The past three years of peaceful protest and brutal civil war have generated an efflorescence of cultural production among Syria’s artists. Formally educated painters, musicians, and directors have joined with activist amateurs to document the political mobilization and violence that dominates the country. The resulting works have been both didactic and subtle, and often deeply moving.
With hundreds of works appearing online every week, curators and scholars have struggled to capture the creative zeitgeist of revolutionary Syria. Of the many Facebook feeds, exhibitions, and articles devoted to the subject, three stand out. Since early 2011, the website Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution has uploaded nearly 1,000 items to an online archive of revolutionary art. Since its inception in June 2011, the Facebook page al-Fann wa al-Huriyya has showcased hundreds of paintings, drawings, and digital graphics based on the situation in the country. And in January 2013, Éditions de la Martinière released the first book-length study of Syria’s revolutionary art, Syrie: l’art en armes.
Each of these three sources grapples with the central question faced by Syrian art in a time of war: the relative value of aesthetics and politics. Is a work of art valuable for its formal sophistication and aesthetic merit, or for its political and emotional message? In selecting works for spotlight, the curators of Creative Memory, al-Fann wa al-Huriyya, and Syrie: l’art en armes reveal distinct perspectives on the intersection of art and politics.
Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution describes itself as an “online archive” intended “to gather and spread the messages expressed by the different artworks and other cultural productions and to help Syria’s artistic resistance… create networks among themselves and connect to the outside world.” The site subscribes to a broad definition of “artworks and cultural productions.” In addition to archives of revolution-inspired painting, sculpture, and music, the site includes sections devoted to street protests and banners, graffiti and murals, and digital posters linked to particular political campaigns.
Thematically, the works aggregated on Creative Memory range from subtle to didactic. One of the first drawings posted on the site, Youssef Abdelké’s 2011 “Butterfly and Knife,” shows a delicate butterfly fluttering precariously at the edge of a blade. An inoffensive allusion to the threat to Syrian unity posed by the conflict, the work contrasts strongly with Ayham Jomaa’s 2013 drawing, “Revolutionary Court.” In a visual manifestation of the violent excesses of certain segments of the Syrian opposition, the work shows three bodies hanging from a shadowy gallows with the labels “regime militiaman,” “taking advantage of the revolution,” and “stealing from the revolution.”
By: Julian Phillips
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