Syrian artist’s photographs offer a prayer for peace

The opening of the “Requiem for Syria” exhibit at Stanford’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and Markaz Resource Center, which had been in the works for several months, came together just after President Trump issued an executive order banning immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, including Syria.

The two programs, which provide space on campus for cultivating an understanding of Islam and engagement with Muslim societies and cultures around the globe, were in the midst of addressing concerns and providing resources for a community that has been directly affected by the travel ban.

Reem Ghanem, a sophomore biology major and curator for the event, recalls the day before the reception: “We all just looked at each other and said, ‘this is exactly what we need right now…In these really rough times, there is a need for something that shows us love and solidarity and support for each other.”

Associate Dean and Director of the Markaz Resource Center Anita Husen says that particularly at this time, it is special “to provide a space for people to celebrate and appreciate art and come together in community — not over something that is reactionary, negative or political, but over something that is beautiful, creative, and celebratory.”

“Requiem for Syria 6,” by Khaled Akil.

The six images in the series by Khaled Akil, a renowned Syrian artist, feature a Turkish Sufi performer and a white pigeon, using a hybrid technique of photography and painting. Akil explains that the collection was originally created as a prayer for a friend and animal rights activist who was killed in Syria in 2014. “While I created this series as a tribute to her, I later realized that her tragedy symbolizes the calamity that faces all Syrians, and of Syria itself. That’s why I named this series ‘Requiem for Syria.’”

Being able to transcend negative emotions like grief, anger, and frustration, and channel them into something that is productive, inspirational, and uplifting is really the unique message that Akil tells through his art, Husen explains. “And I think that is a lesson that we can all learn.”

In his statement about the exhibit, Akil says the collection “is not about war, it is about peace. Peace is the way of nature, war is man made. This series portrays the minimalism and impartiality of Sufism and nature, and above all, of humanity.”

Q&A with Syrian Artist Khaled Akil

Why did you name this series “Requiem for Syria” and how does it symbolize what’s happening in the country?

‘Requiem’ means a mass celebrated for the repose of the souls of the dead, and that’s how Syria is now: it’s dead after five years of war, with millions killed, displaced, and missing, because superpowers decided to fight in Syria, turning the whole country into a battlefield. But Syria is like a Phoenix — it will be born again.

This series aims to show Syria to the world, with no political view, to explain what is happening there from a humanitarian perspective, and to tell everyone that it is not only about Syria. War has occurred in many places before, and will continue to take place in other countries if we, the people of the world, don’t unite and spread love instead of hatred and racism.

Can you explain some of the symbols, language, and imagery in this collection, and why you chose them?

The calligraphy used in some works resembles the movement and the feeling of the photograph, like this photo “Requiem for Syria 2,” [above] the meaning of the calligraphy is “Love.” In “Requiem for Syria 4,” [below] the calligraphy around the dove says “I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place on earth, Wherefore I praised the dead and the one who has never been born.”

“Requiem for Syria 4,” by Khaled Akil.

Can you explain the ethics, politics, and personal toll of photographing the connections between violence, life, and death?

Any artwork, whether it is visually sensible or musical, should be coming out of a personal experience. Mine wasn’t only death and violence; it is that moment of truth when you find out that the entire world is going to a dark place. War is nothing but a natural result of greed, envy, and ignorance. That is what I’m trying to portray in my works — to reveal what is really happening in the Middle East, which has now become a global matter.

Who is the intended audience for this collection, and why do you think it’s important to share it with them? Why did you bring your artwork out of a gallery and into a student space at Stanford?

“Requiem for Syria” is a prayer. The sadness and the desperation I experienced away from my hometown led me to meet Alper, a Turkish Sufi guru. Together, we prayed for Syria and for a friend I lost that year, through these works.

“Requiem for Syria 5,” by Khaled Akil.

This collection is for everyone looking to see the humanitarian side of the Syrian tragedy, away from politics and propaganda. War is global, and the result of war is always the same. Hopefully, we can learn from the present, since history wasn’t enough to teach us that only dead people have seen the end of the war.

Showing in a student space and at Sanford in particular is a privilege for me, to reach a new audience keen to learn something new. I strongly believe that art is not only made for art collectors and to be exhibited in galleries; art is a global language and should be seen by all kinds of people to deliver ideas and feeling, to provoke the viewers to ask questions and find their own answers.

Where are you now, and what are you currently working on?

I’m based in Istanbul now. I’m working now on a project telling the story of my family heritage. It’s a story about Syria and Aleppo and showing life in the 19th & 20th centuries in an artistic way.

Akil’s collection will be on display at the Markaz Resource Center until the end of February. Visit his website for more information.