A Nice-based virtual gallery featuring Syrian artists worldwide proves that for all the tragedy their country suffers, creativity lives on.
Syria, the Pearl of the Levant, the Cradle of History, and the Mother of Civilizations – with the spotlight on the Middle-Eastern country for all the wrong reasons, the world seems to have forgotten its glorious past and its influence on culture for thousands of years. Syria.Art, a newly created, Nice-based non-profit organization, is about to restore its well-deserved artistic fame. No, this is not about rebuilding Palmyra or any other of the historic treasures that have been barbarically destroyed over these past few years, but about showcasing a thriving community of contemporary artists who continue to create amazing work while the world around them is shattering. Syria.Art is the formal structure behind Creative Havens, a virtual gallery launched in May 2015, which features the paintings, sculptures, photography and digital oeuvres of over 600 contemporary Syrian artists.
We had the privilege of meeting Khaled Youssef (pictured below), one of the Syria.Art co-founders and an internationally renowned “poètographe” himself. Born in Damascus in 1975, he has spent almost half his life in France and made Nice his home nine years ago.
Providing a diverse, open overview of the Syrian art scene and its talented artists, and shedding light on the dynamism characterizing contemporary Syrian art in its own country, in France, Europe, and the rest of the world is the declared mission of the Syria.Art Association for the Promotion of Contemporary Syrian Art (Association pour la Promotion de l’Art Contemporain Syrien). Those artists include world famous ones and newcomers, those still living in the country and others dispersed across the globe, and among them many women.
Often dramatized by the media and largely taken out of context, the countless stories about the unjust war in Syria, about victims, refugees, and migrants, those who manage to make it to safer shores and those who fail, can let you forget that Syria’s history and culture go back thousands of years. But while the country is struggling, it has never given up. In fact, a thriving contemporary artistic community is resisting the horrors and opposing war with its own means. A peek in the rear mirror is indispensable to comprehend the country’s present:
Tracing its earliest settlement back to 800,000 BC, Syria became one of the centers of neolithic cultures about 12,000 years ago – being in fact the one where agriculture and cattle breeding first appeared. At that time already, Syria entertained trade relations with distant regions such as Anatolia, and the cities of Hamoukar and Emar flourished then and on into Bronze Age. Archeologists have found signs of sophisticated artistic expression dating back to those long-gone millennia. Over time, Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians … the Persian, Macedonian, Roman and Ottoman Empires … and more recently, the Europeans, they all left their traces on the country. It was not until 1946 that Syria finally won its hard-fought independence. “Every civilized man has two countries; his own and Syria,” André Parrot, archaeologist and former curator of the Louvre Museum, once said.
The approximate size of the United Kingdom, home to originally 23 million people (but only 17m, following the current mass exodus), and surrounded by volatile neighbours, this Eastern Mediterranean country has always known and been affected by regional unrest, precariously hovering between an uneasy peace and outright war. Opening its own doors and hearts to foreign migrants and refugees for centuries, Syria has itself always been a model of hospitality, and the diversity of its society and the creativity of its people are exemplary. For a long time, the arts could freely blossom – among them Syrian literature with its rich oral and written tradition – but with the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists over the past decades, artists were increasingly censored, and many found themselves persecuted or imprisoned.
Over time, however, this censorship pushed some artists to find different ways of expressing themselves and to rebel against the regime and/or society in their own way. Tapping into the country’s rich cultural heritage and its people’s inherent ability to adapt to adversity and conflict, a new wave of Syrian creativity started to emerge, whose quality soon began to be recognized internationally. “And then suddenly the unexpected occurred: a ruthless and endless war, transforming the passport into a document of survival, and the production of art into a luxury difficult to afford. Some artists have folded their tent and have gone ̶ with feathers and colors instead of luggage, looking for a lost security, a future for their children and their arts ̶ towards the four corners of the Earth. Others stayed behind. They may have no sources of income anymore, their studios may be struggling to subsist under the threat of bombs and explosions, but their deep roots help them resist those obscure winds,” Khaled remembers.
And it is this resilience which is the fertile ground for the collective of fine arts practitioners featured by Syria.Art and its Creative Havens virtual gallery. Among them, internationally renowned ones like Khaled Takreti whose work has been on display in leading art museums around the world, but also amateurs whose raw talent and burning desire to express their passion replaces formal artistic education. Their portraits and the candid look over their shoulder and into their studios and ateliers speak volumes of their strength and savoir-faire as a people.
Showing the real Syria, creating a new “Syrian School” of fine art, and changing the world’s view – away from the war-plagued country with its exodus of migrants, and back to the strong, cultivated, diverse, and dynamic country of the past, present, and future – is what Syria.Art aspires to. The organization is strictly apolitical and free of all polemics and ideology, but is rather based on a pacifist philosophy. “The worldwide terrorism we experience today is an intellectual terrorism more than anything else. All oppression begins by curtailing freedom of expression, that of the word and that of visual representation, and we fight against this intellectual terrorism with the peaceful weapon of art.”
All artists whose works are on display at the online gallery are Syrians, or have at least genealogical ties there. Many of them have emigrated since but a large number is still in the country. How is it even possible to work in Syria under the current conditions, especially in a creative field, we want to know. “Not just work, but live there, that is the real question. And the answer is, humans are capable of adapting to everything. It is quite hard to imagine but they are trying to live life as normally as possible. They are still working, they are still going out, they are stronger than the horror around them. It is possible, and it is admirable.”
When the war started, it felt similar to what Nice just experienced, Khaled tells us. “At first there was shock and disbelief. Then people became defiant. And then something interesting happened. The worse things got, the more creative visual artists became. Their œuvres were suddenly exploding with bright colours, as if to send a brightly shining message against the darkness of death. And increasingly the emphasis was put on hope rather than despair.”
Like these Syrian artists who continue to build and create, our approach is anchored in this same desire to see beauty and enhance it. There is so much beauty to be discovered in Syria and in the heart of the Syrians themselves, so we wish to speak of this country through a lens other than that of war and death. We wish to recall its renowned talents and bring to the surface the hidden ones, to encourage the Syrian artists, help them in their efforts, and to provide their richly diverse art with more visibility. — Khaled Youssef
Apart from its artistic and pedagogic purpose, Creative Havens also provides a platform for artists to become known and sell their work. To that end, Syria.Art is partnering with highly visible international arts and cultural institutions, and has already mounted three significant international exhibits: Flight: Explorations in Movement, Migration and Freedom (West Branch Gallery & Sculpture Park, Vermont, USA: 2 April to 26 June 26, 2016), Behind The Lines, Contemporary Art from Syria (Penticton Art Gallery, Penticton, British Colombia, Canada: 8 July to 11 September, 2016) and Contemporary Syrian Art Events (Castleton University, Vermont, USA: 29 August, 2016 to 31 January, 2017)
More ambitious projects and exhibits are in the works, as are plans to expand the organization’s digital magazine, “… and also to becoming a Syrian-European cultural center one day. That’s a dream – but what is a dream if not reality deferred?” Khaled Youssef – who outside this involvement also has a demanding fulltime job as a surgeon – is supported in his endeavor by his international partners: Danii Kessjan, a French digital collage artist, who lives in Trier, Germany, and Humam Alsalim, a prodigious young architect, still back home in Damascus – both of them co-founders of Creative Havens – as well as renowned DJ and musician Helmut Kraft, and Frédéric Castellino, the numbers guy and treasurer with an artistic bent, both based in France.
Creating this gallery in Nice was an obvious choice for many good reasons, so Khaled tells us. A couple of the founding members are based here, but it’s also a Mediterranean city centrally located at the crossroads of East and West, North and South…. a city that throughout its 2,600 year history has traditionally hosted and integrated an abundance of different cultures… and now, sadly, also a city that has known blind fanatic terrorism. “For all this, Nice is very symbolic for the Syrian artistic community back home and in the diaspora. Today, the future of our world, and of all of us, lies in a shared humanity – shared happiness as much as shared sorrow.”
Fateh Moudaress, 1922 – 1977, was a Syrian painter and one of the leaders of the modern art movement in Syria. During the 1960s, when a journalist asked him, “Who are you?”, Fateh Moudaress said:
“I am the art, I am the sand of the East that contains madness
and wisdom, blood and flowers, I am the hate of the quotidian bread
and I am a divine desire for freedom.
I hate injustice wherever it acts, and consider Humanity as the only
possible identity and nation.
I believe that Art will save humanity to build tomorrow…
I am tomorrow.”
Lead image and personal photo courtesy Khaled Youssef; map of Syria by Samuel Butler [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; photo of selection of artwork via Syria.Art on Instagram; photo of Syrian artists courtesy Creative Havens; Behind the Lines exhibition photo courtesy Syria.Art