Behind the Lines
The word "contemporary" in the title of the Salt Spring Arts Council's current exhibition — "Behind the Lines: Contemporary Syrian Art" — should be all the tipping off you need for the mother of all shocks which awaits you when you enter Mahon Hall. Contemporary Syria is a hellscape, has been that way for about seven years now, and there's no end in sight. It's a non-stop, modern-day Middle East Guernica that pauses only long enough to refuel and reload the fighter jets with their barrel bombs and sarin gas cargo, giving the civilians on the ground just enough time before the next airstrike to dig out and bury their relatives, and to check and see that they themselves are not yet dead.
The nineteen artists in this exhibit provide an unobstructed view into how the devastating effects of war can inform artistic work, after having stared right straight into what painter Omran Younis calls, “the precise moment between life and death.” They have studied this moment, they are exposed to it on an hour-to-hour basis. So when they sit down to create, it's from a position of full confidence that they know of what they speak.
It's a simple expression, really: contemporary Syrian art. There's a simpleness to the works presented here. It's really not that complicated: some things in the world are as simple as right and wrong, good and evil, beautiful and horrific. And contemporary Syria is absolutely horrific.
But as disturbing and powerful as these works unfold to you during your gallery visit, a stronger point emerges, like a determined daisy through a narrow sidewalk crack: Art is life. These artists have poured their talents through a sieve of horror, to show the world that, more than anything else — more than pain, more than suffering, more than death — there is Art, arising naturally from life, even at its absolute worst.
Next month, on March 15th, marks the seventh anniversary of the civil uprisings in Syria, which led to the armed insurgency, which escalated into a full-blown civil war with a host of international players joining in on the battle. More than 400,000 people have died in the conflict so far, over 100,000 of them civilians, and these figures do not include arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and deaths in custody, which number in the tens of thousands. Hospitals, elementary schools, funerals, U.N. relief convoys — all are regularly bombed by any one of the myriad armies or militias with skin in the game, led by so-called "civilized" leaders who use civilians as meat-pawns on their proxy chessboard of savagery (although no one has more blood on their hands than Syrian President Bashar al-Assad).
Over the past couple of years, the world media turned its gaze to the refugee crisis, only because it became too big to ignore: five million Syrians fled the country itself, and six million have been internally displaced. This forced migration is a harbinger of the effect that climate change will have on future massive human displacements; the economic and humanitarian hardships of Syria's five-year climate change-induced drought, from 2006 to 2011, the worst drought in over 900 years, is widely viewed as one of the main catalysts for the civil unrest which followed. (The Arab Spring was also a contributing factor.)
For those strong enough to take in this travesty with an unflinching, close-up eye, last year saw two stunning documentaries, "Last Men in Aleppo" and "Cries from Syria," expose the unimaginable violence that's being inflicted on the people of Syria. And although the world media has now pivoted its focus over to the slow motion train wreck of a clown show that is the once-great United States, the Syrian crisis hasn’t stopped or even lessened all that much since the last time you paid attention and then tried to look away and get on with your life. One million civilians presently live in besieged areas within Syria, where they are denied life-saving assistance and humanitarian aid.
You've probably half-watched one of those war porn drone videos in your newsfeed while waiting in line for your carrot cake muffin and pumpkin latte — camera flying low, and sickeningly slow — showing block after block of the bombed-out rubble of another decimated Syrian city. Raqqa, Dara, Homs, Aleppo, Ghouta... entire neighborhoods and cities laid to complete waste, with massive civilian casualties. All six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Syria have been severely damaged or completely destroyed, and hundreds of other sites have been shelled, looted, or demolished.
These Middle East cities
are were the ancient
homes of the cradle of civilization. The incompressible loss to the history
of human culture would be a war crime of the greatest magnitude if it
were not overshadowed by the wholesale human slaughter upon which their
destruction is being staged.
Many of the artists on display in Mahon Hall (pronounced: "Man Hall") are young, around 30 years old, and they either live or are from the capital city of Damascus, which to date as been spared the apocalyptic level of wanton destruction that other Syrian cities have faced. (That oasis status, however, is presently under jeopardy, as the Syrian army prepares for their largest offensive of 2018, right now, this week, in the eastern part of Damascus.)
Human Alsalim, who co-founded the two Syrian art collectives which spawned this exhibition's tour, is at the front lines of the Damascus art scene. His "Cultural Beheading" series of digital prints (co-created with Rami Bakhos) deftly illustrates the historically rich Syrian culture that has fallen into the hands of throat-cutting savages and bomb-dropping barbarians. Within a few years, Bakhos writes, "The history of the ancient world will be erased, step by step, in this agenda of erasing the people's memory."
For many contemporary Syrian artists, the meaning derived from the form and content of their particular medium is straightforward and uncomplicated; it's been chosen for them. They almost don't need a mission statement. And the less words the better.
"We shall remember... Damascus, the 'Pearl of the East,' the pride of Syria, the fabled garden of Eden, the home of princes and genii of the Arabian Nights, the oldest metropolis on Earth, the one city in all the world that has kept its name and held its place and looked serenely on while the Kingdoms and Empires of four thousand years have risen to life, enjoyed their little season of pride and pomp, and then vanished and been forgotten." — Mark Twain
Nowhere to Hide
This is the first traveling exhibition that the Salt Spring Arts Council has promoted, and hopefully these shows will become a regular part of their calendar year. The curators had some time to process the exhibit as they were arranging it, and they surely must have known the impact it was going to have on visitors. There was a warning in the marketing material, that the show was not for the faint-hearted, but any kind of heart needed bracing before entering.
(It's usually kind of fun to complain, or at least mention, the paltry opening night food spreads of most gallery opening nights. But a celebratory atmosphere with wine and cheese and fruit and all that was far too incongruent with the subject matter on display, and the cognitive dissonance was far too large a chasm to fill, at least for one visitor.)
Anthony Matthews and Yael Wand of the Arts Council produced this leg of the exhibition's tour for presentation on Salt Spring. The arrangement comes out swinging hard, right to the gut, when you come upon the first piece — Omran Younis' large, two dimensional birds-eye view of abstract, but clearly dismembered, body parts, laid out on a blood-drenched tarp, as if for relatives to come and piece together, as best they can, their loved ones for burial. And that's just for starters. Welcome to the show.
There’s literally nowhere to hide as you walk through this exhibit. The work is powerful and shocking — blood-splattered, blown off child's foot-in-the-rubble kind of stuff — and it hits as hard as a residential rocket attack, even if you try to take only a cursory tour. Blacked-out windows and a background soundtrack of funeral elegies and wailing widows would have been an obvious ambient choice; but stark, naked lunch carnage in broad daylight, in a minimalist arrangement, better matched the tone of the obscene atrocities depicted. It practically screamed: don't look away.
The show is a solid mix of emerging and well-established, internationally recognized Syrian artists. Many of the canvases are large-scale, which echoes the catastrophic size of the humanitarian disaster. The exhibit itself is an open wound — visceral, horrific, pain-filled, pulsing blood, and you don’t need the program to tell you the artist's intention, regardless of any particular work’s covert abstraction:
Lina Malki's refugee-ghosts, hesitant before a blindingly bright void, fearful of the immediate future; Obaidha Zorik's untitled grotesques, a series of ground zero Hiroshima Shadows burned into the canvas with dark, rainbow-colored dried blood; Alaa Sharabi’s "Untitled 3," leaving you as hypnotized by the foot in the middle of the table as its red-dressed quadriplegic subject; Mahmood Al Daoud’s bleak, textured cynicism, as disturbing as any Tim Nero nightmare; Ali Almeer’s small-scale sculptures, casting deep-wounded psychological agony behind dead, haunted eyes.
There are at least a dozen more works of similar high quality, and all are worthy of your full attention. There are a few, less dark artists on display, but only a few. Everything, virtually every piece, burrows deep into your heart, never to be dislodged from your memory. Like all good Art should do.
Many of the pieces are titled "untitled," as if to underscore the anonymity of the innocent civilians who have died, with names most westerners cannot pronounce, with lives that have suddenly stopped being lived.
And yet, when you click through to the various artist's Facebook pages in the above links, you will see beautiful smiling spirits with nothing to lose, creating their art, showing their work, goofing for selfies. If there's one thing you'll take away from this exhibit, other than "war is bad," it's that life is still trying, through Art. Life is still thriving in the blood-muddy milieu of brutality and horror, through Art.
A note which accompanies a video post on the SYRIA-ART collective's Facebook page sums it up best: "Because we believe that the answer to destruction is construction, the answer to human stupidity is creativity, and the answer to obscurity is art and emotions... That's why we exist..."
Let's hope this savage conflict ends immediately, right now, today. And let's hope we never have to see another exhibit this truthful, painful, or sorrowful as this one, ever again.
The Salt Spring Island COUGAR is open to art, literary works, poetry, creative non-fiction, photography, and other submissions from local residents.