An open art space in Damascus

Over the past 9 months, Build Up has been working with a group of Syrian artists and innovators who are building peaceful coexistence inside Syria. Their peacetech work is truly inspirational.

Open Art Space is a Syrian initiative that seeks to promote peaceful values through art, providing a safe space for children to express themselves. Led by two female artists, Open Art Space runs regular free art workshops for children in Damascus. As part of the Digital Steps program, they have developed a website that allows children across Syria to play a game associated with art for peace, and to upload and share their artwork with others from diverse backgrounds. Through the website they hope to expand the reach of their free workshops, combining art, technology and education.

Art for peace

For the founders of Open Art Space, art is a crucial but often missing element in Syria today. ‘Art is a means to improve and promote the life of human beings. It’s an expression of oneself’, says one of the founders. After seven years of conflict, this need is exacerbated and felt deeply by children across Syria, many of whom have grown up only in war, forming their personalities around the conflict.

‘Children are sometimes unable to express themselves through words, but art can give them a chance to express their inner feelings and thoughts. As a result of the war, children keep wanting to draw things about war, but we are helping them think of things that exclude war, that promote peace.’

This space to think peacefully is important for Syrian children, many of whom have grown up knowing nothing but violence.

‘In a context where most games revolve around violence, encouraging [children] to draw about peace helps them internalize the positive concept of peace.’

Integrating technology

For the founders of Open Art Space, technology presented an opportunity to deliver the message of art beyond the confines of their small studio in Damascus, enabling them to deliver the concept to Syrians across the country, and beyond. ‘Although we didn’t know exactly how, we thought that we could unify ourselves through the internet, and through art’. They had previously developed a Facebook page, on which they share art works and updates from their workshops in Damascus. However, they realised that their Facebook page lacked opportunities for children to engage in art.

In response, Open Art Space have developed a website which hosts a game allowing children to explore Picasso’s famous ‘Dove of Peace’, symbolic of the end of conflict, through a jigsaw, as well as prompting further artistic activities and providing an option for children to upload their own artworks and annotate them with messages of peace. These are then shared on a gallery page, accessible to children anywhere in Syria and abroad and can be shared to social media. You can get a glimpse of how the website works here.

Throughout the process, merging the artistic and technological points of view was not always easy, and the process required patience and perseverance in order to experiment with different techniques. Yet the founders are convinced that technology is essential, despite the challenges it posed for them. ‘Now art is evolving side by side with technology, so even though it’s hard for us [to use], it’s part of the future, so we have to work with it.’

An alternative to conflict

The founders also hope that their platform will serve to change the way people outside Syria see the Syrian people, that they ‘view us not only as refugees or terrorists, but in a new way’. Targeting children who have grown up in war, the artists behind Open Art Space are deeply committed to providing these children with an alternative to conflict. They hope that by using the website, they will be able to deliver a broader message, at a time when it is greatly needed.

‘These children have a fundamental right to think about something positive. We need to root the idea of hope and peace in these children so that they consider those things possible.’