International exposure of Syria artists

Nov 2018

Daniel Gorman

Executive Director of the Shubbak Festival

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.

Syrian artists are creating incredible work under immense and varied pressures. As a non-Syrian, living and working in London, I wanted to use the opportunity of this article to reflect on what we as international arts organisations, and as people not directly affected by the Syrian conflict, could be doing better to support Syrian artists.

I am the Executive Director of the Shubbak Festival, a festival of contemporary Arab Culture which takes place in London every two years. I had the privilege of living in Syria in 2008 and 2010, and whilst there I got to know many artists, many of whom I’m still in touch with today, only one of whom remains inside Syria. Since leaving Syria I have tried to maintain a strong focus on bringing work from Syrian artists to international audiences. In 2012 I was an organiser of Reel Syria, and was also a co-organiser of a UK tour of Syrian artists and writers to mark the publication of ‘Syria Speaks’ in 2014.

In 2016, Shubbak partnered with the British Council to support Syrian artists who had been displaced from their home. This project was led on by Shubbak’s Artistic Director, Eckhard Thiemann, and myself. We supported a total of 20 Syrian artists in displacement to create or complete new works of art. Supported works ranged from theatre performances to music albums, from sculpture to films. This was a wide-ranging project, working across artforms and geographies, which were often rapidly changing due to rapidly changing circumstances for the Syrian artists we were working with.

We wanted to use this funding to be able to support Syrian artists to be able to continue making work and to help them develop new networks. Many of these artists were facing immense personal challenges, and as such we wanted to have a very light touch in terms of administrative burden. Therefore we didn’t have an application process, but instead worked on peer recommendations, with an aim to engage a mix of artists, both those who have had some level of international recognition, and those who are ‘emerging’. We aimed  for each commission to achieve three clear outcomes: a new piece of artistic work to a high standard; a better equipped artist working with better capacity; and a defined audience or outlet for the artist’s work.

It quickly became clear that our guiding principle in this work would need to be one of flexibility. People’s circumstances changed constantly, and as such projects overran. At time of commission, nine of the 20 selected artists were living in Europe; nine in countries bordering Syria; and two in Syria itself. By the time of completion, 15 of the artists were living in Europe; four in neighbouring countries and none remained in Syria. Behind these statistics lie were huge changes for the individuals involved. We wanted to stay with these artists as their conditions changed, many moving from a need for short-term immediate support into navigating a longer term process of strategic development.

We were delighted to find that, despite the challenges they faced, the artists we worked with managed to create new work, develop new professional relationships, and have major success in the cultural sector. Supported artists have had their work shown at the Venice Film Festival, released on music labels and performed in major European theatres.

We commissioned an external evaluator to speak to all supported artists. Perhaps the most important finding she made was that 100% of the commissioned artists felt they had total creative freedom, and felt buoyed by Shubbak’s understanding of their project. Artists also highlighted benefits including: extra time; strategic partnerships; and greater power to sell and publicise work.

Based on this experience, I thought it may be useful to share some key lessons we learned from the process:


This is really the key lesson for us. Many displaced artists will be caught up in a quagmire of bureaucracy regarding their new residency status. There’s not much international organisations can formally do about this (other than providing letters of support), but there is a need for understanding, moral support, and much flexibility around timelines.


Although pretty cut off until the early 2000s and beyond, since 2011 many Syrian artists have often developed strong networks across the MENA region, and some have developed significant networks internationally. However, this will not necessarily lead to networks of artistic partners, collaborators, funders and audiences in their new and specific context (such as Germany). As such funding support should ideally come with some level of mentoring and brokering of new relationships, and possibly language support to get materials translated.

Exoticising the other

Within Shubbak we have presented artists as ‘artists’ first and foremost, and worked with them to ensure their framing is as they would wish. There is a risk of falling into a media narrative of ‘conflict’ or ‘refugee’ artists which we aim to avoid. Parallel to this, there are risk of poor curation, of work being shown just because it’s made by someone who is of Syrian origin. This is often done by well meaning individuals or NGOs, and as such we would advise a more joined up working relationship between NGOs and arts organisations.

Work with Syrian run initiatives

Since 2011 there have been a number of excellent Syrian run arts organisations and institutions springing up around the world. We would strongly advise partners or discussing ideas with some of them. These include Syria Sixth Space, Ettijahat, Bidayyat, the Atassi Foundation and the forthcoming Syria Biennale, and many more.

Finally, and foremostly, our key recommendation is that Syrian artists should be treated as artists first and foremost. We as international arts institutions need to think creatively about how best to support them, and others in times of displacement, in creating and presenting their work alongside their international peers.


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