On a recent night at P21, a new London gallery near Kings Cross dedicated to Arab and Middle Eastern art, a crowd assembled to see an exhibition called #withoutwords that showcased emerging Syrian artists.
Among the installations, cartoons, video pieces, huge paintings and pencil drawings were artworks that had to be smuggled secretly out of the country, that had endangered the lives of the artists who made them, and that had been made collectively in refugee camps.
One series of images is by an artist who escaped from the country to study in the UK last year. Farid – not his real name – asked to stay anonymous and for the details of his works to remain opaque: being a Syrian artist, even in exile, has consequences.
“In the last two years,” he says over the phone, “artists weren’t in a safe position: they are at risk of being arrested and tortured.”
He mentions the case of Ali Ferzat, whose political cartoons are also exhibited at P21, who had his hands broken in a beating by masked gunmen in 2011. He also mentions another Syrian artist critical of the regime who had moved to the U.S., but whose family back in Syria were attacked.
The uprising itself, he points out, was sparked by artistic expression: a few kids spraypainted “The people want to topple the regime” and other anti-Assad slogans on a wall in Daraa and were beaten and interrogated.
Protests against those arrests turned into widespread resistance. “And then it was like an explosion of art. People started to feel like they have voices, and they started to speak up. People started to make new drawings, or music or songs. Lots of people started to express themselves.”
Farid was living in Homs, where the violence has been worst, before he escaped. He had recently lost two close friends. “Every day we felt that it might be our last day,” he says. “It was very dangerous to go on to the streets.” His family are still in Syria, and, he thinks of them often. “In each moment, when you have electricity around you, you are thinking, ‘Do my family have electricity to make a refrigerator work?’ If you’re eating, you’re worrying, ‘Do my family have enough to eat, do they have access to the supermarket?’ Every time you are listening to music, you’re thinking what kind of explosions my family might be listening to now.”
Although there is much life, colour, eclecticism and beauty in the P21 show, it’s also, unavoidably, full of horror. Along one wall, paintings by different artists are clustered together, depicting shackled prisoners, skeletons, soldiers, rockets, boots and locks. A textile sewn by women in a Turkish refugee camp has a repeating pattern of tombstones and grieving women, cut out of floral cloth. Paintings of dolls with eyes that are blank or missing, by Fadi Al Jabour, are unsettling, and Ali Ferzat’s cartoons are full of frustration. One shows a man digging his way out of a prison, only to find himself in a different prison. Another depicts a man stuck in a deep hole, being handed a drawing of a ladder.
Aside from Al Jabour’s, the most dazzling artworks in the show are by Tarek Tuma, who worked with a team alongside Mosaic Syria (who sourced and transported most of the work) to curate the exhibition. His large-scale, black-and-white portraits of Nietzsche and Adonis were made using ink and bleach, and a bright, horrifying picture of Hamza Bakkour, the 13-year-old boy whose jaw was blown off during the siege of Baba Amr last year, is made of not just oil paint, but also olive oil and honey. Tuma was present at the press view, wearing a keffiyeh around his neck and an olive-green parka and talking with quiet intensity.
“It’s corrosive, it’s irritating, and at the same time, it gives light,” he said, explaining the use of bleach, while the honey and olive oil were intended to create “this effect of freshness. The wound is still fresh. The struggle is going on, until it becomes a scar. Hopefully.”
Trained in medicine at Damascus University, Tuma moved to London eight years ago, when he devoted himself to art. He’s now finishing a Masters at City & Guilds of London Art School. “I left my country by myself,” he says, “I self-imposed my exile. But now, witnessing this destruction is making me feel guilty. For me, now, watching as an observer is as harsh as committing a murder. I feel helpless. What I can do is paint, to record this, and to fight these moments of desperation by a drive of life and creation.”
P21 isn’t the only London gallery to champion Syrian creativity. While the Ayyam Gallery on Bond Street will mount the first UK solo exhibition of the Syrian artist Khaled Takreti in September, an exhibition called Culture in Defiance has just opened at the Rich Mix, a cinema and art space on Brick Lane, as part of the Shubbak festival. It focuses on Syrian street art, posters, popular music and other art that has “challenged propaganda and taken over public space” since the uprisings started, in the words of co-curator Malu Halasa (who was also part of the team behind #withoutwords).
Among the artworks are a huge banner emblazoned with stencilled portraits of martyred activists, episodes of a YouTube puppet show called Top Goon and print-on-demand posters that have been uploaded to Facebook and Flickr, with slogans like “We will restore life to our unions” and “Your bullets killed only our fear.”
“Syria has been a controlled space” under Assad, Halasa says. “The revolution has been like popping the cork from the bottle.” One of her co-curators on Culture in Defiance, the Syrian journalist Nawara Mahfoud, talks about “an explosion of voices” erupting in the last two years. “People have been defining their aspirations, deciding the shape of the country they want.” Whereas music in Syria used to be limited to either love songs or Ba’athist anthems, songs addressing social issues have proliferated in a mixture of genres from Sufi devotional music to rock and rap. A hip-hop track criticising men who scour refugee camps for pretty young Syrian women to take as wives can be heard alongside other protest songs at a listening post.
There is cautious optimism to be found in both exhibitions, alongside plenty of of anger and pain, and a sense that there’s much more to the current situation than news reports suggest. “I always say to my friends that art is stronger than weapons, Farid says. “I want to see Syria rebuilt again, but it’s not only a physical rebuilding. We should rebuild ourselves.
“We have to be more confident and build more trust and that should be helped by music and art. If all of us believe that after the darkness there is always sunshine, even if the night is very long, there will always be hope.”