Syria's gradual art resurgence: A cultural reawakening?

After a decade of conflict, natural disasters, and economic woes, Syrians are increasingly turning to art to express themselves. 'The Cirque' exhibition in Damascus displayed some promising works.

Curator Nour Salman observes a piece at Fadi Yazigi’s Atelier in Old Damascus
Muhammad Damour
Curator Nour Salman observes a piece at Fadi Yazigi’s Atelier in Old Damascus

Syria's gradual art resurgence: A cultural reawakening?

Spurred by the emergence of fresh talent and renewed artistic drive, Syria’s cultural landscape is undergoing a steady creative transformation after over a decade of conflict, natural disasters, migration and rising economic woes.

The powerful—and often inescapable—memory of darker times is being used as the source of healing and expression by a new, gifted wave of artists as culture and more inventive vocations become popular with the modern, culture-frenzied generation.

“I have so much faith in this current crop of creatives, and I’m increasingly confident that they will build the country again in their unique way,” Buthayna Ali, Professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University and founder of the Madad Art Foundation, tells Al Majalla.

Ali, 50, speaks amid a lively, trippy tune of electronic circus music at an installation art extravaganza featuring 24 up-and-coming talents in the Syrian capital, called ‘The Cirque’, weaving around eager crowds and bold artworks.

Hasan Belal
Dr. Buthayna Ali stands in front of ‘Wall’ by artist Kareem Khayat at the ‘Cirque’ in Damascus

“The idea of the Cirque came to us after the terrible earthquake which struck the country in February 2023. Today's youth currently experience hurt and indescribable pain, but we wanted to try to restore that happiness and harness those thoughts and elements into a positive production through the medium of art.”

The event is a spectacle where distinct installation art pieces are conjoined alongside one another in a glowing pavilion. It is the largest Syrian art show of the year, presenting graffiti-sprayed walls, pink sleeping sheep, and a plethora of unorthodox art structures.

Visual artist Hala Nahar, 21, from Damascus created a video installation called ‘Nostalgia,’ entailing a projection of memories and moments of friends, relatives and people.

“No matter how fate leads me, or how my mind wanders, I will turn towards warm memories, written within my depths and images I’ve stored in my eyes, to a great hope that I’ve hidden within me, to kindle the fire of life within me,” she says.

Hasan Belal
Hala Nehar stands in front of her installation ‘Nostalgia’ at the ‘Cirque’ in Damascus

A large whiteboard augments her vision as avid visitors write comments, symbols, and expressions of love notes to words of inspiration.

One visitor wrote, ‘Art is Life’, another, ‘Always Choose Love’, and others were more topical, referring to the Israeli onslaught against Gaza with slogans such as' Free Palestine' and drawings of the Palestinian flag.

Hala’s siblings left the country when she was younger.

“When I think of nostalgia, I think of my brothers and sisters, how they were present in my life and then suddenly disappeared from it. They are like a memory. I still retain their things,” she says.

Hammoud Radwan’s, 25, 'Arcadia' was the centrepiece attraction. It was a brilliant, eye-catching interactive installation that told a story about the subconscious triggered by changing colours splattered across a Plexi board made of sand and fabrics.

Hasan Belal
Hammoud Radwan’s trippy ‘Arcadia’ installation piece is tested by one of the audiences at the ‘Cirque’

The piece was an illusion-style piece in which visitors hear a short music-based story: “Perhaps I am dizzy now, and perhaps you are too; welcome to Arcadia, an adult's playground."

Hammoud tells Al Majalla that each visitor interprets the idea behind the work differently.

“Every person has a different memory of upbringing and experience, of what it means to live and what is close to you, and this work goes deep into your soul,” he says.

Ghina Al-Helal, 30, from Aleppo, made five movable wooden poles of different heights called ‘Who are you?’, referring to how “the mirror is our constant friend, we like to see our reflection in it,” adding “You are the most beautiful with all of your parts.”

Hasan Belal
Ghina Helal’s ‘Who are you?’ installation piece at the ‘Cirque’

Syria’s art scene still faces the tumult of exodus with talent leaving the country. For example, Juliana Al-Srikhy, 23, started her visual projection of ‘Do you see me’ while she was in Syria, but now she’s studying in Hungary. Yet, 12 display screens showing various formations of the eye ensure she is still here with the other artists.

“I knew that I was travelling, so I had to do an installation knowing I wouldn’t be there. I initially jotted down all the designs for the eye. The work goes back to the wounds, and the wound turned into the eye, happiness, and we needed something that would help out,” Juliana says.

Sally Al-Sayegh’s installation called 'Blue' depicts a mesmerising room of 31 polyester faces with different emotions and constellations.

"Some of the faces are happy, others are smiling, and some are eerie with red noses to depict clowns; they could be people laughing at us or something else,” the 30-year-old artist tells Al Majalla.

Hasan Belal
Sally Sayegh’s ‘Blue’ is an impression of faces with red noses which laugh at those who enter

For many of the artists involved, such as Adam Ajeeb, whose installation ‘Sunshade’ showcases a joyful painting feature, such participation has helped push the artist onto more interactions and increased exposure, including participation in the 2024 Cairo Art Fair and a collaboration with top Art curator Nour Salman’s ‘Incomplete Youth’ exhibition with his ripped memories collection.

Nour Salman, 30, is a Western-educated art curator who is bringing rare qualities to Syria’s art scene. Her latest show, ‘Home,’ was in February 2024, and she showcased an exceptional art exhibit for Majd Henawi, one of the brightest artists around. Her Art Vision gallery is now one of the most anticipated spectacles on the Syrian social calendar.

Nour tells Al Majalla: “Artists have a unique ability to arouse these emotions in us, and I want to reignite our creative passion for art, but this is an avalanche, and the last years have built a strong desire in artists, and we want to keep going to show what we have.”

“The talent is coming to a boil; we aim to put Syria back on the creative map and give it the space it deserves as one of the richest artistic hubs in the region. As an art curator and devotee, I strive to cement our place again because we have the talent.”

One attendee of the ‘Home’ exhibition remarked, “I haven’t seen such quality in terms of (artistic) effort in Syria before. This is something we are used to seeing abroad. For many people, art is an escape today. The time I spend here is important for me, to detach.”

The craving for quality art in Syria today has led to many artists looking to re-enter the scene in Syria after years of the country being overlooked.

Muhammad Damour
A visitor takes a picture of Fadi Yaziji’s cubes artwork at Nour Salaman’s ‘Once in Damascus’ Exhibition

Artist Fadi Yazigi, a veteran of Syria’s global art scene, shared that opinion.

“It’s important to see so many young people here (in Syria). There is an increase in artistic interest, and the (event) openings are packed. There has to be an inspiration for the many younger artists, and this is why we are here in Syria, Damascus.”

While quantifying the long-term revival of culture may be a daunting task, Syria's art community has remained resilient amidst the ruins of war.

Although the journey to reclaim Syria's rightful artistic position in the region may span years and decades, the current progress made, considering the immense struggles faced, is undeniably a promising start.

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