To many, Syria seems a "closed" country, a country with a long and fascinating history, but also a country that has not moved on to our times. Where the archaeological remains - truly abundant and spectacular - are well known to the country's visitors, modern and contemporary Syria remains largely a sealed book. Contemporary Syrian art and culture is very little known and for long it was extremely rare to see works of Syrian artists on the international cultural scene. The reasons for this state of affair are many.
In a country where artists are traditionally expected to use their talents to join in the general praise of the President and the System, as is in fact every citizen, independent reflection and thought and with it an independent art scene has a difficult standing. The omnipresence of the Mukhabarat (secret service) has largely stifled individual political and social engagement; however it would be a mistake to believe that Syrian society is entirely "gleichgeschaltet", even though official rhetoric presupposes the constant applauding of the public. As long as citizens are willing to join in the official laudation when they are expected to do so, even without inner conviction - this particular state has been termed "the politics of "As If"" by Lisa Wedeen (Lisa Wedeen: Acting "As If": Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria, Society for Comparative Study of Society and History, 1998) - a certain degree of freedom is offered to comedies, cartoons, films and jokes satirizing the leadership within a more private and "underground" sphere. This balance between the official, open praise and the unofficial, subversive critique is often difficult to define for outsiders.
But even with these (if limited) possibilties, critical and experimental artistic activities remain difficult. As a consequence of the political and social stagnation and the relative isolation of the country, the Syrian cultural and artistic scene remained largely unexposed to influences from international artistic movements. The Syrian art scene is notoriously conservative; innovations are seen with a great amount of skepticism. The educational system of Syrian art academies is of a very conservative character still focusing on traditional techniques and much emphasis placed on copying during the first years of training.
As a consequence, many young artists choose to work in traditional techniques; however, there are among the younger generation a number of artists who refuse to be discouraged and are experimenting with new forms of expression. But due to a deplorable lack of institutional support for contemporary artistic techniques, these young artists are very much left to themselves to experiment and try to avoid the indisputable pitfalls. This lack of guidance and training is one of the major obstacles for young Syrian artists as compared to their Lebanese and Palestinian peers. The new millennium saw a rise of international interest in contemporary art from the Middle East paralleled by a greater accessibility to new media in the region and the emergence of a new and exciting visual culture. Video has come to be one of the most important forms of artistic expression and artists continue to explore its possibilities with special interest in experimental forms of documentary. This development is still at the beginning in Syria. Not only the institutional frame is lacking, other means of information, such as internet, are only accessible to a limited degree.
But despite, and possibly also because of these obstacles, some promising developments are traceable. A new generation of Syrian video artists and documentary film makers is emerging now and contributing to the region's visual culture. Where many Middle Eastern film and video makers, particularly from Lebanon and Palestine, deal with issues of war and occupation, Syrian work reflects current issues and conflicts of contemporary Syrian society, such as the role of women or the impact of traditional norms and beliefs on the individual citizen as well as the individual's conlicts with a rigid society. Film makers in Syria have traditionally been much preoccupied with these issues and thus young Syrian video makers such as Ammar Al-Beik, Meyar Al-Roumi and Diana El-Jeiroudi can be seen as standing in the tradition of Syrian auteur film as well as following the contemporary trend of experimental video art and documentary.
The impact of society on the individual's freedom is a major issue in much of contemporary Syrian film and video making. Al-Roumi's largely autobiographical video "Un cinéma muet" (2001) tells the story of a film maker (himself) who returns to his native Damascus after having graduated from film school in Paris. His enthusiasm is soon turned into frustration caused by the political pressure and the restrictive society of his home country and he decides to make it the topic of his cinematographic work.
The critical investigation of gender roles is the predominant subject of Diana El-Jeiroudi's work. While finding her inspiration in her own entourage of female family members, she addresses issues of restricted female freedom in traditional societies. The short documentary "The Pot" questions the concept of motherhood as the ultimate fulfillment of female existence. In it she lets young women with different backgrounds recount how they view the traditional role of women as mothers and how pregnancy affected their own and society's perception of them as human beings.
Female identity is also an important issue of Samir Barkawi's work. His short ironic film "Poster" questions the significance of traditional Islamic hijab in an environment that is so focused on visuality as our modern world. How hopes are shattered is the topic of Rami Farah's sinister "Point", a work that can be read as a metaphor for the hopes of a whole nation as well as of an individual. Filmed in a barren desert landscape, it is the tale of a young man's strife to reach his goals; at the height of his feeling of success, something unknown and unseen happens and triumph turns into disaster.
The history, environment and culture of Damascus and Syria is the topic of a number of works, that often strike a melancholy and poetic tone, while staying refreshingly clear of rose-coloured nostalgia. Joude Gorani follows the Barada river in her video "Before Disappearing" and reflects on its present sad condition. The traditional source of wealth of the Damascene region, it is now polluted and threatened to dry out. Despite this, Gorani's work is a declaration of sympathy and understanding for the people and the river, whose lives are intertwined through centuries of co-existence.
Ammar Al-Beik's "They Were Here" is a reflective homage in visually powerful images to the former workers of the old steam engine plant in Damascus, a story of former industrial glory and melancholy retrospection. In another work, "Clapper", Al-Beik explores the religious diversity of the country and its potential to inluence cross-religious dialogue. The artist followed the daily work of a community of monks at Deir Mar Musa Monastry in their efforts to promote a Christian-Muslim dialogue. Filmed with a fine distance to the protagonists, the film succeeds in balancing the idealism of the monks and their self set task, for which Syria seems the ideal setting with one of the world's largest amount of different religious sects with the realities of our times. At the same time the spectator senses the undercurrent of another agenda than the idealism in the foreground, something Al-Beik himself sensed when filming; in his words, religious dialogue has a long tradition in Syria, a tradition born out of the necessities of centuries of close co-existence. There is in fact no need for a Vatican-close new project in Syria's religious landscape.
Since this is often the only way to produce art, many artists and film/video makers produce their work entirely on their own expenses, using the simplest technical equipment possible and helped by other artists. Although a practice born out of necessity rather than ideals, the advantage is seen in a greater amount of freedom, especially from obligation towards foreign funding institutions, who most often have an agenda of its own and thus are considered highly problematic as partners. Almost every artist who has worked with foreign institutions whether Western, international like the UN or private sponsors from the wealthy Gulf countries has experienced pressure to some extent.
Artistic production in Syria remains a difficult balancing act between national censorship, foreign expectations and each artist's own professional vision. But despite all the past and present difficulties, the future might hold more positive prospects for Syria as a country with an established arts and culture scene. During the past years several new galleries and art spaces have opened who display an interest in promoting young and emerging artists. The success of these spaces are variable and at this stage it is still too early for any solid assessment. But despite the pessimism of some art critics and curators when it comes to the potential of the Syrian art scene, there is hope for some dynamic development in the near future. It is something worth following very closely.
Most videos mentioned in this article are part of the program "Syria Inside Out", presented at Museum of Contemporary Art, Roskilde, Denmark in November 2007 and at OpenEyes Filmfest, Marburg, Germany in July 2008. For more information and upcoming screenings, please contact us.