Syria's 'Incomplete Youth': Depicting life, hope, and memory

Incomplete Youth: Depicting life, hope and memory in Syria
5 min read
21 December, 2023

A thunderous sound of fluttering draws intrigued visitors to a dark, trippy room at the Art Vision gallery in downtown Damascus. Crowds follow the incessant racket.  

Cage-like frames hold nine different portraits of sharp faces. Some are smiling, others have smudged lipstick, bullets, nails or wires attached as a mechanical leather hand slaps the portraits, second after second, minute after minute, hour after hour.

Artist Hammoud Radwan [25] observes, “This is a metaphor for living in the Middle East. You get slapped in the face, constantly. Some people need it, others become accustomed to it. It’s an addiction. Feeling the pain is one thing, but sometimes the pain doesn’t even have an impact in the end.”

"The concept of Incomplete Youth was a period in which we lived and it was a time of conflict and war. At some point you will feel something missing"

The artwork is aptly named ‘I often which to exi(s)t.’ Radwan continues, “I asked for nine volunteers but forty came, and I chose the ones with the most reactive and piercing features. Everyone seems frozen, but reacts to the slap in different ways.”

The display is part of a two-week long display called ‘Incomplete Youth’ where ten of Syria’s brightest creatives give their artistic impression of growing up in Syria during the war and the limitations, struggles, and hopes they felt during their upbringing. 

Incomplete Youth: Depicting life, hope and memory in Syria
Incomplete Youth is a triumph of Syria's youthful art scene [photo credit: Muhamad Damour]

Curator Nour Salman [30] who brought this event together told The New Arab, “This exhibition is about youth, every day you get up and give your best and you feel like nothing Is complete, despite the achievements you arrive at your last breath and gasp.”

“That memory and history of growing up in this part of the world mean something, and there is no shortage of artistic talent, we did this exhibition with these artists to show that it is so important to use what you have in a creative sense, the pain, the emotion, the trauma, there is an expression for that through the medium of art.”

“The idea of incomplete resonates because we all had plans for our lives, the war or COVID or the devastating earthquake that struck the country, and there is no option but to rise past these challenges and find a silver lining for the future.”

Incomplete Youth: Depicting life, hope and memory in Syria
The barbed wire that dissects the exhibition represents the violent hurdles that many Syrians have had to overcome [photo credit: Muhamad Damour]

As the gallery is filled with enthusiasts and art lovers, invitees stop at a majestic foam-made painting showing clowns and puppets. It is made by Abd Kasha, a well-established Beirut-based artist whose work is famed for its use of clowns, Kasha told The New Arab.

“The concept of Incomplete Youth was a period in which we lived and it was a time of conflict and war. At some point, you will feel something missing.”

“My use of puppets was within the reaction and self-rebellion against things recognised in the world, whether by the local art movement and quiet styles and colours, the reality in which we live in this era, a theatre that has its tools and characters and each puppet of mine has a role, goal and desire for something different.”

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Along the floor of the gallery, crushed olive pits are scattered below a suspended barbed wire installation. Pierre Hamati [25] stands in front of ‘Chained up.’

 “We tried to always work on the idea of restrictions in life, and in its authentic form. Barbed wire is the biggest example of that. We don’t see it anymore, maybe sometimes on Television but the memory of it still resonates with us. We see it in lots of locations in our region.”

“It’s a symbol that prevents you from entering a specific place or represents danger, I am trying to show that restrictions within a person himself are the same as that in life which restricts you, the presence of olives, makes you feel that it is also the land that restricts you but the land is so pure, olives has a special meaning for us.”

Artist Dana Salameh stands by six artworks all with imprinted hands — her own — that represent an integral part of any life. The are made within frames and precise spaces, and show an absence, she tells us, “Hands built the world.”

“I like the look of hands in general, they represent something to me, hands, we rely on hands in a really big way, without hands we can do nothing, it is something essential that we need, the world was built with hands, and we react with hands, without them we are nothing, they can create and to destroy.”

Incomplete Youth: Depicting life, hope and memory in Syria
Above ground, blood-red hands gesture to the sky [photo credit: Muhamad Damour]

With Syria’s art scene slowly reviving, the disasters and problems of everyday life are being reflected in pieces and displayed as an expression. Shahd Al Rez painted a spectacular canvas with red and black hills and birds emanating from the clouds of smoke.

Yet after a deeper dive and after a short conversation with the artist, it becomes apparent what the artwork is about.

“This could be many things, but in particular, I wanted to paint something that shows the wildfires that happened in the coastal areas especially, the smoke is transformed into something different and that’s left open to interpretation.”

“But we have seen disasters such as the earthquake, and the wildfires have been terrible, destroying so much of the land, but there has to be hope.”

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Artist Karim al-Khayat installed concrete slabs, akin to canvases, some weighing 40 kilograms showing a recollection of what concrete can be, crushed, painted, and scarred or battered.

Ahmad al Miqdad is a young visual artist and his illustration of the idea of revival and resurrection in his ethereal-style paintings showed a world far removed from the one we subsist in today, a sign that art can often whisk someone away to a unique place.  

One passerby commented on Miqdad’s photo in what is now an allegory for how Syrians see art “It's this type of painting that lights up my heart with soft, aesthetically pleasing colors, after we have seen so much, it is good for the eye to see something so beautiful.”   

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

Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki