Syrian artists express horror of war in London exhibition

Syrian artists express horror of war in London exhibition
The Third Space, an exhibition of work by displaced Syrian artists at the British Council in London, runs until 18 February 2015.
4 min read
16 February, 2015
'Stitching my Syria Back' [Photo: Mohamad Khayata]

In December 2013, the British Council offered 78 grants to support cultural projects that tried to preserve and maintain Syrian communities and networks in the face of the upheavals of conflict.

The exhibition that resulted - now being shown at the British Council in London - showcases the work of a selection of these grant recipients, and focuses on the role of the artist in supporting recovery and resilience.

The show's curators, Lois Stonick and Alma Salem, "are seeking to show how artists can break boundaries, supporting and uniting communities through their practice", according to their introduction.

The works

The selection of works on display is small, but they are both varied and compelling. In the Artists as citizen journalists section, a series of photographs by several photographers, mostly still based in Syria, depict everyday scenes in contemporary Syria from an unusual perspective.

A photograph of a sewing machine abandoned in a street, for instance, tells of the destructiveness and waste of war. In another, we notice that card suits have been spray-painted on the collapsing concrete slabs of a bomb-torn building: the idea that a house of cards could easily stand for the whole of Syria.

The section on the Artist as spokesperson brings home the horrors of war in shocking and moving ways. Mohammad Imran and Bissane al-Charif's film, Without Sky, shows the destruction of a cityscape made of cardboard models gradually bleached out and burned in a time-lapse sequence.

Zaher Omareen's film, X-Ray Syria, meanwhile, plays with the grotesque nature of war. In 11 short films lasting around a minute each, Omareen uses videos and original footage, for instance of bombs falling on Syrian cities or the view from the lens of a gunsight.

To these he adds music, his own lyrical voiceover narration or the voices of others telling their stories. He thus creates grotesque juxtapositions that express the horror, absurdity and futility of Syria's war more effectively than any linear description could.

The Bird, for example, is especially moving. A member of the Military Investigation Bureau describes his visit to a prison, where an emaciated and puffy-faced boy asks him for a story. But the official is unable to proceed with his story of a bird flying between trees, because the boy had never seen birds or trees. He was born in prison.

The harrowing Degree Zero Cinema consists of a fighter leaving a video message to his mother. He is the last man standing in a shattered building and is leaving panicked, urgent expressions of love to his family as the violence approaches. The footage ends abruptly.

Preserving displaced communities

The title of the exhibition, Third Space, refers to the mental and physical territory where artists can express their experiences and ideas in safety. Artists "play a role in influencing change in both the communities where they are from and those where they are now based", say the curators.

Mohamad Khayata's project, Stitching my Syria back, clearly aims to change communities. The Beirut-based artist seeks to counter the fragmentation and destruction of war by gathering Syrians displaced by the conflict and getting them to participate in his project.

In his photographs, Khayata features people holding or wrapped in a colourful patchwork quilt. It is an ongoing project in which Syrian refugees and host communities in Lebanon contribute small pieces of material that Khayata stitches together to form an ever-growing quilt. In return for their contributions, they pose for a photograph.

In this way he brings together communities, using the Madeh of his mother's patchwork as a symbol. "I wanted to gather what is familiar, to show the faces of the people involved in this project as they wish to be remembered," Khayata told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"My aim is to document the people I meet in Lebanon, to show the portraits of my Syria through their eyes and to gather them back in my own way," he said. In doing so, Khayata's project is the most directly optimistic of the exhibition. 

Listen to the podcast of the British Council’s debate on the role of the artist and the differences between artist and journalist.