Charlotte Bank Projects
Randa Maddah: Light Horizon

 Syria Art for Freedom

Syria  sz(t)uka wolności

curated by

Charlotte Bank & Anna Zalewska



Khaled Abdulwahed, Dani Abo Louh, Madonna Adib, Ammar Al-Beik, Rami Farah, Randa Maddah, Kevork Mourad, Khalil Younes


November 5 - December 8

St. John's Centre, Gdansk


Window Onto the World

festival of world cultures


Organized by

Baltic Sea Cultural Centre

One of the distinctive characteristics of the recent uprisings in the Arab world has been the creative and innovative use of the Internet and social media. This led to terms such as “Twitter revolution” or “Facebook revolution”, terms that highlighted the use of these tools but left the agency of the protestors on the street somewhat out of sight. The internet and its various platforms did indeed provide important tools for coordination and exchange, but without the physical presence of protestors on the streets and squares of the cities, no substantial change (let alone a revolution) would have been possible.

The narrow focus on the role of the internet also leaves another important aspect out of consideration: Artistic and creative activism did not arise with the uprisings, but have a much longer history in the region. For decades, artists of all disciplines, writers, painters, film makers and theatre professionals have regarded it as one of their most important roles to work for social and political change in their countries and to raise awareness of pressing issues. Syria was not an exception to this. In spite of an omnipresent and overwhelming censorship, artists managed to develop ways to criticize the brutality and arbitrariness of political power, the widespread abuse of hierarchic powers and social and cultural rigidity. Such sensitive issues could of course not be addressed openly, but had to be approached through elaborate metaphors and symbols. Thereby artists relied on their audiences and their capacity to understand the hidden meanings of their works and the use of metaphorical language made it possible for artists to stress universalist and “harmless” readings, should they find themselves faced with an over-zealous censor.

While many artists and intellectuals had hoped for changes to occur when Bashar Al-Assad took over power after the death of his father in 2000, it soon became clear that only superficial changes happened. Corruption was widespread, political freedom far away and censorship was as unpredictable as before, forcing artists to recur to the same means of codifying their works as before. Rami Farah’s Point, realized in 2005 seems to sum up this situation. It can be read as dealing with existential problems common to all humanity, but it could also be read as the frustration of many young Syrians, who had hopes for their future, fuelled in part by the early public speeches of Bashar Al-Assad, but who mostly saw those hopes and dreams crushed. Seen now, two and a half years after the beginning of the Syrian revolution, at a time where the outlook appears particularly bleak, it even seems almost prophetic.

With the uprising, artistic language and media changed dramatically in Syria. It took some months before professional artists started producing art works that were related to the revolution. At first many artists preferred to engage themselves otherwise and not using their art as activists. However, after the summer of 2011, when the regime’s crack-down on protestors became increasingly brutal, a growing number of art works commenting on events and denouncing the excessive use of violence began to appear on the internet. What was new about these works was not only their distribution via internet, something that gave access to new audiences, outside the elite networks that had hitherto dominated the art scene. It was also the media used and the artistic language. Where earlier critical art works had used metaphors and symbols, many of these new works were outspoken in their denouncement of the regime and its use of violence. But not only activist works proliferated. Also very personal reactions from artists, both living inside the country and abroad, added their voices to this immense creative output. Some of these are shown in the exhibition, Syria  sz(t)uka wolności. As the title implies, they are works of art that are informed by the longing for freedom and at the same time, they tell the story of a people’s painful, yet persistent search for this freedom. Khalil Younes’ Syria (2011) is possibly the most poignant expression of this search. It juxtaposes the contrasting sounds of a city in turmoil, the hysteria, the violence with the senseless action of sewing a button onto a finger, an image of extreme bodily discomfort and self-inflicted pain. Another aspect of the absurdity of life in the midst war and destruction stands at the centre of Randa Mdah’s Light Horizon (2012). A young woman performs her household tasks, almost turning the action into a ritual. The ruined state of her house makes it seem senseless. And yet, even in times of extreme distress, the human urge to create a safe and home-like shelter remains alive and strong.

In all conflicts, the most fragile of humans – children – are among those that suffer most and a number of works deal with their senseless suffering. Ammar Al-Beik’s fragmented tale of revolution, hope and despair, The Sun’s Incubator (2011) pays tribute to one of the first iconic victims of the Syrian uprising, the child Hamza Al-Khatib, whose tortured body became an early symbol of the Syrian regime’s brutality. Dani Abo Louh’s His Name was Hamzeh Bakkour (2012) reminds us of the painful death of another boy, whose image was widely shared on internet platforms and became another icon of the revolution. But what happens with such images, as powerful as they are, when they gain a life of their own and become just one among the thousands of images that are posted online every day? Abo Louh’s work forces us to reflect on our own habits of using and viewing images. In Khaled Abdulwahed’s Tujj (2012), the sound of a ball being thrown onto a wall mingles with the sound of explosion and becomes unbearable, the borders between play and brutality get blurred, childhood no longer offers a safe haven. Abdulwahed now lives outside Syria and made the video during a visit to Syria in 2012. Witnessing violence and death from afar, although safe from any immediate danger can be as distressing as living it on a daily basis. Kevork Mourad’s A Sad Morning, Every Morning (2012 - a collaboration with clarinetist Kinan Azmeh) is a personal account of the artist’s feelings faced with bad news from home every day. Madonna Adib’ Demain l’adieu (2012) strikes a different tone in its insistence of the forces of revolt. The video is an exploration of love in times of war and the intertwining feelings of fear, anger and perturbation.

The eight videos presented here tell very different stories of a country caught in deadly, seemingly hopeless fights. In times where international media show only very limited variety of images from Syria, these works remind us of the humanity of the Syrian population, their hopes and their struggle. In 1969, John Berger wrote in the foreword to his Art and Revolution. Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R., that ‘What matters are the needs which art answers’. [1] Today, we need the works of Syrian artists to assure that this humanity is not forgotten. For this, works like the videos presented here revolution are among the most effective tools. During the past months, the situation in Syria has deteriorated dramatically and yet, these videos dating from an earlier phase of the uprising remain important as representatives of the art of the Syrian revolution.

[1] Berger, John : Art and Revolution. Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R, New York: Pantheon Books, 1969, introduction, no page number.

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