who were able to continue working through new promotional and publication channels, or even by relying on the international network they had already established in Syria (largely due to the prominent role played by some European cultural centres in Damascus from the late 1990s by mainly supporting the independent local cultural scene and creating an alternative to the official agenda of the Syrian Ministry of Culture and other governmental bodies), and those who have not managed to continue and now suffer from disconnection from their creative activities. It is not only the challenges of daily life in new environments which have prevented Syrian artists from pursuing their creative work, but also the feeling of shared responsibility towards the events which have unfolded in Syria since 2011. Alongside these challenges comes the sense of guilt associated with flight, transforming many artists into relief workers and representatives of the Syrian people in host nations, roped into standing media appearances or public debates (attended by Syrians or otherwise, even when the audience is predominantly Arab). This is how Syrian artists have returned to the political arena and how the world became their battlefield; if that role is conflicted when it is directed inwardly, it is because the politically engaged Syrian artist has been isolated from their own society for over four decades, if not exiled or wanted by the authorities. This persecution greatly reduced the influence of Syrian art on the political and ideological landscapes of the country for long periods of time. There are, however, numerous Syrian artists who were able to move forward by combining their art with what they consider to be a historical responsibility, benefiting from new channels of promotion and an increased international interest in Arab and Syrian art following the so-called “Arab Springs”. For example, consider novelist Samar Yazbek, who found asylum in Paris in the Summer of 2011 and whose memoirs regarding the outbreak of the conflict (Crossfire; 2012) was published in French before it was even published in Arabic. The success of these memoirs, written from a female perspective, cast a spotlight on their creator, placing her on the front lines of informative, political, and intellectual dialogues organised by France and other Western countries in their discourse of the Syrian crisis. It is also necessary to mention the cinematic and humanitarian shock cast (albeit in a positive manner) by Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, directed by Ossama Mohammed, another resident of Paris, after its showing at Cannes in 2014. This film, made between “here and there” and which contains lots of film material sourced from YouTube, forced the world to witness both the violence and ugliness it had hitherto avoided and to ask questions about filmmaking in a time saturated with images of brutality exceeding imagination. This in turn stimulated audiences to pose other questions about the how art can capture unfolding events at a distance. Silvered Water had a long run in Parisian and international theatres – a rare achievement for a documentary. It also instigated a large amount of debate at a time when most Syrians felt that the world had turned a blind eye to their plight. Undoubtedly, this Syrian artistic presence in the world today can only play a positive role on a global level, particularly in the context of the question: “What is really happening in Syria today?” This appears alongside a general reinvigoration of Syrian creativity, which has attracted widespread attention (albeit largely gained due to the dominance of disaster narratives in Western comprehension of this part of the world, namely the view that the land begets conflict of mind-boggling complexity and longevity). But it is not only war and revolution-related work which has been sought-out by publishers, festival directors, curators, and conference organisers since 2011; the situation has dusted-off previous works of Syrian art, especially those about Syrian society and politics under the Ba’athist regime. Film, visual arts, and literature seem to have benefited in particular from the new promotional channels created by this renewed interest. How is it, for example, that A Flood in Ba’ath Country (2004), directed by the late Omar Amiralay, has become a primary resource of modern Syrian history? How is it, that there has been a resurgence of prison literature written before 2011, the primary example of which is the wide success of Mustafa Khalifa’s novel The Shell, published in 2008?
On the other hand, the continuation of Syrian art in the diaspora is tied to the individual circumstances of each creative field, as the production necessities of theatre, filmmaking, visual arts, music, or creative writing are completely different to one another. The migration of Syrian art also presents change of circumstance as a main challenge, since these transformations reflect directly on the work of Syrian artists and cultural producers by establishing new networking, funding, and administration requirements. It is imperative that we do not ignore the increasingly tense relationship borne from these complications, between Syrian art produced within Syria (whenever possible) and Syrian art in diaspora, forcing us to consider the legitimacy of the entire artistic discourse and the responsibility of the exiled artist in the wake of disaster. This last point also obligates us to question the fundamental quality of current Syrian artistic production outside of its historical context, as discussing the future of Syrian art cannot be isolated from what a cultural product means to those who consume it, are moved by it, yield pleasure from it, and whose minds are stimulated by it. This question may be premature, as it may be considered inappropriate by those who, due to historical urgency, would rather give their total attention to the testimonial value of the artwork at the cost of its aesthetic quality. But is it really enough for a work of art to tackle the revolution and war to be important? And does an artist’s choice not to tackle these topics delegitimise their work? Both reflect the current moment, and are subject to a series of objective and practical factors added to the relative disparity with which audiences receive this work. Here enters the researcher and cultural worker whose right, and perhaps, responsibility, it is to uncover the proper tools of comprehension for this massive output (professional and amateur alike) and to build a foundation through which to publish contemporary Syrian art regardless of either its geographic origin or the extent to which it addresses the Syrian tragedy. Contemporary Syrian art is not just a source of documentation or a historical testimony; it is also part and parcel of the world art history, undoubtedly subject to the same critical analysis and study of future years. And it could be that this is the real responsibility of the modern Syrian artist: as a witness, yes, but also as a producer of texts and images able to last and survive beyond the historical and political context surrounding their creation. On the other hand, it is necessary to address the economic aspect of art. Artists and cultural workers both need food and shelter, and the ability to subsist on one’s artwork is what differentiates amateurs from professionals. Professional artists “sell” to live and are faced with a financial drought if they do not “sell”. They might see their full-time commitment to art as under threat. Simultaneously, even with real global interest in Syrian art induced by the Syrian crisis, critical assessment of art remains tied to the standards of Western cultural producers (publishers, curators, festival directors, etc.), their understanding of their audiences’ expectations, and their own interpretations of the region’s history (often, even subconsciously, influenced by post-colonialism, birthed from centuries of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of non-Western art). The truth is that we are now on the verge of discussing the rise of a new Orientalism, germinated by the narrative of the contemporary Arabic catastrophe (possibly starting with the 2003 invasion of Iraq following the World Trade Centre attacks, the escalation of extremist movements in the region, and the feeling of an overwhelming regional political chaos). The events which then ensued in Syria more than four years ago emphasised and reinforced the image of the region as a “land of eternal misery,” casting artists from the region exclusively in that light. This does not mean that these verdicts are systematically wrong or unfair, but they do confront us with aesthetic or ideological dilemmas in the context of the global representation and reception of contemporary Syrian arts. They also push us to reconsider the nature of the relationship between Syrian cultural producers and their non-Syrian counterparts when faced with this current production, and lead us to examine the importance of the role of a Syrian – or perhaps merely a non-Western – cultural director or researcher in submitting counter-narratives which reflect the diversity of Syrian society, its stories, and its forms of artistic expression. In this case, it may be the responsibility of the Syrian cultural producer, now living in diaspora, to act as a bridge or cultural output consultant; this responsibility comes in addition to the need to maintain communication channels between those who have remained in Syria and those who are now living abroad.
Thus, we see that the migration of contemporary Syrian art and the prospects of its continuity in diaspora breeds a series of interlocked issues related to spatial, aesthetic, and productive transformations comparable to displacement. This must come not solely from the cultural centre, Damascus, but also from the natural progression of artistic and cultural practices, their directions, their goals, and their reception by both Syrian and international audiences. Therefore, it seems imperative to draw a new Syrian cultural map where the borders are extended across the entire world. A regional and international survey of this kind would surely enable a better monitoring of Syrian cultural fields in a new reality where creativity occurs (whether we accept it or not) in diaspora, and where it seems to be under the threat of disconnection from a “homeland” to which return feels, for the majority, like an impossible dream. This does not mean that committed, independent art has ceased inside Syria, even if it is not given the media spotlight that diasporic Syrian art receives. This may also be attributed to its complicated relationship with governmental institutions. What else could explain, then, how classes at the Damascus Higher Institutes of Drama and Music have never ceased, despite the extreme security issues in the capital? Today, students of both institutes (in all departments) attend lectures about music, art, and theatre, and, despite the frequent bombardments and check-points dividing the city, keep returning for more every day. It is true that, today, Syrian art is largely spread among the diaspora, challenged and born of radical shifts; but it is also true that Syrian art continues inside the country’s borders. It is absolutely crucial that communications remain open between all these Syrian creative enterprises, regardless of their current location in the world.