Reclaiming the identity of the Syrian

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By Marie-Jeanne Berger

Egyptian art lovers are being offered a rare glimpse at contemporary Syrian art in the exhibition currently showing at Mashrabia Gallery.

With little sign of abating, clashes between Syrian forces and protestors in Homs, Deraa and other cities have left a high number of civilians stuck in a deadlock in their struggle for freedom. The death toll is in the thousands and continues to mount.

“Artists from Syria” is a response to the atrocities taking place there, the injustice.

With a mixed stable of prominent and lesser-known Syrian artists, the show reflects upon how violence affects the human psyche and its creative production. The simple prompt of the title — being a Syrian artist— naturally causes an intensely personal response. Identities and alliances, political beliefs and those of the philosophical domain all become questions that weigh on the shoulders of the artists participating in the exhibition. Many of the works are powerful because of their energy and raw emotion; some are equally distressing to see.

The first piece on display sets a very explicit tone. Painter Fady Yazjy’s work greets the visitor from the entrance of the gallery, a mess of feelings and scribbly strokes on a canvas betraying fear and despair. We witness a man about to commit suicide. Shades of blues and grays cut and disassemble the face of the man, leaning back on the frame of a chair, aiming a shotgun at the center of his forehead. A blank eye stares out at the viewer. He’s swimming in muddy browns. The canvas is unfinished and the paint leaves an uncomfortable space between the edge of the canvas frame and the efforts of the painter to meet it. On the edges of one side of the canvas, and on parts of the body of model, Yazjy uses electric, vivid colors. These colors appear smothered throughout the canvas, and the small patches in which they remain suggest isolation and despair.

The quadtych of Yamen Yousef’s equally stand out. Washes of gray and black water color are layered with ink pen to show mutilated human forms in stark relief transformed into angels. Wings replace arms, allowing these accursed, headless figures to float above the earth, transcending this world for another. The bottom two drawing/paintings of the quadruplet might well depict the unearthly faces of these beheaded figures, eyes wide-set and blackened, surrounded by an all-encompassing darkness that contrasts the blank, white, empty spaces of the top two.

His pieces signify a sort of parallel detachment. We see the detachment of the figure, head separate from body; rational from the physical. We see also the detachment of the figure from this world, separate from the mayhem on this earth, dismembered body floating above it.

Then we have Edwar Shahda’s mixed media Picasso, Greek themed pieces. Three large, brutal paintings display fabled histories in a blatantly Cubist manner, relating contemporary history to historical past and, using signifiers of style and theme, an art-historical past as well. His pieces are reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica.” Each of these pieces is a myth-like nightmare of flatulent furry men with breasts and bloodied knives, wolves of the same description; mouths gaped open with lusty, violent desire. A woman sits in the corner screaming, eye actually bursting off of face. On her knee, a fleshy, yawning baby stretches, unaware of the monsters standing above him, ready to strike with their weapons in hand.

The background of the image is equally confused, adding a sense of anxiety to the already terrifying figures in the foreground. Black and white streaks, red blocks, rays of pink and the whites of the eyes of the creatures fight for dominance of the page. In the second image, a childlike blood-colored Buddha sits, legs crossed over a mess of bodies on a white rectangle: a blanket or bed. The bodies are rendered in white. His face stares out disinterestedly at the viewer. The bodies underneath him are so jumbled that they are an image of death, pain and fear.

Mounir Al Shaarani’s works in the exhibition are almost like living creatures, entities with an internal movement and rhythm of their own. The pieces are evidence to the meticulous attention to detail he confers on all of his work: a careful conceptualization of space, and the use of colors with strong symbolic connotations. Blacks and red and chalky golds form these two pieces. Perfectly balanced on large sheets of paper, each of the letters and each of the words are small overlapping squares that cultivate a dynamic balance in the composition.

The first piece, “Na’am lil hurria” (Yes to Freedom) sets these words in a tilted square that hovers over a great “La” (No). The La is constructed from small squares, each bearing a phrase that Shaarani opposes. To murder, to imprisonment, to corruption, to theft: these words are placed side by side, each one an obstacle to the elusive freedom that, according to him, floats over the large arms of the burdens of Syria’s political reality.

The second piece, “Na’am lil dimocratia” (Yes to democracy), is the kelp-green center of a whorling square made up of the word Sooria (Syria). Sooria itself in an intricate, condensed maze of the sects, religions, ethnicities and political affiliations that reflect the diversity of the country.

Shaarani claims that without each of these commensurate parts, Syria would not be whole. This piece demands that democracy in Syria will only follow from a representation of each and every one of these individual voices and denominations. The way that this piece is composed on the page — the square of calligraphy is placed on the lower half of a rectangular paper — embodies a struggle between willful symmetry and a refusal of such. The rectangular pictures picture plane with square form clash in a way that signifies the clash between idealism and reality.

In a panel discussion, panelist and activist Rami Jarrah discussed signing blank papers, papers that could later be written over by the dictatorship to claim that he had said whatever they wished for him to say under duress. This act is a signification of empty space by another and effaces the individual in the face of the regime.

In this exhibition the Syrian artists have done the exact opposite. They are reclaiming their identities, identities that are singularly unique and personal, rather than having it assigned or apportioned to them. And here, the collaboration of fallible, imperfect individuals actually has a chance against a faceless and tyrannical adversary.

“Artists from Syria” will run until March 29 at Mashrabia Gallery: 8 Champollion St., Downtown, Cairo. Tel: (02) 2578 4494, 0100 170 4554.

Shahda’s pieces are reminiscent of Picasso’s “Guernica.”


Yazjy portrays a mess of feelings and scribbly strokes on a canvas betraying fear and despair.

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