The presence of Syrian artists in Beirut is far from new, due to the city’s international connections, and the higher prices artworks fetch. “Syrian artists have always been part of the Lebanese art scene for as long as I can remember,” gallery owner Joanna Seikaly says.
However, currently more work by Syrian artists is being showcased in Beirut than ever before, as Damascene gallerists and artists have shut up shop and relocated to avoid war in their homeland. Seikaly has featured five Syrian artists over the past year.
Of all the Syrian creatives now in Beirut, it is visual artists who have found their place in the city’s art galleries and on the stage of international culture, as well as its open and internationally recognized cultural scene, which affords creative minds more opportunities and liberties than elsewhere in the Arab world.
Syrian art has long been held in high regard by collectors and galleries in the region and further afield. Prompted by his connections to the Syrian art world, coupled with a shortage of space for the art he had acquired over the last 20 years, collector Antoine Haddad opened Artlab in late 2012. For the first nine months, the gallery only featured Syrian artists. “Syrian artists have given the local art scene a boost,” he says.
According to the sculptor Mustafa Ali, Syrian art has become more open. The volume and focus of the artistic output since the uprising, itself marked and driven by a widespread use of creative media, has indeed fundamentally changed. Before the uprising, art that consistently challenged the regime, such as the cartoons of now-exiled Ali Ferzat, were the exception rather than the rule. But the mold is changing.
In late 2012 Houmam al-Sayed expressed his rejection of violence against children in his “From Damascus to Beirut” exhibition at the Mark Hachem Gallery in Minet el-Hosn. Tackling injustice, confronting the status quo and condemning violence on a wider scale are adding new dimensions to Syrian art in an unequivocal manner.
Focusing on work with the war raging close by can be painful and challenging. “You’re thinking about people, how they live, how they take this. You feel guilty,” says Fadi al-Hamwi, who painted a large portrait of a friend who had been arrested. “It’s not a quiet situation in which we find ourselves.”
“Before things got messy, before they started to use guns and threaten us, my only way to express my opinion freely was through my art,” Heba al-Akkad says. “[Now] it is my duty to talk about it [the war] in my art.”
Akkad's work is infused with the artists memories of the war in her homeland
Akkad’s show of mixed media work, “Things are still the same,” shown at Galerie Tanit this summer, is a powerful message of hopes dashed. Her colorful yet macabre, naïve yet highly symbolic and evocative body of work turns out to be an obituary to a still-born infant: the revolution. Some of Akkad’s recent work was produced during a month’s stay at Raghad Martini’s Artist Residence in Aley (ARA), a creative hub established to help Syrian artists connect with local galleries and collectors.
On the terrace of his home studio, painter, videographer and installation artist Hamwi points to works similarly influenced by current events in Syria. For a 2012 installation in Damascus titled “4am”, Hamwi painted the walls of the 5x5m gallery room black, put grass on the ground and placed his bed in it, with bricks aligned to look like a mattress. “People would enter my dream. I was not telling a story but putting you in a situation,” he says.
Symbols of hardship
This year, Hamwi painted dinosaurs, each wearing a gas mask while holding a single flower, and human skulls and machine guns in X-ray vision. “A Bone In The Head”, the first in the ‘transparent’ series, features a pistol inside a brain, as the artist tries to get inside the heads of killers and tormentors.
Hamwi's installations and paintings invoke the mindsets of both tormentors and the tormented
“This is the change that came to my work when I was in Syria. How do they think when they shoot a human being? When they cut a body part? Many people are prepared to do these kinds of things,” he says.
Akkad gave birth to her first child in Lebanon last year. Already pregnant, and with her husband facing the draft, leaving Damascus became inevitable. Her 10-month-old son has no birth certificate, a consequence of her husband’s refusal to join the Syrian army.
Without papers to prove her son’s identity, Akkad used her art to provide him with one: “Black & Yellow and vice versa” is dominated by a large male head at the center symbolizing her son. It also bears witness to friends and family she has lost, featuring in one corner a beautiful sketch of a woman sitting cross-legged, drawn by her teenage brother. Akkad recently found out that he’d been killed in tragic circumstances.
With her husband studying, Akkad became the sole breadwinner. Syrian artists can make up to three times what they would in Damascus for their work, in line with prices for other goods, but they have to contend with much higher living expenses and renew their visas every six months. Though she has sold art in both Lebanon and Jordan, Akkad has also been forced to take on low paid casual work.
While some Syrian artists struggle to get by in Lebanon, others are making the city work for them.
Artist and musician Samer Saem el-Dahr lives and works with Waraq, an artists’ collective located in a traditional house painted bright yellow and turquoise in Ras el-Nabaa.
Last year, he contributed to a collective exhibition and managed to sell two paintings. He subsequently approached Seikaly who encouraged him to put together his first solo exhibition: “This is not politics!” — which included 26 new expressionist paintings — was held in early 2013.
The 23-year old artist left Aleppo in September 2012. “The plan was to stay here for one month but then things got worse,” he says. “I’m comfortable here now, because I’m producing a lot. For now Lebanon is good for me, for another couple of months. There is the stress though of what’s coming up next, what if Lebanon doesn’t want us? Where will we go? All over the world, we’re not wanted.”
“For sure I feel homesick,” says Hamwi, who left much of his art behind. “I left the old memories as well. All the small details, my whole life — it’s there.”
Nostalgia infuses some of the personal projects the artists undertake, notably Hamwi’s painting of the logo of Derby — a Syrian chips brand — which created a buzz on his Facebook page, or Dahr’s Hello Psychaleppo, an electronic-classical Arabic music collaboration with Lebanese music producer Nabil Saliba.
Visions of home
Dahr’s career took off in Beirut but he sees his future in Syria. “I will be going back to the country, [but now] it’s a war zone. There will be nothing. Then there will be a lot. We’re the youth. If it’s not us, nobody will do it.” For Mustafa Ali, who was born in 1956 in Latakia, relocating to Beirut was fairly easy. Dividing his time between Paris, Damascus, and Beirut where he took an apartment in early 2013, he is among those who still regularly enter Syria, but has sent his small children to school in Paris. Working primarily as a wood and metal sculptor, based in Damascus since 1974, he has exhibited widely and received prestigious commissions, notably from the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
While he has moved work to Dubai, Paris and Beirut, Ali still has his main studio and most of his art in Damascus; his large sculptures are simply too heavy to be moved. His cellphone is filled with images of his work, of openings or events at his Damascus gallery that used to attract a thousand people. Besides his gallery in the old city, he has three workshops; the largest in Al Ghouta, which he has been told has been partially destroyed.
Though better connected in Beirut than younger Syrian artists, Ali heads to Damascus to work. Dahr on the other hand, consciously refrains from drawing inspiration from his surroundings. “That way I’m not dependent on it or on being in Syria.”
“I don’t like to take advantage of what’s happening,” Dahr says. He refers to a sketch he did of the artist Youssef Abdelke who was held captive for a month between July and August 2013. “For this one I did it…He came twice to my studio; I’ve known him since I was very young. When I heard he was arrested, to spread the word, in favor to someone I know personally, I did this sketch.” Syrian artists are aware that their work has now become fashionable and generates considerable media interest, a fact that is not without its complications. “People want to buy the story,” Hamwi commented. “We have the story. We’re now the ‘world victims’. This is very clear to us. Some artists play into that, but it shows. To do archiving of this era you need to be super sane and stay objective.”