Putting paintbrush to ruins: How the sorrows of Syria’s war became a canvas for artist Aziz Al-Asmar

Artist Aziz_Asmar
6 min read
07 April, 2022

In a privileged world, we talk about putting paintbrush to paper. We talk about unleashing our creativity as a therapeutic way to unwind, practice our passions or – if we are lucky – capitalise on them. While that’s all valid, for others this art form bypasses luxury and enters the realm of necessity; as a tool of communication to reach a world that can’t hear you, by painting colours loud enough in hopes that one day, it finally will.

In Syria’s north-western province of Idlib, one man puts his paintbrush to ruins.

"His goal was to tell stories of the revolution and Assad’s crimes from inside Syria, including the regime's unlawful arrests, torturing and killing of civilians"

Bombed homes, schools and buildings take up most of internationally renowned artist Aziz Al-Asmar’s view, no matter what direction he is looking in. So, he decided to make them his canvas, on which he continues to touch the world with his creative statements, as he depicts the sorrows of Syria’s war, and stands in solidarity with the world’s deepest devastations.

Aziz Asmar Presidential Election Mural
Aziz ​​​​​paints murals to tell the stories of the war in Syria on ruins bombarded by the Syrian regime and Russia in the war-torn country's province of Idlib [Muhammad Haj Kadour]

The 50-year-old Syrian artist was living in Beirut, Lebanon when the ongoing Syrian uprising began in 2011, and President Bashar al-Assad’s regime violently cracked down on peaceful pro-democracy protesters. The war has killed over an estimated 350,000 people – according to the United Nations – and forced at least 11 million civilians from their homes.

Yet at a time when most people inside Syria were trying to flee for their safety, the creative father of three made the difficult decision to return to his country in 2015, to serve it with his talent. 

“The decision to return to Syria was fraught with risks, but life is about principles and I considered that what I am doing is a human and moral duty,” Aziz told The New Arab. 

“Painting possesses a humanity that makes us search amid the rubble of our broken hearts"

He said his goal was to “tell stories of the revolution and Assad’s crimes” from inside Syria, including the regime's unlawful arrests, torturing and killing of civilians. The first mural he painted was 30-metres long and bared the names of 600 martyrs who were killed in bombings in his village of Binnish. His most recent was a mural marking the 11th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, which citizens across Idlib commemorated in March.

Aziz says his creative process includes meeting with a group of painters, doctors, journalists, teachers and language specialists in a studio almost every day to discuss the situation in Syria and exchange ideas for paintings. The artist also participates in discussions on global events to inspire his artwork, as he produces murals in solidarity with various social justice cases around the globe. 

Aziz Asmar's George Floyd Mural
Aziz painted a mural to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 [Muhammad Haj Kadour]

These include his famous murals of George Floyd – a Black American man killed in 2020 by a US police officer – and of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who he thanked, following her resignation from politics, for welcoming Syrian refugees into her homeland with open arms. The artist has also painted in solidarity with Ukraine during Russia's brutal invasion of the country which began on 24 February.

“Painting possesses a humanity that makes us search amid the rubble of our broken hearts and burning dreams for a space of feeling and solidarity, with all the grievances of people of different races, languages and religions,” Aziz said. For it is an unfortunate and deep understanding of pain – gathered through “horrendous scenes” the artist has witnessed in Syria – that allow him to relate to the suffering of others’ so fervently. 

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For Aziz, connecting with humanity through art has extended to providing local Syrian children with a momentary escape “out of war and sadness, by allowing them to draw and colour their wishes and dreams” with him. The artist says this has been his greatest reward throughout the conflict, as he has painted with children in schools, displacement camps and other areas bombed by the Syrian regime and Russia, with an aim to boost morale and provide hope.

However, Aziz's contribution to his community doesn’t stop at art. The artist told The New Arab of many occasions where he has volunteered with the Syrian Civil Defence – otherwise known as the White Helmets – who provide humanitarian assistance to civilians across the war-torn country.

“A human heart doesn’t let you sit still, you want to see who’s hurt, who has been killed, and try to help,” he says.

“I have wiped away the tears of many orphaned children who lost their fathers and mothers… you would never be able to imagine the extent of the atrocities we have lived. I witnessed many massacres and I helped to collect civilian body parts laying around to bury, out of respect for the dead,” he reveals, explaining that bombs would physically tear their victims apart.

Children painting in Idlib, Syria
Aziz invites children in Syria's northwest to paint with him as a momentary escape from their trauma of living through war [Mohamad Jamalo]

Despite Aziz living out what he believes to be his duty, his decision comes at the troubling cost of knowing tragedy could strike at any second. “Sometimes when my children would sleep, I would sit next to their mattress and ask them to forgive me for bringing them to a place that has war, bombing and displacement… but I didn’t have a choice, my heart and conscience could only be at ease on the side of the vulnerable civilians,” he says, sharing that he regularly prays for the safety and future of his children.

 "International communities must work to help stop the war in Syria and wars everywhere... to put an end to the crimes of tyrants, and turn their prisons into schools, hospitals, and institutions that serve humanity"

However, Aziz believes his “pure intention to do good” is what opened more doors for his talent to be seen than ever before. This extends to his children – who he describes as “geniuses whom God has endowed with many talents.” This includes his 13-year-old second-born son Muhammed, who was nominated for an International Child Peace Prize award for delivering messages of Syrian children’s suffering to the world. 

“In Beirut, our talents weren’t shown, in Syria despite everything, our talents have a voice globally… and that’s thanks to God because we’re doing our duty,” Aziz says.

The artist vowed to continue to draw attention to humanitarian cases and "share the world's joys and sorrows" using his colours, with a strong conviction that “painting is a universal language understood by all".

However, he says his hopes for a peaceful Syria require international help to be actualised. "International communities must work to help stop the war in Syria and wars everywhere," Aziz says, demanding that they "put an end to the crimes of tyrants, and turn their prisons into schools, hospitals, and institutions that serve humanity."

Aisha Aldris is a journalist and podcast host, accredited by the Broadcast Journalism Training Council. She specialises in social and humanitarian issues, alongside cultural identity and the arts. Follow her on Twitter: @aishaaldris