Syria’s Artists Speak Out On War and Art

Is war an oppressor or a catalyst for art?

‘Freedom Graffiti’ by Tammam Azzam

In the 21st Century we’ve witnessed the rise of a new kind of cultural war. Sides in a conflict no longer represent entire countries, or armies battling over territory, but groups and organizations, spread out around the world, attacking what is sacred to most, their culture.

This has been a key strategy in the Syrian Civil War. All six of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites have been destroyed since the conflict began in March 2011. In 2014, ISIS blew up the Armenian Genocide Memorial Church in Deir ez-Zor, just one monument of the many targeted in ISIS’ mission to prepare the world for Allah’s rule on earth at the end of times. Many of the sacred buildings and museum artefacts destroyed have also been in Iraq and Libya and contravene the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

However, rising from the rubble is the next generation of artists and culture makers, documenting the revolution and, though they may not know it yet, leaving relics for future generations.

For Fares Cachoux, the Syrian Civil War sparked the start of his career as an artist. Half French and half Syrian, he was able to leave Syria through the French embassy at the outbreak of war but the stories he was seeing from his home country were unavoidable. Upon seeing traumatising footage of his best friend’s body dragged through the streets of his hometown Homs, and, at the time taking a break from his work as a graphic designer, he decided he wanted to do something about the revolution.

In 2012 he created his first piece of art, a simple poster depicting a silhouette of President Assad holding a knife behind his back in front of four trembling children, an homage to the Al Houla Massacre. “I made it for me,” Cachoux says, “just to express my feelings. I put it on Facebook and I was surprised how it spread through social networks around the world.”

Artwork by Fares Cachoux

Cachoux continued making these posters, each one depicting a story of the revolution, and eventually his work was picked up by the media for its universal appeal. His minimalistic style is a deliberate tool to speak to people whatever their culture. Though his pieces often depict horrific and brutal stories, he realises that portraying these literally is more likely to make people turn away and so he uses a lot of symbolism in his work to draw people in instead.

Since picking up big media coverage from the likes of The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed and Fast Company, he has exhibited in a solo show at Gallerie Europia in Paris and was invited by Banksy to contribute to his Dismaland theme park, which resulted in half of his works being sold.

However, Cachoux says the biggest reward has been witnessing the reach his work has had. His work is currently being used by a major textbook publisher in France for a course on visual communication and has been reproduced on the walls in Syria’s liberated zones, “It’s not only just going to Europe or around the world, it touched people in Syria. Believe me, you feel very happy and satisfied when you see that,” he told Creative Artists Foundation.

Cachoux sees his art as his own way of being an activist “we are not fighters, we are not violent, we don’t go and fight on the field, so we fight with our art.” He also believes images last longer than words, and will be the memory of The Syrian Revolution. “For us Syrians who watch the news and follow what’s happening on the field, every day this Revolution is giving us a new story, and new heroes. Nobody will hear about them if we don’t work on their stories.”

What started as a personal project for Cachoux has grown into a sense of duty, “If you are a Syrian artist and your work does not reflect what’s happening now, in Syria, it’s like you’re living on a different planet. You can’t be a Syrian artist and continue painting and drawing or producing art as if nothing happened in Syria, it’s not possible.”

This is something that fellow artist Tammam Azzam agrees with, though he doesn’t identify as a political artist. “I consider myself as an artist who is inspired by the situation and my background, but I’m not a political artist. I don’t care about the politics and stuff, I care about the stories of people who fled the country because of the political situation. I’m creating my art on this, not on the political events.”

Artwork by Tammam Azzam

Azzam trained at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus, specialising in oil painting. However, having fled Syria for Dubai seven months after the conflict began, he left behind his studio and all his materials. Undeterred, he turned to his computer to create art from digital photography, often juxtaposing two images into one powerful piece.

In 2013, his ‘Freedom Graffiti’ image of a bomb-blasted Syrian building, Photoshopped with a mural of Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ went viral. The piece aimed to show that there are stories of love behind the war and that we are all citizens of the same world. His use of Western art masters drew attention from developed countries and was a way for Azzam to speak to them using something they understand to highlight the plight of those in Syria.

It may be a new medium, but it’s not a new topic for him, insists Azzam, “I was an artist before the Syrian conflict and I still am. I was painting a series of people and the places they’ve left behind and that was before the Syrian revolution.”

Though his work may not have been drastically altered by Syria’s crises, it has certainly made it more topical and attracted huge interest, especially around the internet. “When you wake up and see that one of your artworks was shared 200,000 times in 24 hours then yeah, it surprised me but it wasn’t my aim,” he reflects.

Sara Shamma, a Syrian painter now living in Lebanon, hopes her art will have more permanency though, “People have the tendency to forget their pains, such as wars. This is good, but when they forget, they commit again the same mistakes that drove to these pains. Art reminds us constantly of the pains and of the mistakes so people do not fall again into the same errors.”

Shamma’s works focus on fictional figures with intensified characteristics and imagined pre-occupations. Death and grief are common themes in her work and her experiences of the Syrian conflict have inevitably become a part of her body of work.

Artwork by Sara Shamma

Having only left Syria at the end of 2012, 18 months after the civil war broke out, and with her husband still living there, Shamma has witnessed first-hand the impact it had on the art scene in the country. Up until this point she had been an influential figure in the country’s industry, teaching for three years at the Adham Ismail Fine Arts Institute and sitting on the jury for the Annual Exhibition of Syrian Artists in Damascus, organized by the country’s Ministry of Culture. “I believe that the Syrian conflict destroyed the art scene in Syria the same way it destroyed other beautiful things. Today, most galleries are closed, many good artists left the country, no more exhibitions, talks or any other artistic activities are taking place in Syria.”

She refers to herself as a ‘humane artist’, rather than a ‘political artist’, believing that art needs a deeper dimension than purely politics, otherwise it becomes transient, like a news report, and ultimately doesn’t contribute a positive effect to the situation.

“I think there are two tendencies in conflict art; one that fuels the struggle by pointing fingers, judging, taking part, and others that show the negativity of the conflict in a humanitarian, sensitive way that helps in the extinction of the violence. The first one raises the emotions of anger, outrage, hate and desire of revenge, while the other one provoke reflection, consideration and understanding.”

While the Syrian Revolution has influenced her work, she chooses not to see the impact the war has had on art, but the impact art can have on war.

“Artists shouldn’t need outside inspiration to create art, however, war always affects the artist negatively, as it does to anybody else. I believe that nothing good can come out of any war. Syria and the region needs a new creative solution that is not violent.”

Words: Olivia Pinnock

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