For over 5 years now, the world has bore witness to the hyper-destructive civil war in Syria. We’ve witnessed the direct effects of conflict through Syrian news and TV coverage. And we’ve witnessed the direct consequences of the conflict with the ongoing refugee crisis. Though it may seem that a war on this scale is only capable of engendering nothing but destruction, out of the rubble, Syrian artists are producing bittersweet works capturing the life, or lack thereof, for those that remain in Syria.
Looking back to 2011, art was more than a means of capturing revolution. Perhaps unexpectedly, art played a central role in birthing revolution. On 16th February of that year, in the town of Daraa, 15-year old Bashir Abazid and his friends painted walls with revolutionary slogans. One slogan read “your time is coming, doctor”, in reference to President Bashar al-Assad’s past practicing as an ophthalmologist. That the boys were subsequently detained and tortured at the hands of the security services is now widely cited to be one of the key short-term events responsible for sparking revolution.
Protesting the regime has since become the project of professional artists as well, with young Bashir Abazid’s message living on. Much of the post-revolutionary art depicts Assad’s restriction on freedom of expression, his role as a tyrant, and his puppet like nature. One artist, Sedki Alimam, declared “the regime we are fighting is not Bashar al-Assad. We are fighting an entire system…Assad is just a puppet”.
Following the revolution, the subsequent displacement of an estimated 11 million Syrians has also spurred artists to capture the growing refugee crisis. Syrian artists have even gone on to depict other refugee crises, emphasising the human-wide rather than nation-specific effects of war. Louay Kayali, for example, captured the crises of the Palestinian people in his piece ‘Then What?’ as an expression of solidarity and the universality of human suffering.
For the last 6 years, Syrian artists have sought to render, not only an image of their shattered state, but a deeply personal documentation of their own experiences. Though many of the country’s most notable artists have left, having moved to the Gulf, Lebanon, Turkey or further afield, the country’s once isolated art scene has received growing exposure at all levels. In a sad twist of fate, Syrian artists have experienced growth off the back of their country’s harrowing decline.
This portrait done by Abdalla Omari from Damascus features Nayef, a young boy killed in 2013 having survived the death of 40 of his family members.
This was written by Leo Laurence, who is studying Politics, International Relations and Sociology at the University of Cambridge and is part of the STAND UK Policy Taskforce.