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.

“A small group of syrians” a beautiful photography project about the Syrian revolution by Syria’s Jaber al-Azmeh “مجموعة صغيرة من السوريين” مشروع تصوير ضوئي جميل للمصور السوري جابر العظمة

I came across this beautiful photography project by Syrian photographer Jaber al-Azmeh. Below is the description of the project as published on Azmeh’s photography page on facebook and a selection of photos.

صادفت هذا المشروع الجميل للمصور السوري جابر العظمة. أدناه وصف المشروع كما وردعلى صفحة جابر على الفيس بوك ومجموعة منتقاة من الصور.

A small group of Free Syrians offer their words…. This project takes on one of the Syrian Government’s most prominent symbols – The Ba’ath Newspaper – as part and parcel of the Baath Security State – and here turns it upside down to be a surface of new thoughts written by the Syrian people thus overturning the daily chronicle of government lies. We emphasize also that the comments are directed not particularly to the Ba’ath but rather to ‘The Regime’ itself. Each participant was invited to use the news paper or write some words to symbolize his or her thoughts within the general idea of the revolution. Those are Syrians; Here are their words. This project began from the earliest months of the revolution. It was a time when the camera was, and continues to be, one of the revolution’s most important weapons. It was also important to work in simple and easily accessible ways while remaining discreet and not attracting too much attention. Participating in this project gave birth to new friendships, as has the revolution itself, in bringing together diverse Syrian individuals and their talks of revolution and freedom with all the complex emotional mix they entail – ecstasy, sadness and determination – they proudly express their allegiance to the one homeland, Syria.

مجموعة صغيرة من السوريين الأحرار يقول كل منهم كلمته. تم استخدام أحد رموز النظام (جريدة البعث) لكونها جزءاً من المنظومة الأمنية – البعثية، كما استُخدمت الجريدة كسرد تاريخي لأيام الثورة لتكتب عليها كلمات الناس فوق كذب النظام. مع التأكيد أن المعني هو ليس البعث بقدر ما هو النظام نفسه. كان لكل شخص من المشاركين أن يكتب على الجريدة أو أن يستخدمها بطريقةٍ رمزيةٍ ما، موصلا بذلك فكرته كجزء من الفكرة الأشمل: هؤلاء سوريون وهذه هي كلماتهم. بدأ العمل بهذا المشروع منذ الأشهر الأولى للثورة، في مرحلةٍ كانت الكاميرا وما زالت من أهم أسلحة الثورة…كان ينبغي أن نعمل بأبسط طريقة تقنية ممكنة و أقلها لفتاً للنظر. ولّد العمل بالمشروع كما ولدت الثورة صداقات… لقاء هؤلاء، وأحاديث الثورة والحرية التي رافقتها والمزيج المعقد من مشاعر الفرح والحزن والإرادة كانت جزءاً مهماً من العمل بالمشروع مع مجموعة من السوريين المتنوعين الذين يفتخرون جميعاً بالاشتراك بالوطن الواحد.

يوسف عبدلكي - فنان تشكيلي Yousef Abdelké - Artist 18/7/2011 Jaber AlAzmeh ©

يوسف عبدلكي – فنان تشكيلي Yousef Abdelké – Artist
18/7/2011
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 عامر مطر - صحفي Amer Matar - Journalist "the chain will break" 9/8/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


عامر مطر – صحفي Amer Matar – Journalist
“the chain will break”
9/8/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

<br />غاليا سراقبي - مصممة غرافيكية Ghalia Sarakbi - graphic designer<br />" the people "<br />19/8/2011<br />Jaber AlAzmeh ©<br />


غاليا سراقبي – مصممة غرافيكية Ghalia Sarakbi – graphic designer
” the people “
19/8/2011
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

Rami Hammour &amp; Zeina Salem - Architect &amp; Sculptor رامي حمور و زينة سالم - معماري و نحاتة<br />" we want to stop wanting to leave "<br />12/7/2011<br />© Jaber AlAzmeh

Rami Hammour & Zeina Salem – Architect & Sculptor رامي حمور و زينة سالم – معماري و نحاتة
” we want to stop wanting to leave “
12/7/2011
© Jaber AlAzmeh

فارس الحلو - ممثل Fares Helou - Actor 8/6/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©

فارس الحلو – ممثل Fares Helou – Actor
8/6/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 لويز عبد الكريم - ممثلة Louise Abdelkarim - actress "there is no turning back" 9/6/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


لويز عبد الكريم – ممثلة Louise Abdelkarim – actress
“there is no turning back”
9/6/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 حلا عمران - ممثلة Hala Omran - Actress 16/7/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


حلا عمران – ممثلة Hala Omran – Actress
16/7/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

Ruham Hawash - Higher Education affairs researcher رهام هواش - باحثة في شؤون التعليم العالي "The laughter of freedom has no borders or nationality" 11/2/2011 © Jaber AlAzmeh

Ruham Hawash – Higher Education affairs researcher رهام هواش – باحثة في شؤون التعليم العالي
“The laughter of freedom has no borders or nationality”
11/2/2011
© Jaber AlAzmeh

شادي أبو فخر وعاصم حمشو - Shadi AbuFakhir &amp; Assem Hamso<br />"hand in hand"<br />14/7/2012<br />Jaber AlAzmeh ©

شادي أبو فخر وعاصم حمشو – Shadi AbuFakhir & Assem Hamso
“hand in hand”
14/7/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

"the anonymous activists" 15/7/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©

“the anonymous activists”
15/7/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

 ندين بسيمي - أم Nadine Bassimi - Mother "Happiness is coming to our streets and homes" 9/8/2012 Jaber AlAzmeh ©


ندين بسيمي – أم Nadine Bassimi – Mother
“Happiness is coming to our streets and homes”
9/8/2012
Jaber AlAzmeh ©

You can read a review I wrote about Azmeh’s previous photography exhibition metaphors and watch his works here.

يمكنك قراءة مقال كتبته باللغة الإنكليزية عن معرض سابق لجابر العظمة بعنوان “مجازات” هنا.

Art Lessons

Students and teachers at Syria’s public arts academies say their programmes need to be overhauled.

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts - Photos by Fadi Hamwi

Imad Habbab, fourth year student at the Damascus Faculty of Fine Arts – Photos by Fadi al-Hamwi

Walking around the University of Damascus’s faculty of fine arts is like entering a rundown labyrinth. Sculptures, paintings and odd-looking metal objects are scattered everywhere. Peeling paint adorns the walls and cigarette butts cover the dusty stairs of the four-storey building. The haphazard physical appearance of the school reflects a similar situation in the curriculum.

Inadequate curriculum

Students and teachers interviewed by Syria Today criticised the curriculum of the three public universities arts programmes, noting their omission of contemporary arts, under-qualified staff and an overly general, rigid and one-size-fits-all programme.

“As the Syrian saying goes ‘a rose from every garden’, this is how the curriculum is. It erratically teaches students a little of everything without giving any depth to any of the subjects,” Zavien Youssef, a lecturer of painting at the faculty, said.

Youssef as well as many students suggested that each teacher should set up a workshop and students should be allowed to choose classes where they could practice several, individual art forms for four or five months.

The curriculum also fails to cover contemporary art. Students like Imad Habbab, who is in his fourth year, said they regret that their curriculum includes modern art history (art between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries) but none of the contemporary arts like new media arts. Although there is a new media artist teaching at the faculty of fine arts, she is restricted to teaching only what is in the curriculum, Habbab said.

“The earliest part of modern art history that we studied at the university is almost 100 years old. That is ridiculously old,” Habbab said. “The problem is that most teachers are old-fashioned artists and they know nothing about contemporary arts. This is why I don’t think it will be taught in the university any time soon.”

photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Under-qualified staff

Yamen Youssef, a sculptor and master’s student at the University of Damascus, argued that many professors are less qualified than they were when he was a student five years ago.

“During my time, many of the professors were well-known Syrian artists and art historians,” Youssef said.

According to Alaa Abu Shahin, an art teacher at University of Aleppo, the opening of private art universities during the last five years or so is the reason behind the lower quality of art professors in public universities. As a result, some teachers are forced to teach subjects for which they lack specialisation.

“Private universities attracted most of the big names,” Abu Shahin said. “It’s because they offer better salaries and jobs.”

Students also complained that the faculty does not provide the needed supplies for academic art studies – nude models, for example. Instead, students paint the likeness of the same two fully-dressed men and one female model during their four years of studies.

“We once had a veiled model,” Youssef, the sculptor, said. “How am I supposed to learn to sculpt muscles if I don’t have a nude model to copy? How could it be that today we only get to study artistic anatomy in theory while students in this very same faculty had nude models back in the ‘60s?”

To solve this problem, students said they paint each other, use human sculptures as subjects or pay to hire nude models.

Photo by Fadi al-Hamwi

Rigid system

The faculty of fine arts functions under the Ministry of Education. So it follows a similar system as other faculties, which, in Youssef the sculptor’s opinion, is incompatible with fine arts. During the first year, for example, students have to study painting, sculpture, etching and graphic and fashion design. They can then specialise only in one area, but are selected for this specialty based on their marks in all courses. Fashion design requires the highest marks.

Also similarly to other universities functioning under the Ministry of Education, the faculty of fine arts has specific working hours. Because the buildings close at 2pm, students have little time to work on projects.

“In other universities where people have specific classes, it makes sense to have specific working hours, but when it comes to fine arts that simply doesn’t work,” Youssef said. “In the higher institute of music and theatre, students are free to use the studios to practice their music at any time during the day. It should be the same with fine arts.”

Despite the shortcomings of the University of Damascus’s fine arts’ programme, Abu Shahin said it is superior to the other two public fine art faculties in Aleppo and Suweida. He said the Aleppo faculty suffers from a shortage of professors, equipment and libraries. He argued that one of the main reasons for the shortage in staff is that none of the Syrian artists and academic professors – including those who originally come from Aleppo – want to teach in Aleppo, because it is too far from the capital and the country’s only developed art market. As a result, young teachers are overburdened.

“I am not an academic professor. I’m a recent graduate so I should only teach second-year students, yet I teach students in the second, third and fourth years,” Abu Shahin said. “At least in Damascus they have a larger number of teachers and academic professors. They visits museums and have gypsum sculptures to replace nude models. But in Aleppo we don’t even have that.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Download a pdf veriosn here.

Q&A with Journalist and Photographer Doha Hassan

I sat down with journalist Doha Hassan to discuss what motivated her to create an exhibition on drought victims at Cham Mahel art café in the Old City of Damascus.

How did the idea of the exhibition come about?

According to UN statistics, 60,000 families from the north-east have been forced [since 2006] by the ongoing drought to migrate to urban areas. A journalist friend from the Jazeera area suggested that I and two other journalists go and teach the children of this area to read and write. So we went. It was an individual initiative by us, so families there were sceptical at first. They didn’t allow their children near us because they thought we wanted to kidnap them and sell their organs. After going there several times and accepting cups of coffee in their tents, they finally began to trust us. We’ve been giving weekly classes to the children for four months now. They wait for us and run to greet us every week. I took a lot of photos and put them on Facebook. The owner of Cham Mahal art café saw the photos and suggested I make an exhibition in his café. My instinct was to refuse. I’m a journalist and not a professional photographer. But as we were planning to start a media campaign to raise awareness about drought victims in Syria, the exhibition seemed like an appropriate starting point.

Your exhibition, Temporary, aims to support the victims of drought and raise public awareness of the issue. Has it achieved its goal?

The exhibition attracted considerable media attention. In addition to all major Syrian media outlets, regional publications like Lebanon’s daily Al-Hayat and international ones like the BBC covered the exhibition. I sold enough photographs to cover the exhibition’s basic expenses and I will spend any profits to support the drought victims. I also printed postcards of my photos that were sold during the exhibition. I’ll continue to sell the postcards at Cham Mahal and Itana library after the exhibition.

How are you supporting the drought victims?

We are buying them basic food elements and notebooks and colors for the children. Apart from the exhibition, we also organized a facebook campaign and asked people to donate clothes. The response was huge and we got tons of second-hand clothes.

Why have you called your exhibition temporary?

Because I hope that the drought victims’ current refuge is only temporary. It simply can’t go on for long. Each of the drought affected families has 5 to 6 children. If these grow in poverty without proper education and a safe home, they’ll end up as criminals and thieves.

When attending an exhibition about drought victims stuck in the desert, you’d imagine photos that reflect the blazing sun and the hot colors of the desert. Instead you chose to print your photos in black and white giving a rather cold and old feeling to your works. Why is that?

I wanted my photos to resemble raw footage rather than art works. By that, I wanted to give a sense of documentation. I also believe that black and white brings out the details in a photo.

What is your next step?

We want to  provide greater media exposure to drought victims. We hope that the campaign will encourage more people to help. In the long run, we hope that government organisations will help us because, after all, we are only individuals. It’s not easy to achieve change alone.

How will you ensure the continuity of your campaign?

We’ve developed a moral commitment to these children. These four and five year olds run to greet us every week. They overwhelm us with affection. They haven’t seen anything in their lives other than tents, water barrels and scorpions. They regard us as their window to the world. Once you see that hope in their eyes, you simply can’t step back.

This is a modified version of the Q&A published in Syria Today magazine.

Q&A with Syrian Photographer Muzaffar Salman

Muzaffar Salman held his first photography exhibition titled Punctum at the Goethe Institute in Damascus last month. I sat down with the young photographer to find out what inspires his work.

Photo by Fadi alHamwi

Photo by Fadi alHamwi

Why have you called your exhibition Punctum?

Punctum is a term used by French literary critic Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida. Barthes uses the term to refer to the element in a photograph that ‘pierces’ the viewer. Punctum has a purely personal meaning which depends on the individual’s prior experiences. I chose this title because I wanted my photos to have an impact on viewers. Through the title I also wanted to reinforce the message that photography is an independent and important art form.

Until recently photography was not considered an art form by many in the country’s arts community and photography exhibitions were rare. Do you think people value photography more today?

Syria is one of the few countries where photography is still not considered a fine art. Instead, it is still taught as a form of applied arts. Digital cameras have helped to create a better understanding of the art of photography. After all, what distinguishes a photographer is not only how expertly he can control the shutter speed, develop a film or make a print, but what he sees and how he sees it. This is what has the deepest impact on viewers. Being an expert in the developing process makes you a good lab worker, but not necessarily an artist. A photographer is someone who can see the meaning in things and transmit that meaning through photographs.

 Muzaffar Salman - Self Portrait

Muzaffar Salman – Self Portrait

So you think digital cameras have raised the profile of photography?

Photography has become a part of everyday life since the invention of digital cameras. Many people now have their own cameras and they have realised that it takes more than a simple click to create a good photograph. However, I don’t actually think photography has become easier now that we have digital cameras.

Before, photographers only needed to worry about the lens aperture, shutter speed and focal length, but today there are many other settings such as the ISO rating, white balance and so on. For a good photograph, you need to have all the right settings. Working in a dark room is also much easier than working with Photoshop Lightroom [software for managing digital photos].

I have four photographs in this exhibition which were taken with a Zenit camera, all of which I developed and printed manually. Working in a dark room is thrilling. At the end of the day, however, it’s not the techniques used to create a photograph, but the feelings it inspires which moves the viewer the most. Viewers relate to photos that stir up their emotions or recall a distant memory, ones that are visually entertaining or carry a meaning or an idea.

What inspires you as an artist?

Photography is the art of seizing the moment. Plato said that human beings think in images. Indeed, we see the world through photos but it took us thousands of years to invent a camera to capture what we see. Different scenes produce different emotions in people. Taking a photo is actually an attempt to capture the feeling a specific scene creates so that when you see that image you can recall the feeling and share it with your close ones. As such, photography is about feelings, rather than images.

Muzaffar salman-Bird

Muzaffar salman-Bird

Many of your photos look like watercolour paintings, while others are closer to graphics. How do you achieve this?

There’s an unwritten law in Syria that says all photos should be printed on Kodak colour photo paper. I simply overturned this law and printed my photos on Canson cardboard, using black ink. There are one hundred different types of paper out there – why should I limit my work to only one? Syrian intellectuals keep imposing rules on photographers. They say: ‘Don’t use Photoshop. Don’t crop your images. Don’t mess with the colours. Don’t change the contrast level.’ Why not? If a painter can use 100 different techniques, why can’t a photographer do the same?

You have been working for years as a photojournalist and you are the head of photography at Al-Watan daily newspaper. This is your first solo exhibition as an art photographer. How different is photojournalism from fine art photography?

I don’t believe in terms such as photojournalism and fine art photography. There are good photos and bad photos. Publishing a photo in a magazine doesn’t make it less artistic. I don’t see why I can’t exhibit a good photo that was taken for journalistic purposes. There are, of course, photos which complement news stories. These photos, just like news in a daily newspaper, are short lived. They live for one day and that’s it. But who said a photo should be immortal?

 Muzaffar Salman

Muzaffar Salman

A number of art galleries in recent years have signed young artists like you up on contracts. Would you join a gallery under this arrangement?

I seriously considered joining one such gallery, but I didn’t in the end. As an independent photographer I can save enough money to carry out my own art projects, but if I work for a gallery I will not be working on my own projects anymore. Instead, I will be working for the gallery. That’s not healthy. An art project should be personal, not a work duty.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

Q&A with Syrian sculptor Issa Kozah

“I prefer listening to music without lyrics; singing sometimes bothers me, especially when it involves repeated lyrics, because I do not like talking,” says the Syrian sculptor, Issa Kazah, who doesn’t mind spending days without speaking to anyone. He spends those days in his small studio in the old part of Damascus, surrounded by his sculptures that are all over the place. Isolation is his constant companion, especially as he prepares for his fourth exhibition that will be inaugurated at the beginning of this year in Kozah Gallery.

What was the beginning like?

It is not easy to be a sculptor, because unlike other visual art forms, sculpture is very expensive and it requires specific tools and a special studio. These high costs were the reason behind my interrupted career start:  After I graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts I had to do something else to earn a living. In order not to distance myself too much from the artistic world, I chose to work in commercial photography. I therefore stopped sculpting for a year, but I kept reading art books and visiting exhibitions, which facilitated my return to sculpture.

I rented my first studio in a farm that is an hour and a half drive from Damascus. I worked there with another sculptor under harsh conditions, as we lacked the basic commodities like water and electricity. However, I later managed to rent a studio of my own in Dumar (an area in the suburbs of Damascus), and then in old Damascus. Today I can dedicate myself to my art, and only have to work in photography two days a week to make ends meet.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Artists are part of this society and can no longer shut themselves off and live in isolation from their surroundings as they used to in the past. I am provoked by the stories, wars and breaking news that surround us from every angle and inevitably leave a trace in my work. For instance, Israel’s war on Gaza last year left a big impact on me that showed in my work. (Says the artist, pointing to a bronze sculpture that represents three people queuing in front of a locked door; in the front stands the man behind him a woman then a child. While they are standing upright, and looking at the door with patience and determination, their bodies seem frail and their heads resemble skulls).

I think that the importance of a piece of artwork lies in the idea first and then its style. The idea determines the form of my sculptures. I sometimes stop working for months if I have not had the right idea, whereas at other times the ideas flow inside me and I work for days in my studio without seeing anyone and enjoying my isolation. My favourite time is the morning; I wake up early because ideas come to me at dawn, and I draw sketches for them, these being an essential part of my work.

Both your father and uncle are architects and you claim that you carry architecture “in your genes”.  To what extent has the architecture influenced your work as a sculptor?

Architecture has influenced the way I build my artwork. After all, sculpture is very similar to architecture for a sculpture is a unit in space just like a building is. Therefore, sculptors should have a good sense of architecture and proportion. It is also important that he finds the right fulcrum point. That’s why the base constitutes 50% of the composition of my sculptures which though small in size (they usually range between 25 and 35 cm) give the impression of a monumental sculpture.

Which art schools have influenced you most?

Primitive art, be it Chinese, African or Arab, attracts me more than modern or contemporary art. Cave paintings fascinate me. Their simplification of form motivates me in my work because I feel that this fascinating legacy that the primitive man has left us should continue.

You have accelerated the casting process in your works. Could you tell us more about that?

I use plaster directly, avoiding clay and other casts. Usually, sculptors assemble an armature then they apply clay to build the form from the inside out. Once they are satisfied with the form of the sculpture, they create a plaster cast for it on which they later on spread an insulating material and fill with plaster to get a plaster version of the clay sculpture. At the end, they apply sand or lost-wax (which is usually applied to more delicate artworks) casting on it to get the final bronze sculpture. I skip the plaster casting by immediately applying plaster instead of clay to the armature. It’s harder this way because while clay is easy to form, plaster is rigid so you need to achieve the right form immediately because you can’t modify the form later.

What do you think about where Syrian sculpture stands today?

Syrian sculpture is still in its birth process, and lacks artistic accumulation and quantity. This doesn’t mean that there is not any Syrian work of high standing. But unlike painting which is more mature due to the greater artistic numbers and interest that it has enjoyed from and by Syrian artists, sculpture still needs more time and a more artists to gain greater international value.

Despite its strong presence in the past, in Palmyra for instance, sculpture is still recent in Syria. And that’s because it was banned for religious reasons and did not appear again in Syria until the beginning of the past century. Sculpture began developing considerably but slowly in the 1970s, when the government began supporting it and capital was invested to encourage the sculpture movement. Generally, art does not develop under poverty. Rather it requires the existence of a rich class capable of acquiring artwork, thus helping the artists to produce.

This long absence of sculpture in Syria, which lasted for hundreds of years, had a big impact on the artistic identity of Syrian sculptors. Here again I compare sculpture to architecture. Syrian architecture is either very old or an imitation of modern architecture abroad. I have trouble finding a clear identity for modern Syrian architecture just like I have trouble finding one for sculpture.

Where do you find yourself as a sculptor between these two identities?

Simplification of form and the human figure has a strong presence in my work. But since it’s the idea that determines form in my works, each of my sculptures has a different style. Every idea can create a wholly different sculpture and therefore my work oscillates between abstraction and realism, and its surface between rough and smooth. I don’t follow one art school or current but use them as tools to express my ideas.

Unlike in the past, Syria’s visual art scene has developed rapidly in the last few years. Syrian artworks are now selling for millions at international auction houses like Christie’s and Sotherby’s. To what extent did this sudden change affect Syrian artists?

This was going to happen, but probably at a slower pace. In any case, it has had a positive impact on Syrian artists. While many Syrian artists made it into the international art scene before, this global interest in Middle Eastern art made success much easier and faster for the new generation of artists.

The value of Syrian art competes with Arab and international art and therefore deserves to take its place internationally and to be sold at international prices. As a result, artwork by some Syrian artists has become unaffordable for Syrian collectors, but that doesn’t affect Syrian art in general.

Many Syrian critics have censured this “illogical” and “sudden” rise in the prices of artwork, considering that it has transformed it into a commercial good. What do you think of this as a Syrian artist?

The artist, like everyone else, needs to live and needs money to continue in his art. I do not think it is wrong for young artists to produce some commercial art to make money and thus be able to make the high standard artworks that they want. Young artists need financial support; this is sometimes granted by a gallery promoting their work or someone who believes in their talent, but if they have neither and do not come from a rich family, they have no choice but to do other things in order to earn a living.

What impact has the economic crisis had on Syria’s art market after its sudden development and the rise in prices it has witnessed in recent years?

The effect of the crisis has appeared only recently. When the economic crisis reached its peak abroad, the Syrian market remained active, due mainly to the Syrian economy’s relative isolation from the world market. Its effects were therefore more psychological than material. But the market has recently begun to stagnate and art is one of the first things to be affected in such crises for it is not considered a necessity but a luxury. Overall, the effect has not been major.

Syrian painting occupies an important position in the Arab art scene. What about sculpture?

Sculpture, in general, does not have much presence in the Arab world today. The Arab country that is most prominent in sculpture today is probably Egypt, where sculptors went back to sculpting a little before the Syrians. Iraqi and Lebanese sculptors also stand out. But I imagine that the climate in Syria is the best today for sculpture, compared with the rest of the Arab countries, and recently, several sculptors have appeared, a good sign for the development of Syrian sculpture in the near future.

I published this interview in Revolve magazine in Arabic. Revolve translated it into English.

The Art of Deformation (profile of painter Nihad al-Turk)

Syrian painter Nihad al-Turk explains how four months in prison shaped his artistic career.

Looking at Nihad al-Turk’s works is like watching a science fiction movie. Painted with strong, fast brushstrokes and bright colours, deformed mythological creatures, half-human-half-beast, grow all over his canvases and appear to radiate light. Each figure has a necklace with seven dark beads dangling around its neck.

“The beads resemble the members of my family,” Turk said as he pulled out the very same necklace with seven round olive pits from under his jumper. “This deformed and shattered creature I paint is actually me.”

As our interview progresses, this statement does not surprise me. He tells me stories of growing up in extreme poverty, of his mother hand-washing her five children’s clothes in a large basin, and of his father heading off to work exhausted at 5:30am every morning to put food on the table for his family.

However, it was in fact not his tough childhood that influenced Turk’s gloomy style; an incident in 1992 shaped his work and life much more profoundly.

The young artist’s first exhibition took place in 1992, while he was doing his military service. Excited about the show, Turk took time off from the military without permission from his superiors – not just to attend the opening, but for the full 27 days of the exhibition.

The consequences were severe. Turk was arrested and sentenced to four months imprisonment in the military prison in Palmyra. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I kept thinking it was a lie until I saw the ruins of Palmyra through the narrow bars of the police van.”

Life in the military prison was no picnic so Turk sought to ingratiate himself with the guards by offering them paintings. But what initially seemed like a clever way of using his talent to make prison life easier soon became unbearable.

Every day, Turk would be given a 50-page sketchbook and asked to fill the whole pad with drawings of beautiful women, shiny lips and red hearts. At the end of the day the guards would take the drawings, add a couple of lines of poetry and give them to their girlfriends.

The work was exhausting and left Turk feeling entirely despondent. After his release, he sought out psychological help. “I felt like a sheet of shattered glass,” he said. “My only release was painting.”

Today, the beautiful women and scarlet hearts have been replaced by amputated corpses painted in harsh twisted lines that resemble burnt trees. The poignancy of his work is reinforced by his painting technique: using oil paint on a thin layer of paste, he scratches the corpses with pencil lines. The deep grooves that are left in the paste represent the shackles that chain his characters.

Even when painting still life portraits, Turk still distorts his subjects using ragged lines and nervous brushstrokes. Unable to bear stillness, he often adds one of his living creatures – usually a mouse with seven feet – to his works. “I can’t paint anything without life in it and it’s the creatures that give life to my paintings.”

In spite of the supernatural and aggressive appearance of Turk’s creatures, he believes they are not that far removed from reality. “We live in a region full of war and economic hardship, so people will inevitably be slightly deformed.”

In fact, Turk even feels his works express a sense of hope, conveying his love of life and desire to persevere against the odds.

For more information about Nihad al-Turk log on to http://www.ayyamgallery.com/artists/nihad-al-turk/

Nihad al-Turk
Born in 1972 in Aleppo, Nihad al-Turk never formally studied fine art. After primary school, he started working and earning money for his impoverished family. At the time, Turk could never have dreamt that he would one day be exhibiting his work all over the world with collectors from Lebanon, Turkey, Dubai, the USA, France and Switzerland flocking to buy them.Turk’s most recent shows include a solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery in Damascus at the end of last year and a collective exhibition at Mark Hachem Gallery in New York in October and November 2008.

This article was published in Syira Today magazine.