The Syrian Museum: a revolutionary show المتحف السوري: عرض ثوري

Tammam Azzam has never been a man of many words. Whenever I called him back in Damascus for an interview, he told me amiably: “an art work should speak for itself and therefore its place isn’t within the pages of a newspaper but in a museum where it can be appreciated as it is.” He also firmly refused any attempt at imposing hidden messages on his work. “I don’t believe in art as a mission, who said art serves people anyway?”

His latest artworks about the Syrian uprising do speak for themselves and they say just that! In his digitally manipulated series of works entitled ‘Syrian Museum’, Tammam superimposed iconic artworks onto images of the violence and destruction in Syria. His images bluntly demonstrate how the destruction in Syria has become a show, the latest fashion that took the world by storm, yet not much is done on the ground to stop it. An impressive body of work!

 لم يكن تمام عزام يوماً رجلاً كثير الكلام. كلما إتصلت به لإجراء لقاء صحفي في دمشق، أجابني بود: “العمل الفني هو من يتحدث عن نفسه. مكان اللوحة ليس بين أوراق الصحف وإنما في المتحف حيث يمكن تقديرها لماهيتها.” كما رفض تمام بشكل قاطع أي محاولة ل”تلبيس” أعماله رسائل خفية. “لا أؤمن بالفن كرسالة، من قال أن الفن يخدم الناس أساساً؟”

 أعمال تمام الأخيرة عن الثورة السورية تتحدث بالفعل بنفسها عن نفسها وهذا ما تقوله تماماً.  في سلسة أعماله المعالجة ديجيتالياً التي تحمل عنوان “متحف سوري”، ركّب تمام صور أعمال فنية أيقونية على صور عن آثار الدمار والعنف الجاري في سوريا. تخبر أعماله بصراحة جارحة عن تحول الدمار في سوريا للعرض الأكثر شعبية في العالم، لكن ما من خطوات فعلية تتخذ من قبل العالم لإيقافه. مجموعة أعمال أكثر من رائعة.

Tammam Azzam Syrian Museum Paul Gauguins Tahitian Women On the Beach   تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – بول غوغين"

Tammam Azzam Syrian Museum Paul Gauguins Tahitian Women On the Beach تمام عزام “متحف سوري – نساء من تاهيتي على الشاطئ، بول غوغين”

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - Andy Warhol'   تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – أندي وارهول"

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – Andy Warhol’ تمام عزام “متحف سوري – أندي وارهول”

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - Henri Matisse. La danza I' تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – الرقصة 1، هنري ماتيس""

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – Henri Matisse. La danza I’ تمام عزام “متحف سوري – الرقصة 1، هنري ماتيس””

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - Leonardo Da Vinci. Mona Lisa'  تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – الموناليزا، ليوناردو دافينتشي"

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – Leonardo Da Vinci. Mona Lisa’ تمام عزام “متحف سوري – الموناليزا، ليوناردو دافينتشي”

Tammam Azzam 'Syrian Museum - the 3rd of May 1808 Goya   تمام عزام  "متحف سوري – الثالث من مايو 1808، غويا"

Tammam Azzam ‘Syrian Museum – the 3rd of May 1808 Goya تمام عزام “متحف سوري – الثالث من مايو 1808، غويا”

To see more of Tammam Azzam’s works about the Syrian uprising, log on to this facebook page. You can also read two articles I wrote about his previous work here and here.

.لمشاهدة المزيد من أعمال تمام عزام عن الثورة السورية، يمكنك زيارة صفحته على الفيسبوك. كما يمكنك قراءة مقالين كتبتهما بالإنكليزية عن أعماله السابقة هنا وهنا.

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The Odd One Out

Growing up in a family of doctors, Buthayna Ali’s household couldn’t have possibly been further removed from the arts. I discuss with the Syrian-born artist in Damascus how societal, religious and gender-related taboos fuel Ali’s oeuvre.

Buthayna Ali at her exhibtion We. 2006. 330 rubber swings, rope, sand, sound and light. Total size: 600 square metres.

Since the first time she attended an art exhibition as a tiddler, Buthayna Ali knew she wanted to become an artist. As a child, she would organise weekly in-house exhibitions for her family and showcase portraits of them, landscapes and sketches of her surroundings. Although her father expected her to study medicine, Ali applied to Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts (where she now teaches painting) and later completed a diploma in painting from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts and a Master’s degree in Islamic Art History at the Paris IV Sorbonne University.

As a multimedia artist, Ali is not only the odd one out in her family, but also within the Syrian art scene that is still largely dominated by classical art forms. Even though Ali admires the works of artists like Michelangelo, Manet and Schiele, the modernist art tendencies of artists like Duchamp in the early 20th century left the biggest impact on her. “The freedom in art in the 20th century helped me break many boundaries. Art for me is about freedom,” Ali says.

I can’t decide which is more provocative in conservative Damascene circles – the art forms that Ali pursues or her eagerness to break the taboos of sex and religion in her work. One thing is certain: Ali’s work never fails to raise eyebrows in her native Syria. When asked what her thoughts are on addressing ‘square issues’, Ali shrugs. “Art is meant to break traditions. It is important to free your tools and open your mind to new ways of expression,” she says, acknowledging acceptance of the fact that conventional spheres in Syria may not appreciate her work. “The first time I saw an installation as an art student in France, I thought it was crap. You don’t wake up one day and start to like video or installation art,” she adds; “To appreciate these art forms, you first need to understand the process that led to their creation and this does not happen between one day and another.”

Breaking Taboos

Even outside Syria, Ali’s work causes controversy. Her installation, No Comment, features copies of the Qur’an, Bible and Tanakh chained inside a glass display case with audio recordings of Islamic verses, Assyrian hymns and Jewish songs. It was denied entry into Jerusalem for participation in the 2009 exhibition, The Other Shadow of the City, curated by Samar Martha at Al-Hoash Gallery. Through the work, Ali criticises religious hypocrisy and implies that the teachings of the three religions are no longer followed, but are instead used for political propaganda. Ali did not receive an official explanation as to why the work was rejected. The work, which was never exhibited, didn’t make it back to Damascus and was ruined on the way.

“I made this artwork especially for The Other Shadow of the City exhibition and I chose this subject because Jerusalem for me is about these three religions and their fight to gain control over the city,” Ali said. “I was very disappointed that the art work was not allowed into Jerusalem. I’ve always dreamed about visiting Jerusalem and I was so excited that my work could be exhibited there.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Her easygoing and informal persona allows her to stroll along the streets of Damascus to convince ordinary Syrians – from the local butcher to the veiled woman walking down Souk Al-Hamidiyeh – to talk to Ali openly about their views on sex, life and the concept of homeland. In her installation, Marionettes, Ali probed men and women from different cultural and religious backgrounds on Syria’s curious lingerie production which includes edible undergarments and remote-controlled bras that play music and spring open with a press of a button. The inspiration for this work came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus. “I found it very contradictory that it is a taboo to talk about sex, yet it is perfectly normal to sell lingerie in front of places of worship and to have women, mostly veiled ones, go into the Syrian equivalent of sex shops where men sell them lewd lingerie!” exclaims Ali.

The piece, exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007, features eight lingerie items hung by strings, like marionettes, and which face eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors appear to be wearing the undergarments; a changing room – for anyone wishing to try on the lingerie – plays audio files of conversations between Ali and interviewed men and women who had been asked their opinions on the lingerie and whether they would purchase any of the items. To Ali’s surprise, most of the Syrian men she interviewed said they didn’t like them, while the majority of the women said that they would wear them.

Syria’s provocative lingerie production caught the interest of other artists as well. Designer Rana Salam and writer Malu Halasa published the book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie in which various Syrian women voiced their fears, hopes and view of sex and marriage. In Marionettes, Ali decided to go a step further by making visitors of her exhibition, even if only virtually, wear that lingerie and thus see the subject from a more personal point of view.

“The work is about the viewers rather than the exhibited lingerie. I wanted to challenge the visitors and dare them to wear those lewd pieces,” Ali says pointing out that interaction with the audience is why she chose to make installations instead of paintings.  “A boundary always exists between the viewer and a painting, and it takes a long time to overcome it. Installations, on the other hand, involve all the senses of the viewer making the artwork easier to grasp and more intimate. This also makes it more colourful. Monet painted the Cathedral in each period of the day to show it, each time, in a different light. My installations change with every visitor; each one of them make it appear in a different light.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Issues of Displacement

During the interview, roles were often reversed and Ali was the one asking the questions – something akin to the second nature of a restless artist. “In Arab countries we take many things as a given. There are a lot of things that you don’t question because you are not supposed to,” she says. “I didn’t choose my name, my sex, my country of origin or the religion I was born into. There are a few things left where I can have a choice, so why not? Asking questions gives me choices.” Her constant travel between Europe, Syria and Canada for study and work allowed her to question the concept of home, especially when meeting second-generation immigrants who consider their parents’ country of origin as their homeland even though some had never lived there and don’t speak its language. “Can you inherit a homeland?” Ali asks. “I don’t understand how it can be that you grow up and spend your whole life in a certain country and yet feel that you belong to another one that you’ve hardly visited!” Inspired by the immigrants and their sense of dislocation, Ali created the photomontage, Examples, in which she asked immigrants in various countries where it is that they call home. Exhibited in 2008 at Paris’s Enrico Navarra Gallery, the work features interviews and portraits of Ali’s ‘examples’ created in a book format, but hung. Like bookends, each person’s face and the back of their heads framed the contents within, thus inviting viewers to read what is essentially, within these ‘minds’. The conversation then begs the question: where does Ali call home? Unflinchingly and in a heavy Damascene accent, she quickly says, “Al-Sham (Damascus) is my home. I don’t see homeland as a political unit though. Less than 100 years ago, the Syria we know today did not exist. My homeland is where I grew up and where my childhood memories are.”

Dislocation is also a central theme in Ali’s installation, Y, which was commissioned and later purchased by Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art. The artwork is comprised of 22 slingshots which symbolise the 22 Arab countries that according to Ali, “catapult their citizens”, or, in other words, force them to immigrate and seek asylum for various political, economical and social reasons. Using cement, Ali sized each slingshot according to the size of the Arab country it represents and reflected its migration rate during the last decade in the length of its rubber straps. Why slingshots, I ask? “Because they involve a short period of flying. They give a sense of freedom. This initial freedom, however, is short-lived. They will soon hit the ground with a brutal jolt,” replies Ali, referring to the emotional impact of being uprooted.

Calling for Equality

Ali insists that she is not a feminist. However, the Syrian tradition of deeming trivial or casual conversations ‘women’s talk’ and the fact that two women’s testimonies equal a man’s in Syrian courts provoked the title of one her most recent works, Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! that was exhibited at Tütün Deposu in Istanbul in 2010 as part of the Sharing Waters sauna meets hammam project curated by Ulla Kastrup. In the piece, Ali explores the hammam as a refuge for women away from the sphere of male influence and authority; a place where they can spend “me-time” and share their secrets and concerns mostly concerning the opposite sex.  Ali’s belief of women being unequal to men is not restricted to Syrian society – the work includes a Japanese woman’s recitation of discrimination in her workplace because of her gender; an Iraqi refugee’s tales on being a prostitute in Syria and an American woman’s criticisms on society for frowning upon her having four or five sexual partners. “I see the hammam as a place where women peel off their clothes and restraints and enjoy a short period of freedom and gather strength to face their lives in a patriarchal society,” adds Ali. “It was very hard to convince women to open up and tell me the stories that they would otherwise confide in their close friends in a hammam.” Getting these women to talk was not the only challenge – Ali’s subjects opted to record their voices on tape for sake of privacy as opposed to speaking with her face-to-face. This element of ‘secrecy’ and indistinctness was reflected in Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! via two standard metal lockers fitted with 15 closed tier boxes in each. Light and recordings of each woman’s narrative spill out from the sealed boxes. Yet, when viewers open a locker, the light goes off and the sound is muted.

Light forms an integral part of Ali’s works. Since her first show, an installation of a tent which was also her graduation project at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, was criticized by the jury for not using light, Ali put a lot of effort in this aspect of her work.

“I felt that by not using light I let my work down. Light in an installation is just as important as colour is in a painting,” Ali said.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

Ali’s most recent exhibition took place last November in Venice in the Fondazione Prada’s new exhibition space, the Ca’ Corner della Regina, where she showcased her work Y. Since then, however, the artist has not made any new artworks. The anti-regime demonstrations which began in Syria in March 2011 and rising death toll have had a profound impact on her; being so emotionally engrossed in the rebellion has distracted and conceiving other artwork is not a priority she holds at present.

When asked about her future plans, Ali shakes her head. “I used to tell my students at the university that if you stop working for one day, then you are not an artist! Yet here I am, one year after the unrest started in Syria and I am no longer able to work,” Ali says admitting that it is the first time she stopped making art since she was a little kid. “Living inside Syria, I feel like I am inside a box and I can no longer see things clearly. So many people are dying and all I am left with is a deep feeling of shame,” she pauses. “My only plans now are to see the end of the bloodshed in my country.”

This article was published in the current March/April issue of Canvas art magazine. See pdf version here.

Scrawling Beauty (Syrian Graffiti)

A series of workshops are helping to bolster graffiti in Syria as an art form with a distinctly Arab flair.


Photos Fadi al-Hamwi

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Abeer Boukhari said. “I don’t like graffiti.”

This statement was particularly remarkable because Boukhari is the founder of All Art Now, the first and only art gallery in Syria to promote graffiti among other alternative and new media arts. The reason for her dislike, she said, is because graffiti in Syria usually imitates Western style, using Roman characters and rarely incorporating Arabic elements into it.

“The essence of graffiti is expressing yourself, your feelings and your political or social views in your own words,” she explained. “You can’t copy that.”

To combat what she considers this encroaching foreign influence, Boukhari has organised three graffiti-painting workshops during the past three years, the most recent of which ended in August. Through them she hoped to encourage local artists to create graffiti in Arabic script. However, while the most recent workshop resulted in 20 graffiti works, only two were in Arabic.

For workshop trainer Fadi al-Hamwi, this comes as no surprise.

“For a start, it’s natural that artists would do graffiti paintings in English, because that’s what they’ve seen so far,” Hamwi said. “We don’t have a history of graffiti painting after all. It takes time to develop our own style, but obviously artists want to tackle their own problems and will sooner or later do that in their own language.”

Graffiti as expression

While graffiti is often thought of as colourful, elaborate aerosol paintings in public spaces, the loosest definition of it is anything scrawled outdoors, such as ‘tags’ – spray-painted initials and gang signs – and monochrome business signs and advertisements. Most ‘graffiti’ in Syria is the latter, simple written words that promote commercial products or shops. This vandalism offers no aesthetic or artistic benefits to Syrian culture, Boukhari said.

“Graffiti reflects the street’s pulse and Syrians have always been traders who use all possible tools to promote their goods,” Boukhari said. “You see countless graffiti signs written by hairdressers, plumbers and taxi drivers offering their services. They often even include phone numbers.”

In Syria, Boukhari said, graffiti then becomes synonymous with either vandalism or commercialism, rather than with art. She hopes to change that.

“Syrian graffiti is as different from Western [graffiti] as the two cultures are,” Boukhari said. “While old Syrian architecture used to be beautiful, elaborate and comfortable… today no one considers aesthetics in Syria, not in architecture or in graffiti or anything else. Thus, graffiti is deforming the city.”

Occasionally, however, graffiti is used as a tool for expression, and tackles the three major taboos in Syria: politics, religion and sex. Like Boukhari, 25-year-old graffiti artist Samer al-Barzawi considers artless words written on public property to be pure vandalism. He wants to substitute it with the elaborate wall paintings that he began creating nine years ago. He also suggested creating murals that replace public-ordinance signs.

“Instead of writing ‘don’t throw rubbish in the street’, why not paint a man throwing a piece of paper next to a rubbish bin in the street?” Barzawi asked. “That’s a more effective and beautiful way to do it.” Eventually, he hopes to paint elaborate works in public spaces, such as on the walls of primary schools.

A tool for change

Boukhari believes that graffiti can also be a tool for positive social change. That is why, apart from one training for local artists that focused solely on graffiti techniques, the three workshops Boukhari organised mainly revolved around using graffiti as a tool to achieve change.

The first workshop she organised, with the Roman Orthodox Patriarchy and the Syrian Family Planning Association in 2008, raised awareness about the importance of sexual education in Syria. Participants were invited to attend lectures about sexual health, then learned how to use graffiti to raise awareness about the issue. The most recent workshop tackled communication between parents and children. In both courses, the gallery invited young Syrians, between the ages of 16 and 25, to participate. Few were professional artists.

“Graffiti is not for artists,” Boukhari said. “It’s for the people in the street who have something to say. The Germans used it to revolt against the Berlin Wall and young people use it to express their views.”

Artists like 16-year-old Munther Dureid are using graffiti to express their points of view. Dureid said his goal is to help preserve Arab identity, which he feels is threatened by “the Westernisation of youth”. Instead of painting in public venues, however, Dureid draws Arabic graffiti on paper and posts images of his creations to a ‘virtual’ wall on the social-networking site Facebook. In Arabic script, his pieces say things such as “Proud to be Arab” and “Be Yourself”.

Sarah Nouri said she wants to use graffiti to raise awareness about women’s rights through symbolic paintings rather than words. The 18-year-old model is planning to showcase her works in solo exhibitions around Syria.

Urban art

Good graffiti is not the same as vandalism and does not have to be done in secret, Mohammad Ali, a workshop trainer, said.

“Just because the encyclopedia says that graffiti was originally part of a subculture that rebels against authority doesn’t mean it has to remain that way,” he explained. “There are no limits to art and I see graffiti as part of street art and urban art.”

To prove his point, Ali pointed out that cities in many countries have begun to value graffiti so much that they now encourage it. Some city councils even invite graffiti artists to decorate public venues or provide approved areas where graffiti artists are free to showcase their talents in such places as underpasses, car parks and even museums. Sydney University in Australia, for example, has a ‘Graffiti Tunnel’ where painting on the walls is encouraged. According to Boukhari, similar projects are being implemented in Jordan and Egypt. In Syria, graffiti painting is illegal, though it is not strictly monitored.

“We’ve witnessed the history of graffiti in the West so why repeat it?” Ali asked. “Instead of playing hide-and-seek with the authorities, graffiti artists should work hand-in-hand with the governorates to decorate their cities.”

With that in mind, Boukhari is organising a project to allow graffiti artists to decorate run-down areas in Damascus. Currently she is waiting for approval from the governorate of Damascus and the Ministry of Culture for a project to decorate the bus terminal and the concrete columns under the Presidential Bridge in central Damascus. Her design for the space includes murals of green landscapes beside grey cityscapes.

“The location of the bridge is unique because it’s right in the centre and next to the dying Barada River,” Boukhari said. “All Art Now’s main aim is to incorporate art into the daily lives of Syrians. And what better way to do it than this?”

For more information about All Art Now workshops and projects log on to www.allartnow.com.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

Going Contemporary (Syrian Art)

A new wave of contemporary and alternative art forms stole the spotlight this year, much to the delight of audiences.

art

It was never going to be easy to follow on from the Damascus Arab Capital of Culture celebration, in which the capital hosted a jam-packed calendar of exhibitions, plays, films and lectures. Nevertheless, 2009 provided local audiences with a number of interesting performances and events. Better yet, throughout the year contemporary art performances and exhibitions began to steal the spotlight away from a cultural scene long dominated by the classical arts.

Visual Arts

In recent years, the number of Syrian art galleries has grown exponentially. Unique among them is All Art Now, a gallery specialising in contemporary art forms.

“My gallery is a lab, a space for people to try new things,” gallery owner Abeer Boukhari told Syria Today. “Artists are allowed to experiment with new media art and practice whatever new art form they want.”

The gallery, which first opened in 2005, really began leaving its mark on the country’s contemporary art scene this year. The gallery staged Syria’s first International Video Art Festival and the first New Media Art Festival, which showcased the experimental works of Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian artists. It also invited several celebrated international new media artists to lecture throughout the year.

All Art Now may be the only dedicated new media gallery in the country, but many other galleries organised one-off exhibitions focusing on new media art. One of the more high-profile exhibitions was the British Council-funded video art exhibition that showcased works by 12 British artists at the Mustafa Ali Gallery in April.

Art

“Since the opening of All Art Now gallery in Damascus, the number of contemporary art shows has significantly risen,” Omar Nicolas, a student at the faculty of fine arts at the University of Damascus, said. “Now I can attend new media art exhibitions in Syria – this wasn’t possible a few years ago.”

Theatre

Last year’s celebration of Damascus as the Arab Capital of Culture was a real treat for theatre-goers. Barely a day passed without a play taking to the stage somewhere around the capital. What made the festival all the more unique was the number of street and location theatre performances and workshops.

“The Damascus Arab Capital of Culture festival broke the boundaries between Syrian audiences and new forms of theatre such as street and location theatre,” Rashed Issa, cultural correspondent for Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper, said.

ART

While the volume of performances put on last year was always going to be difficult to repeat, it is clear from this year’s more limited line up that Syrian audiences are eager to see new forms of theatre. Among this year’s more unique performances were Safar, one of the country’s first interactive plays spearheaded by Syrian actor and director Kifah Khous, as well as Don Quixote, performed by the Syrian drama group Koon at the Higher Institute of Theatre. Both were performed last month.

Another interesting development was the EU-funded Ludotent street theatre project in which German and Italian experts trained Syrian artists from the National Theatre in game pedagogy and improvisational theatre. The artists then travelled to rural towns and villages to perform.

art

“Young directors are now more willing to experiment with new trends,” Syrian playwright Abdullah al-Kafri said.

“What’s more, the content of the plays is changing. Young directors are tackling important and sensitive issues, but not in a direct way. Rather, they are criticising current problems through simple everyday stories.”

The year was not without controversy, however. In April, the final Aleppo performance of Touqous al-Isharat wa al-Tahawoulat (Rituals of Signs and Transformations) by famed Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous was cancelled after local religious figures complained. The play had been performed and positively received in Damascus and Hama.

Dance

Syria’s dance scene marked a milestone this year when the Damascus Contemporary Dance Platform (DCDP) was launched by choreographer Mey Sefan of the local dance company Tanween. The event was put together to promote contemporary dance in Syria and staged a number of local and international performances, as well as a series of lectures and workshops targeting local dancers.

Arguably the most successful local contemporary performance was Congratulations by the country’s first movement theatre troupe Leish. The show explored femininity and masculinity in Syrian society through the country’s wedding rituals.

“It was so witty and entertaining,” Dina Halabi, a young student at the University of Damascus, said after attending a performance. “What makes it even greater is that it’s actually Syrian.”

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Not all performances were as kindly received. Many audience members did not know what to make of The Knight of Strange Words, an experimental dance performance staged in February. The show featured Syrian dancer Fadi Shahin performing to the beats of techno music in front of a huge screen displaying digital art intertwined with phrases by Syrian poet Adonis. A fusion not to everyone’s taste, if local newspaper reviews were any indication.

Cinema

Last month’s Damascus Film Festival provided local movie-goers with a heavy schedule of foreign films, as did the European Film Festival, now an annual event. The biggest change to the local film scene, however, came via the growing popularity of documentaries, with the second annual Dox Box documentary film festival once again proving a hit with local film fans in March.

“New resources such as the Al Jazeera and National Geographic documentary channels, as well as the launch of the Dox Box festival, have shown people that there are different types of documentaries and that they are more than simple video reporting,” Salina Abaza, a freelance graphic designer passionate about cinema, said.

The French Cultural Centre’s cinema club, which screens films twice a week and invites two prominent Syrian directors to debate the works with the audience afterwards, was another popular venue throughout the year for film buffs.

Music

art

While the annual Jazz Lives in Syria festival used to be the only musical festival the country could boast of, a number of new musical events stole the show this year. Prime among these was the Liban Jazz festival, which served up a string of highly appreciated acts such as Norwegian ‘new jazz’ musician Bugge Wesseltoft and Italian pianist Giovanni Mirabassi.

“It’s great to listen to different genres of music other than the traditional ones that are repeated every year,” a young student at the Higher Institute of Music said.

Local musicians were also given a new platform to perform via the Music on the Road festival which saw local acts perform in public parks dotted throughout the city. The biggest audience, however, was reserved for much-loved Lebanese singer and writer Ziad Rahbani who performed in a packed Damascus Citadel in July.

Rock and hip-hop fans were also treated to new local albums. Syrian rock group Kulna Sawa played a number of packed shows following the release of Kulna Sawa Radio, while Sham MCs released the country’s first hip-hop album, Cross Words.

“People are bored with the same kind of Syrian music remixed and reproduced every year, it’s high time to get something new,” Firas Ahmad, a CD shop owner, said.

Photos by Carole al-Farah, Fadi al-Hamwi & Adel Samara

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

Contemporary art as a tool for social change

I attended last week a unique artist talk at All Art Now gallery in Damascus by a real cosmopolitan figure. Born in Algeria, raised in Cameroon and educated in Brussels and Tokyo, artist Eric Van Hove with his Belgian nationality and Dutch surname is anything but ordinary.


Eric Van Hove

His art touches upon this very same intercultural context he comes from. He has toured the world using several art forms from installation to performance, video, photography and writing to discuss sociological, political and ecological issues.

I’m “interested in bringing contemporary art not only to the public space outside of the institutional confines of the contemporary galleries and museums (as is already done since the 1950s) but outside of the Western context itself.” Thus, “questioning the limits and ‘moral competence’ of contemporary art as a western institution once brought outside of its context,” writes Van Hove.

Equally unique is his story telling technique. Similarly to the Kamishibai of Japan who used to tell from the back of his bike different stories based on a number of picture cards, Van Hove introduced in his talk at All Art Now several artworks using photos of his exhibitions in different parts of the world. Van Hove told stories of birds droppings in Senegal, cockfight in Madagascar and X-CUBE lockers in Japan. One of his most striking stories however was that of a neglected little vegetable market in Okinawa Island.

Worms, World War II and the Japanese constitution


The artwrok

While on his tours, Van Hove visited the Noren vegetable market in the city of Naha in Okinawa Island. The result was a unique contemporary art work mixing worms with the Japanese constitution and bonfires. To better understand this hotchpotch of an artwork, a short history lesson is inescapable.

Although Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom before it was annexed by Japan in 1879, when taken over by the US forces during World War II (1939-1945) its people desperately defended their “Homeland” Japan.

The Island was returned to Japan in 1972 yet its people felt that the Japanese constitution, which was written by US lawyers during the time Okinawa was under US control, didn’t do justice to the Island. As laws governing Japan negatively differed from those governing Okinawa, the Islanders who lost thousands of their people in their fight to reunite with Japan felt discriminated against. It was this sense of inequity and the poverty the sellers in the Noren vegetable market suffered from that Van Hove wanted to address in his artwork.
The sellers, mostly elderly widowers, had the habit of burning at the end of the day the vegetables they couldn’t sell. In an attempt to make money out of the bio waste, Van Hove created a worm farm in the vegetable market to recycle the vegetables into valuable fertilizer that the women could sell to farmers and make additional profit.


The worms digesting the Japanese constitiution

But what does that have to do with the US, WWII and the Japanese constitution?

Van Hove used this very same worm farm to organize a symbolic bonfire of the constitution. He fed photocopies of the Japanese constitution to the worms and broadcasted live the sound of the worms’ digestion of the controversial constitution, which resembled the popping sound of a fire, on the local radio.


An old woman listining to the sound of the worms’ digestion
of the controversial constitution on the local radio.

“The sellers were too poor to have TVs but they all had radios and enjoyed the sound of the worms digesting the hated constitution,” said Van Hove in his artist talk. In fact, some people even wrote down some bad experiences they went through, dropped it in the worm farm and then hugged their little radios and enjoyed listening to the worms eat their pain away.

To read more about Eric Van Hove’s works log on to transcri.be

Carving Out a New Art Landscape

A new foundation is working to raise the profile of video art and other new media art installations on Syria’s cultural scene.

Abeer Boukhari founder of All Art Now

photos by Aisha Jamal

When Syrian artist Mohammad Ali began to plan his mid-year project at Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts (FFA), he decided to break with tradition and try something different. Using black ink to paint the same figure in different positions a thousand times, Ali proceeded to bring his creation to life via an animated video art piece entitled Diversions. Starting with a close-up shot of an ambiguous-looking shape, the video gradually pans out to reveal a figure in motion.

“The point of the video was to show that people often make judgments based on first appearances before they realise exactly what they are looking at,” Ali said.

Unfortunately for Ali, the faculty judges didn’t get his point and after the video ended, one examiner asked: “So, can you show us your project now?”

Ali is not the only alternative artist to be snubbed by the FFA. The examiners refused to mark part of Syrian artist Iman Hasbani’s graduation project when they discovered it was an installation piece.

“Syria does not consider modern art forms such as installation, video art and graffiti, to be art,” Ali said. “There are no universities here which teach these forms of experimental art, they are simply ignored.”

The majority of Syria’s art galleries also refuse to showcase alternative art pieces, but not because they view them as non-art, Hasbani said. Instead, the lack of interest in video art and installation works can be ascribed to the fact that these works are for viewing only. Hasbani claims that if the works can’t be sold, commercial galleries have no incentive to exhibit them.

Promoting non-art

All Art Now, a Syrian art foundation which opened in 2005, is working to bring these neglected modern art forms into the mainstream. Abeer Boukhari, founder of All Art Now, describes the foundation as a networking point for Syria’s young experimental artists.

“My job is to connect people,” she said. “I search for talented artists in Syria and try to connect them with art fairs, galleries, possible sponsors and art organisations that can arrange workshops or exhibitions.”

Last January, All Art Now, in partnership with the French organisers of a video art festival held in Marseille, staged Syria’s first International Video Art Festival. The two-week festival featured the works of artists from all over Europe and the Arab world.

Since it first opened, the foundation has organised several workshops on graffiti and installation art. It also supports a number of Syria’s alternative artists internationally, taking their works to art fairs and festivals in Turkey, France and the US.

Most importantly for young artists wishing to showcase their works in Syria, All Art Now has its own art gallery. Tucked away in a small back street in the Old City, this space is nothing like the other galleries that have opened their doors in traditional Arabic houses over the past few years. Forget the beautiful courtyard, cosy showroom and jasmine-filled air – All Art Now prides itself on its dilapidated premises.

“My gallery is a lab, a space for people to try new things.” Boukhari said. “Artists are allowed to do whatever they want here. It’s already in a bad condition, they can’t make it worse and I don’t have the money to fix it anyway.”

This run-down gallery hosted Syria’s first new media art festival last August, showcasing the experimental works of Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian artists. The artists painted on the ceilings, scribbled over the walls and removed doors. The festival also incorporated video art shows and, randomly, Swiss performing arts.

Residents and shop owners in the Old City, some of whom had never attended an exhibition at an art gallery, turned up to see what all the commotion was about.

“Installations are interactive shows, they are not a display of beautiful paintings on sale and that’s why people feel more engaged with them,” Nisrian Boukhari, a Syrian artist, said.

All Art Now gallery

Syrian artist Ziad al-Halaby’s installation was a hot topic of debate. He draped the staircase in cotton sheets and covered the adjacent wall in writing. One prominent sentence read: “This place is yours. You are free to do whatever you want.” Music and light coming from upstairs served to lure visitors up the ramshackle stairs, but when they gave in to the temptation and took the risk of climbing up, they found only two empty rooms.

“Ziad wanted to show people that curiosity often overcomes reason,” Boukhari explained.

Winning recognition
While crowds of young spectators buzzed around the opening of the festival, it was a no-show for almost all of Syria’s older established artists.

“Most of these artists considered the installation and video art on show to be a case of teenage madness,” Boukhari said.

While recognition at home may be slow in coming, Syria’s alternative artists are making a name for themselves abroad. Ali’s video art, previously rejected by the FFA, was received with critical acclaim at New York’s Scope Art Festival in 2008, leading him to tour Switzerland, Greece, Cyprus, France and Russia.

“When my video was rejected I put it aside for five years,” he said. “While I still created videos, I never screened them, but now those very same creations have toured the world in one year. Without All Art Now I wouldn’t have continued creating installations or video art. It gave me the space and support I needed to work.”

For more information log onto www.allartnow.com

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

The Cutting Edge (profile of artist Buthayna Ali)

Art shouldn’t be hung with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign on it, says new media artist Buthayna Ali.

The Artist

I first met Buthayna Ali in 2003 at the launch of her exhibition Promises which focused on war and violence in the Middle East. Back then, the event was one of the first new media art exhibitions to be held in Syria and Ali was still an emerging artist who had only just finished her postgraduate studies at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris.

Fast forward six years and Ali has left a distinctive mark on the Syrian art scene, working to promote new media art despite a lack of funding and interest from galleries.

“New media art is still underrated in Syria,” Ali said. “The layperson does not reject new media art. Rather, it’s the traditional artists who oppose it, mainly because they don’t know what it is.”

A new generation of Syrian artists, says Ali, is seeking modern tools to express itself with. Traditional framed oil paintings and canvasses, she explains, do not make it onto the list.

“Art is about life and we are in the age of multimedia,” Ali said. “Therefore, it’s natural that we want to express ourselves using the language of this age, which is new media art.”

During the Syrian parliamentary elections in April 2007, twelve students from Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts criticised candidates running for positions in a video installation entitled Vote, made at one of Ali’s workshops. The videos were screened at the Umawiyeen Square two days before the election results were announced.

“The students voted using their own tools,” Ali said. “Through their videos they made their opinions known, that this was not the way they wanted to be represented.”

Vote 2007

Ali has always been calm-natured, yet she also refuses to shy away from controversy. Her works of art often draw on themes that break the taboos of religion, politics and sex.

The inspiration for one of her most well-known installation pieces, entitled Marionettes, came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Saida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus.

“It’s common to find such lingerie sold in the streets next to religious centres,” Ali said. “I find that very strange in such a conservative society like that of Syria.”

Marionettes 2007

Marionettes was exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007. The piece featured eight items of lingerie hanging by strings like marionettes in front of eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors could see themselves wearing the lingerie.

“I wanted to raise the same questions that occurred to me when I first saw the lingerie,” Ali said. “I wanted people to ask themselves: ‘It’s impossible for me to wear this. How would it look on me if I did? I’m curious to try them on, but I’m not brave enough, are you?’”

One of Ali’s most recent exhibitions was a collaborative video installation with Syrian artist Bayan al-Sheikh, held at the Netherlands’ Glow Festival in November 2008. The work created an optical illusion with four round screens hanging from the ceiling that broadcast a whirling dervish as viewed from above. A fifth screen located on the floor showed the same whirling dervish, but shot from a different perspective. Every now and then the screenings were interrupted by videos and sound recordings of people in the streets of Damascus discussing everyday topics.

Ayn 2008

“Mevlevi dancing is a way of exiting reality and entering a more spiritual world,” Ali said. “Yet when talking to dervishes about their everyday life you find out that it has nothing to do with Sufism.”

Indeed, Ali’s last Syrian exhibition was in 2006. In the installation entitled We Ali turned Alrywak gallery into a playground, hanging more than 50 black rubber base swings with words such as ‘money’, ‘love’, ‘sorrow’ and ‘business’ written on them in white. Visitors walked among the playground as these same words were broadcast, reverberating around the room.

“I wanted to say that life is like a swing,” she said. “While swings symbolise freedom and flying, no matter how high you swing you will always lose momentum and slow down. You always end up left stuck between two ropes and in need of somebody or something to give you another push.”

The Artist in her exhibition We Nous

While Ali still struggles to display her work in Syria, she knows there is much interest in new media art.

“Unlike traditional art which is framed and hung with a ‘Don’t Touch’ sign in front of it, visitors can interact with an installation work and use all of their senses,” she said. “This is what makes new media art so special.”

Buthayna Ali’s latest installation on the Israeli war on Gaza will be on display from March 15 in the Green Art Gallery in Dubai.

Buthayna Ali
Buthayna Ali was born in Damascus in 1974. She graduated with a degree in the History of Islamic Art from the Sorbonne Paris IV University in 2001 and obtained a postgraduate diploma in painting from Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts in Paris in 2003. Ali taught at the Faculty of Art in Damascus from 2002 to 2007. She currently lives and works in Canada and Syria. For more information log onto www. buthaynaali.com.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 47