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Dove sculptures decorate the streets of old Damascus

‘Once upon a time’: Dove sculptures decorate the streets of old Damascus
5 min read
19 May, 2022
A series of sculptured doves have appeared in the alleyways of Damascus's Old City. The public exhibition, organised by a group of Syrian artists in collaboration with the Kozah art gallery, is a creative outpouring of grief, suffering and hope.

As residents of the tranquil streets in the ancient quarters of Damascus celebrated the holy month of Ramadan, they witnessed an extraordinary sight; thousands upon thousands of ceramic white doves were splattered across and above the tight alleyways.   

They came in all colours, shapes and forms, turning the neighbourhood of Bab-Sharqi – the romantic jewel of the world’s oldest inhabited Capital – into an open-air art gallery.

Named Once upon a time  Window, the exhibition made by artist Bouthaina Ali features sixteen Syrian artists with unique sculptures and designs that used fifteen thousand model white doves.

Conceptually, the installation entails a fresh take on a pre-war concept by the artist that was re-engineered to symbolise the last decade of devastation and conflict in Syria.

Bouthaina [48] told The New Arab, ”The last exhibition I did in Syria was in 2006, I had the idea in 2010 and ordered the doves before the war, but we had to stop.”

She continues: “We had the idea to do something reflecting people’s memories and experiences through art; every artist proposed something different. The ideas are Syrian; people here have no electricity or water or gas, they want to do art, but they are suffering.”

Preparations for the exhibition in Bab-Sharqi, old Damascus [photo credit: Danny Makki]

The artist speaks to the tone of the frustrations of the new generation growing up in a war that has shattered dreams and ambitions.

“The pain they speak about is our pain, our fathers, brothers and mothers. This generation is similar to my children, and I wanted to help them create something exceptional.”

Memories of a frustrated generation

Powerful sculptures of the white doves reflect a deeper meaning for a younger group of Syrian creatives; Jullanar Alsrikhy [22] has an installation called ‘Paralysis’ where six doves are hanging upside down in the dark, and their reflections are illuminated.

Jullanar told The New Arab what was behind her idea, “This work is named paralysis, paralysis as in paralysed, unable to move. Sometimes paralysis comes from fear, pain, and exhaustion. These visions are us; they are tied up from their legs and are upside down, just like us.”

Jullanar Alsrikhy’s ‘Paralysis’ installation [photo credit: Danny Makki]

This is her first piece after recently graduating from university. Making the art meant much to her personally, “I feel liberated making this, gaining the feeling of achieving something, this is a breakout for me. “

The Kozah art gallery in the Old City hosted the exhibition where the sculptures were spread out in nearby alleyways.

Samer Kozah, the project’s curator, told me why he feels this exhibition is so unique, “we need a considerable effort to get the youth’s message across; we were surprised by their vision for the exhibition. I felt that it was necessary to be done on a bigger scale. There was lots of hurt and pain in them and profound sentiment.”

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He averred: “I’ve been working in the field of Art for 28 years; we’ve never done anything like this in Syria.”

While sipping tea in the gallery’s courtyard, the power cuts off, and he concludes, “The message is that we are still alive, were not dead yet. There is still some soul.”

There was no shortage of talent on display for a country with many struggles, as manifested by the themes and creative enterprises in many of the artworks.

Joan Shabo’s installation ‘refute’ deals with multiple themes, where he has painted some of his white doves black to signify a more significant struggle within Syrian society.

“When it started, I thought about what I could do; it big having an idea this dove is mixed between good and evil. The doves are turning more violent; this represents our society today. “

Joan Shabo preparing his installation ‘Refute’ [photo credit: Danny Makki]

Artist Joumana Mortada instilled a feature where her birds were made in multiple colours to resemble a three-dimensional walk-in installation.

She told The New Arab, “I’m here; my painting is here, you see. But for the first time, my transparent colours reflected who I was. I will spread it from every angle. And my white bird is a stroke of light in my sky. It’s my soul, my painting, and you are inside it; right now, I’m breathing.“

Joumana’s main aim was to try something creative, something spectacular, “I was trying to turn it from a two-dimensional installation to a three-dimensional one where you can go in and see the art itself. It reflects the light, colourful ideas. This is the first time I have done this in the street. It’s really important that we have this first attempt to do this.”

Artist Joumana Mortada with her installation “I’m here” [photo credit: Danny Makki]

Perhaps the most eye-catching of the features was Pierre Hamati’s [25] "Syrian Supper", which tackles the issue of hunger, something now inherent in Syria.

Hamati describes why he thought of doing a project on this topic, “I was asking the people around me about their lives, and they eat the same food on the same plates. Over the last ten years, we have lost that creativity. Our dreams and ambitions were wounded.”

He added: “I wanted to use the light to show that we are eating but not eating, we are dreaming but not dreaming.”  

Pierre Hamati’s Syrian supper is a stand against hunger [photo credit: Danny Makki]

A recent university graduate feels this exhibition could change many artists' lives, “we have these ideas, we are a new generation if we don’t talk about this and what we lived then who will. It hurts, and it is painful; that’s why it’s more powerful, it’s public art.”

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As a county, Syria has suffered immensely over the past years and the consequences of the conflict will continue to impact lives for years and decades to come.

Yet, art, especially for a younger traumatised generation, is seemingly a positive outlet for expression and a good sight for lucky Damascenes.

Danny Makki is an analyst covering the internal dynamics of the conflict in Syria, he specializes in Syria’s relations with Russia and Iran.

Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki