Damascus, Syria has been part of the bourgeoning Middle Eastern art scene since the early 2000’s, when works by Syrian artists began to spread throughout western galleries and institutions. Three years ago, they reached a peak. Then, the uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad broke out. Its rapid, life-threatening evolution has led to the disappearance of many galleries and studios, annihilating rising talents.
As a response, Damascus based Ayyam Gallery, co-founded by Hisham and Khaled Samawi, metamorphosed from exhibition space to shelter, allowing artists to work and live in a safer environment. The temporary solution eventually gave way to the emigration of artists to Dubai, Beirut or Cairo, facilitated by the Samawis in order to preserve the legacy of their native country.
Over the summer, the gallerists’ instrumental role in creating a safe haven for Syrian artists was further exemplified by a multi-venue exhibition launched across three Ayyam galleries. Called Syria’s Apex Generation, the exhibition brought together the post-uprising works of five Syrian artists: Nihad Al Turk, Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik, Othman Moussa, Mohannad Orabi, and Kais Salman.
Focusing on works produced after the beginning of the conflict, and hinting at the artistic peak reached in Damascus just as the conflict started, Syria’s Apex Generation examines the artistic evolution of Syria’s young artists in parallel with the uprising. Curated by Ayyam’s Artistic Director Maymanah Farhat, the show highlights these artists as contributors to a once flourishing, now floundering Syrian art scene
While the medium of paint is shared by all artists presented, demonstrating a long lasting tradition in Syria, their response to the Syrian war is depicted in different ways.
Nihad Al Turk transmits his message through distorted, dark shapes and figures, surrounded by halos of light, symbolizing man’s perseverance amid the wrenching circumstances conflicts engender. The somber is also present in Mohannad Orabi’s palette, used to portray children with saddened, tearful eyes. Years back, those eyes were smiling and those children were playing on whimsical backgrounds. Then, the war stole their innocence, catapulting them into adulthood.
As a contrast to the lugubrious portraits, the exhibition continues with bright colors present in Kais Salman’s frighteningly smiling caricatures denouncing immoral behaviors, and Othman Moussa’s realistic paintings of everyday life objects transformed into deadly weapons.
Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik chooses a more abstract form, assembling random objects such as knives or traps, and lacerating his canvases, to show deteriorating living conditions.
While there is no evidence of an aesthetic connection, what the five painters share in response to the uprising is a transformation of their creative process, made visible through the chronological display of their paintings.Whether their work is the result of protest, critique or documentation of the Syrian conflict, the highly symbolic elements presented in each painting make the message more accessible and understandable to the viewer.
More than individual artistic evolution, what Syria’s Apex Generation highlights through its eponym publication is a struggle to salvage the long- standing tradition of Syrian painting developed by artists such as Fateh Moudarres or Safwan Dahoul. Their belief in art acquiring a social dimension is linked to the practice of Ayyam’s young generation of artists, who build on their predecessors’ legacy to perpetuate social engagement through their art, and thus participate in preserving the Syrian heritage.
The regional reach of the exhibition, presenting various works of the same five artists at multiple venues, contributes to creating a wider impact and strengthens the artists’ message across the Middle East. On a more global level, Syria’s Apex Generation points out the fundamental role of both emerging and established art hubs across the world. Their growing, and more importantly safe environments, break the creative barriers erected across conflictual territories. The support of their protagonists becomes a necessity, to preserve the developing school of Syrian artists and the traditions they are keeping alive.
Syria’s Apex Generation concludes its run at the Ayyam gallery branches in Dubai and Beirut on August 28th. The exhibit is on display at Ayyam London, 143 New Bond Street, through September 12th.
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Marina Iordan is a freelance writer, editor, and art consultant based in the United Arab Emirates. She contributes to a number of publications, and blogs regularly on Middle Eastern and Arab art at My Velvet Instant. Follow her on Twitter @myVelvetinstant.
Middle East, Syria