The Necessary Element: Working with the Syrian arts scene By Milica Ilic

Oct 2018

Milica Ilic

Cultural worker specialised in international cooperation. She is international adviser at Onda, the Office for contemporary performing arts circulation in France

As part of Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. These articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, as well as various cultural actors.


Let us start this article by stating the rather obvious but still important fact: that the Syrian performing arts scene is a lively and dynamic one. Syrian writers and theatre makers such as Mohammad Al Attar, Wael Kadour, Wael Ali – to only name a few - are increasingly present on international stages and their specific approach to documentary theatre, the poetry they find in radical experiences, their capacity to make the very intimate meet the great societal collapses, their experimentation in form (such as integrating the temporality and rhythm of the contemporary language of email and social media), will certainly prove its importance with time.

It is also equally obvious, that since 2011, the Syrian theatre scene, in particular that which is independent and non-institutional, is persecuted, imprisoned, destroyed and exiled. Victim of violence and brutallity, it is going through a profound mutation, on a scale that can hardly be matched by any in our recent history.

A few elements that define this transformation:

- The deeply painful experience of war and exile has an evident and fundamental impact on the artistic work, including the themes addressed, the conditions and ambitions of the productions, the artistic and production tools and the collaborative capacities.

- Although functioning both within the borders of the Syrian state and evolving in a variety of new locations where the wind of exile dispersed it, the Syrian theatre scene largely addresses non-Syrian audiences, with experiences and references that can be very different from those back home.

- Furthermore, those that are in exile are confronted with the necessity to integrate a cultural and artistic milieu that they might not be familiar with, whose written and unwritten laws, rules and practices they do not master, and that is not necessarily ready and willing to accept them.

- Finally, the weight of expectations of the professional and non-professional international audiences that the Syrian artists are forced to carry is considerable. Willingly or not, they are seen as spokespersons of Syrian people, expected to make work that frontally and directly deals with the experience of the war. There is very little space on international stages today for Syrian artists that do not want to relate to war or exile in their work.

These new conditions, these radical shifts in context that the Syrian artists are enduring are profoundly influencing their artistic work. As Jumana Al Yasiri mentions[1] in several articles, this situation forces Syrian artists into a process of constant questioning, experimentation and evolution. We are all witnesses of the transformation that the Syrian theatre is undergoing as a result of these radical experiences and we will see its consequences as much in artistic discourse as in the organisational models that will frame them.

At this point however, we are still to imagine structures of support that are able to provide a positive framework to accompany these shifts, to respond to this new reality for Syrian arts. There is indeed, as mentioned in previous contributions to these series[2], much to be learned from a few positive examples of supporting structures, such as those that actively engaged with the independent scene in post-conflict environments in the Balkans. The experience of support structures such as the European Cultural Foundation or Pro Helvetia who were able to rely on local expertise, have a deep understanding of the local context and support gently without imposing a strict agenda is helpful and precious (as well as rather well documented[3]).

On the other hand, more support is needed to reinforce the delicate relation between Syrian artists and their (new) audiences in countries where they are exiled.  There is certainly curiosity, empathy and solidarity within theatre audiences[4]. But how to go beyond superficial curiosity and voyeurism of “regarding the pain of others” to put it in the words of Susan Sontag?

In 1990ies, during and right after the war in former Yugoslavia, Western galleries and stages were overwhelmingly reaching out to Balkan artists. A variety of projects, programmes, initiatives dealt with the complex conflict in the Balkans (albeit often superficially and reinforcing already existing stereotypes). As geopolitical interests shifted, less and less Balkan artists were to be seen on Western European stages. 25 years later, except for a few notable examples of Balkan artists working abroad, not much remains from this lively exchange, stereotypes are strong as ever and Balkan artists marginalised.

How to ensure that the interest in art works dealing with these complex and shattering experiences, doesn’t die out when the next newsflash takes us to some other catastrophe in some other part of the globe? How to make sure that people in the audience stay interested in the act of artistic experimentation and in the essence of his or her artistic vision of the world, as much as with the capacity to represent his or her suffering country?

How to avoid this short-term concentration of interest, this ‘fashion’ when it comes to Syrian theatre and arts?

Perhaps the solution lies in a long-term, careful and multifaceted collaboration between support organisations from Syria, Middle East and Europe, Syrian artists and European arts professionals, theatres and festivals. Together, they could invent and imagine new tools, different activities, bold strategies whose goal would be to help sustain and grow the attention currently given to Syrian artists on European stages.

But, to go back to the parallels between the Balkan and the Syrian wars, one should not forget that the world, too, has changed tremendously from the 1990ies, for better and for worse. The arts sector itself, on a global scale, is also facing a number of new and crucial challenges, in which Syrian artists and arts professionals certainly have a role to play.

In a society going through profound political, economic and ecological shifts, the various organisational and financial models on which the art sectors are organised are no longer sustainable. The rise of conservative and authoritarian political ideas restricts shamelessly freedom of creation and freedom of speech throughout the Euromed and the world, not only in Eastern European and Arab-speaking countries. In other geographies, the omnipresent neoliberal ideology questions the very idea of art as a public good, as commons. Nation states are increasingly proving to be a model too narrow to host all our multiple identities.

In this context, does it still make sense to continue reproducing the same organisational models, where artists create, governments or private funders fund, venues present, audiences sit quietly and watch?

Arts, and performing arts in particular, are more and more created in stretching and bending the limits between countries, disciplines, functions and sectors. There is much to be learned from creative collaborations, artist-led initiatives and experiments that merge artistic experiences and practicing of citizenship.

Deeply anchored in the Syrian experience and scattered around the world, forced to rethink their artistic practices and to invent their own flexible support structures, aren’t Syrian artists and arts professionals a necessary element in the growing discussion on how we can reinvent our models to better accompany our practices?

Forced to experiment art outside the usual frameworks, because the ‘usual frameworks’ exploded in the violence of war and exile, shouldn’t Syrian artists and arts professionals be a precious partner in rethinking our arts ecosystem?

Solidarity and careful, attentive, long term support to Syrian arts is absolutely necessary. But beyond this, it seems to me crucial to include the voices and experiences of Syrian artists in experimenting bold, new, radical, creative organisational models; Models that, in a future likely to be hostile to arts, will be able to ensure Syrian artists, hand in hand with those from other countries, can still reach audiences and question and challenge our vision of the world.  


[1] Jumana Al Yasiri, Exiled Scene(s): Anchors and Displacements of the Syrian Theatre since 2011 and The World as a Battlefield: The Migration of Contemporary Syrian Art and the Prospects of Continuity

[2] Milena Dragicevic Sesic : Challenges facing Syrian cultural work in diaspora and Mary Ann DeVlieg : Evade, elude or – hopefully – evolve?

[3] Philip Dietachmair and Milica Ilic : Another Europe

[4] Although one can’t help but see the discrepancy between those feelings shared by audiences in the controlled spaces of theatres and the radically unwelcoming policies of most European countries towards migrants fleeing conflict and poverty

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