Thoughts on Commemoration, Memorials and Historical Memory

Every year German television shows documentaries about the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. At a time when the German defeat was becoming clear, the indiscriminate killing of civilians, among them many internally displaced people stands out as a senseless act of unnecessary brutality in the final months of WWII.

Commemoration makes sense if it leads to questioning the present. But if it does not lead to drawing parallels and standing against present-day violence, one might ask, what is the point of it?

A few days ago, the Syrian-German artist Manaf Halbouni inaugurated a monumental public art work in front of Dresden’s Frauenkirche. The church was destroyed during the WWII bombing and restored after Germany was reunited. Halbouni’s work, Monument, shows three erect busses in reference to a photo from Aleppo showing destroyed busses erected as a protection wall in a street, to protect its inhabitants from snipers. The work draws exactly the kind of parallel mentioned and is therefore a timely and important piece of public art. But the inauguration was sadly disturbed by the ever-backward minded right-wingers that have come to be associated with the city.

Many people have declared their support for the artist and shown a will to stand up for humanity and for the freedom of art. And the incident has been widely reported in local and international media, as these examples show:

http://theartnewspaper.com/news/news/right-wing-protesters-disrupt-unveiling-of-syrian-artist-s-installation-in-dresden-/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/07/dresdens-bitter-divide-over-aleppo-inspired-bus-barricade-sculpture?CMP=share_btn_tw

In Manaf Halbouni’s case, his work has created controversy and discussion, something that is also an important part of art’s role in the public space. That there are strong needs to re-think the means by which we wish to commemorate past disasters was recently highlighted by Israeli satirist Shahak Shapira’s project Yolocaust in which he paired selfies taken at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial with photos from the Nazi deathcamps.

Many media outlets have written about the project, among others The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jan/19/yolocaust-artist-shahak-shapira-provokes-debate-over-commemorating-germanys-past

The interesting point here is maybe that the memorial did not seem to trigger any reflection on past crimes against humanity among the young visitors, however, Shapira’s project did, as his statement on the project’s website shows:

https://yolocaust.de/

 

 

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Posted in Activism, Art history, contemporary Arab art, Contemporary art, Installation, Public intervention, Public space, Syria, Transculturality, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Farewell Marwan

On October 22, a wonderful person and great artist left us. I learned the news when I returned to Berlin from Geneva the following day, via Facebook. Sitting at the dull airport of Berlin-Schönefeld waiting for the train to Berlin city, I scrolled down my timeline and my heart skipped a beat.

When I met Marwan, he was the quiet and thoughtful person he had become in his later years. I did not know him in his full bloom, the wizard, the storyteller. But the Marwan I knew was somebody who enjoyed talking about his art, his early years as a painter when he was still searching for his own language, his beloved teacher Hann Trier who through the inspiration of his student learned Arabic and always also a little bit about Damascus. For Marwan, Damascus was a city of colours and intense perfumes, of lush courtyards and plants. Plants were so important to him that he brought several with him to Berlin. I have in my salon a Queen of the Night which is the “grand-child” of a plant of Marwan’s. A little piece of Marwan’s Damascus.

Marwan was a Berlin artist with Damascene roots. He was a transcultural artist before that became a concept. His early works follow the conventions of the Berlin art scene in the late 1950s. And when young rebellious artists in Germany called for a new and rougher aesthetic in the 1960s, he was among them. But there was also a certain melancholy and longing in his works, maybe something typical of the exile, even though his was a voluntary exile. Colour found its way back into his art during a sojourn in Paris and then he seemed to recall the vibrant hues of his home city. They never left his work from then on.

I am here re-posting an essay I wrote for the catalogue of Marwan’s exhibition at Barjeel Art Foundation in 2015. In memory of a great artist, a wonderful person and dear friend. You will be missed.

Marwan: Topographies of the Soul

Marwan Kassab Bachi is a wanderer at heart, a free spirit whose art has left critics full of wonder and amazement, but often also puzzled as to how to place his oeuvre within the post-war artistic world in Germany. His singularity has been explained with a supposedly inherent Arab sensuality, with the loneliness and longing of the Bedouins, with the particular textures and colours of his native Damascus, all elements profoundly foreign to the art scene of the divided city of Berlin.

And surely, Damascus remains an important factor in the artist’s life. It was where he was born in 1934 and he remains a Damascene at heart. Even after fifty-seven years of leading a successful artistic life in Berlin, Marwan still describes himself as such. But he has also always been a Berlin artist, an active member of the art scene in his chosen city, Wahlheimat as a German expression describes it, ‘homeland by choice’. To approach Marwan’s painting, both factors are equally important. The two places remain interlinked and cannot be separated. As it has often been said about him: “Marwan has found his Damascus in Berlin.”

Thereby, the beginnings in the foreign city must have been difficult, as always when changing location. In the class of Professor Hann Trier, Marwan encountered the contemporary painting of German Informel, American Abstract Expressionism, and French Tachisme. Gestural painting was the international language of art of the 1950s and 1960s.For Marwan this new approach meant a radical break with his former work that was more influenced by French Impressionism, but it also lead him to explore the quality of colour and its inherent possibilities of giving form. Not many works from this early period have survived, but a number of disturbing images resembling heaps of torn flesh or monsters remain. Situated somewhere between the abstract and the figurative, they already point towards his later “face landscapes”.

Marwan’s painting never found rest in pure abstraction;from the beginning it seemed insufficient for his needs. He was one of the few painters in Germany at the time who felt this way, at a time where figuration was often viewed as outmoded and passé. In 1961 and 1962 Eugen Schönebeck and Georg Baselitz published their Pandemonium Manifesto in which they called for a new, expressive and personal style of painting, far from the prevailing “harmony soup”, as stated in an essay in 2012. But this particular German variety of post-WWII Weltschmerz, fuelled by the frustration the young generation felt when faced with their parents’ silence about the Nazi regime, the war and its crimes, was far from Marwan’s reality; something else drove him towards figuration. And while the works of the German painters were clearly intent on shocking the audience, Marwan’s paintings – although no less provocative in their treatment of desire and sexuality – appearless aggressive and display a particular poetic mode, an almost lyrical qualitythat is very characteristic for his work. Marwan’s art is more concerned with the human condition of those years, his own personal experiences in the foreign surroundings and the political upheavals in the Arab world.

Marwan remains a deeply humanistic artist. His paintings reveal the full spectrum of human emotions and phenomena, “all that we can experience in our inconsistencies”, to cite the German art historian and friend of the painter, Jörn Merkert. This centrality of human existence with its joys and sorrows appears in perhaps the most innocent way in the portraits of Palestinian youngsters, such as Three Palestinian Boys (1970). At a time when art produced in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle usually recurred to easily recognizable motifs such as the Fedayeen (freedom fighter) orwomen in embroidered dresses, Marwan chose to paint youngsters, those Palestinian youthswho became iconic figures during the First Intifada as a symbol of resistance. In Marwan’s pictures the young boysappear to us in all their vulnerability, three kids with their shirts open at the neck and rolled up sleeves, kids as one would find them to the thousands on the streets of any city orrefugee camp.But Marwan gives them a greater significance; he paints them from a low angle and lets them appear larger than life. These young people have to carry a super-human burden, a burden that would break most of us. This is what sets them apart, what inspires respect.The fate of the Palestinian people has always remained close to Marwan’s heart. Apart from his paintings of young Palestinians, he has often expressed a profound sympathy with the struggle for a Palestinian homeland. Not limiting his commitment to paintings or declarations, he dedicated a collection of paintings to a future Palestinian National Museum in 1997, in the hope that a Palestinian state would come into existence where art and culture had its recognized role.

Contrary to the calm and composed nature of the Palestinian boys, most of Marwan’s early works testify to a search for completeness, often in the erotic or sexual sense. Hidden limbs that protrude behind frontal figures, legs encircling heads or distorted limbs that hinder a breaking free of bonds all speak a language of desire, loneliness and yearning. The figures’ faces often bear the traits of the artist himself, but these paintings go beyond the autobiographical. They speak of existential concerns of all humanity. Isolated in a kind of non-space, these figures seem entrapped in their own fragmented existence, struggling to break free and gain a full life. The figure of the enigmatic Der Gemahl (The Husband, 1966)shows three distorted limbs, two of which hold the upper part of his body, his chest and chin while the third holds a stick, a classic phallic symbol. The impossibility of the gestures, the tense positions of the arms speak of a tortured emotional state, a longing for togetherness and fulfilment.

The head of the figure is disproportionately large, the face rich in details, full of rhythmic lines, alternating valleys and hills, like the face-landscapes that Marwan started painting a few years later. Since then, since the early 1970s, faces and heads have been the major theme in his work. A noted change occurred with the year 1973, however, the year he spent in Paris on a scholarship. Here, his life-long dream of studying French painting close at hand finally came true, and he immersed himself in the works of Cezanne, Monet, Bonnard. It was during this sojourn in Paris that colour found its way back into Marwan’s painting. Here, he started using the strong colours that remained so present in his memory:‘silky orange, violet and emerald green’, the colours of twilight in his native Damascus.

Marwan’s faces started to change, to gain a new depth, their surface becoming more and more fragmented, with patches of colour accentuating furrows and lines. Viewers can immerse themselves in the image, wander among its depths and heights and contemplate the marvels of existence. We are faced with a vast landscape, a topography of the soul.Moving towards the motif of the head, the leading theme of his later oeuvre, Marwan explored the textural qualities of colours, breaking up the surface and letting it appear in a profusion of colourful patches,painting and repainting, often covering the image with several layers of paint, letting a new face appear with each step. Marwan’s Heads come in a variety of media: oil, watercolour, drawing, and prints. What they have in common is the fragility and strength of human existence, the signs of life lived to its full.They represent snapshots of particular emotional states, captured at one moment within an ever-changing existence which recallFrancis Bacon’s paintings of the human body. But where Bacon’s bodies seem to be caught in a state of emotional torture, Marwan’s Heads appear sovereign and strong, showing a deep understanding and acceptance of the upheavals of life. As Adonis wrote in a poem dedicated to Marwan: ‘When we perceive the face, we can say: we comprehend everything.

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The Joys of Writing

I have been writing texts about art for more than 10 years. And I love doing this. Each text is like entering a new world, it involves seeing new art, talking to artists, reading other texts, doing research. And, also very important, playing with words and images.

I hope to go on researching, writing and talking about art for many years to come. But there are some things that make me feel uncomfortable and that is the general disrespect for writers. I have received so many “offers” to write essays (or give talks) that each would give me “great exposure”, “collaboration with a great team” and so on. Of course, all these beautiful words only hide the real issue: They won’t pay me.

Many other writers, translators, artists, curators etc. will only be too familiar with this. And as someone once said: We should ask those who give us these great offers whether they go into a bakery and ask for bread for free and tell the staff they would tell all their friends about how great that particular bakery was. Or whether they would ask a hairdresser to cut their hair for free in exchange for “exposure”. Or call the plumber and offer him “great networking opportunities” while he’s fixing broken pipes…As soon as our experiences are translated into other fields, everybody can see how ridiculous such proposals are.

But writers, artists, curators are still often asked to work for free. So far, I would say that I have my fair share, but still have managed to avoid being too much bothered by it. Mostly, I have worked with art journals, catalogue publishers and editors who have been respectful and have made it a pleasure to work with them. I have also sometimes offered my work for free if it has been for some good cause or to help friends.  But I always reject giving away my work for free to large institutions, commercial venues or magazines or to people who are not my friends. However, I just had a “proposal” on an entirely new level.

Apart from writing texts for art journals, online art and culture magazines or exhibition catalogues, I also publish my research in academic journals. Since my return to academia is quite recent, my list of academic publications is not that long. And that apparently means that some publishers think of me as a “young researcher” and therefore “easy prey”. Only, I have been working with all kinds of institutions for long enough to know when something is fishy.

I received an email today with the following wording:

Dear Charlotte Bank,

This is Cultural and Religious Studies, an international, professional and peer-reviewed journal published across the United States by David Publishing Company, 616 Corporate Way, Suite 2-4876, Valley Cottage, NY 10989, USA.

We have learned your paper A Space of One’s Own. The Emergence of a Contemporary Art Scene in Syria” at the 18th International Congress of DAVO. We are interested in your paper and also would like to publish some unpublished papers from you in our journal. If you have the idea of making our journal a vehicle for your research interests, please send the electronic version of your papers or books to us in MS word format via email attachment. All your original and unpublished papers are welcome.

From now on (2015), all the papers published in our journal will have its own DOI (Digital Object Unique Identifier) numbers.

Currently, we are trying to invite some scholars who are willing to join our editorial board or be our reviewers. If you are interested in our journal, please send your CV to us.

I presented the said paper in 2011. Maybe it’s a bit late to state an interest in it in 2016. Also, I wouldn’t normally place my research within “cultural and religious studies”. Furthermore, the wording of the email is very strange and faulty. And I have never heard about a serious academic publisher actually contacting researchers because they would like to publish their work. A brief google search gave some interesting information. The “David Publishing Company” seems to be a publisher from China (not from the USA as stated in the mail) and they appear to have quite a reputation of being predatory. Here are just two articles about their practices:

https://tagteam.harvard.edu/hub_feeds/2007/feed_items/2131545

https://scholarlyoa.com/2015/10/15/david-publishing-company-a-massive-spammer-from-china/

They seem to target “young” and “inexperienced” researchers and contact them after conference presentations. And once they receive the paper and it is “peer reviewed” and accepted after a very short time, the writer is asked to pay (!). I was not familiar with the concept of “academic predatory publishing”, but have occasionally come across fake self-publishing services. But this seems an entirely new dimension of disregarding writers’ rights. And what makes it even more perfidious is that it seems to rely on inexperienced peoples’ credulousness.

My writing is situated in a field that is still quite young (non-Western contemporary and modern art or Global art). So often, we have to place out writing in lesser known and new journals. But we should not forget to do the natural thing when thinking about where to publish: Do proper research before sending in any new, unpublished text.

 

 

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What exactly is cultural heritage (and what isn’t)

One image I remember most vividly from the past decade was the looting and destruction of the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad after the entrance of the US army in spring 2003.

See e.g. the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago for background, context, images and some qoutes from the incident (including Donald Rumsfeld’s stupid jokes):

https://oi.uchicago.edu/museum-exhibits/special-exhibits/oriental-institute-university-chicago-examine-looting-iraq-nation-0

But while the looting of archaeological artefacts was extensively discussed in international media and also the destruction of the national archive received some attention, hardly anything was ever said about another cultural tragedy: The looting of the Museum of Modern Art and the disappearance of its holdings. Some art works may have been rediscovered, but many have not. And with lacking or incomplete archival filing systems, the exact number of works stored in the museum and their identity is impossible to trace.

Now, more than 10 years later, cultural heritage is again being destroyed in Iraq and Syria.

One of the many articles dealing with this issue:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/arts/design/in-syria-and-iraq-trying-to-protect-a-heritage-at-risk.html

One of the sites that have suffered sever damage, Apamea (photo taken in 1999):

Apamea01a_Web

While the focus again is on the archaeological and historical heritage and its scandalous and tragic destruction, another cultural and artistic heritage is also under threat, although maybe less immediately and urgently than the archaeological sites and monuments. But who can predict the direction events in Syria will take in the nearer future? And ignoring the issue will not make it go away.

Syria has an impressive artistic heritage, spanning several millennia. Among this is also an impressive modern artistic heritage. The National Museums in Damascus and Aleppo and the Ministry of Culture hold collections of modern painting, from the days of the “pioneers” to more recent work. And the National Film Organization has in its storage important films by Syrian film makers, many of whom have won prizes at international festivals. Unfortunately these film copies were already in a bad state of preservation before the beginning of the uprising due to poor conservation conditions. And while digital copies of these films might exist in the hands of the film makers and various institutions around the world, the original 35 mm copies are in Damascus.

In times of war and conflict, art and cultural artefacts are increasingly at risk, unscrupulous collectors are waiting to get their hands on looted pieces and often even commission criminal organizations to loot, armed groups are financing their fight with the sale of looted art, etc. At the same time, people on the ground are doing whatever they can to project artefacts, often under great risk to their own lives.

http://hyperallergic.com/195019/syria-has-reputedly-hidden-away-99-of-its-cultural-heritage-artifacts/

But to come back to the events of 2003 mentioned above: How come the looting of the Museum of Modern Art passed unnoticed by international media? And what is being done to assure that the same does not happen in Syria?

The UNESCO does not have a strategy to protect the modern artistic heritage of the country. At a meeting in Geneva on March 31, I asked Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova what efforts were being taken to protect the modern artistic heritage and she seems utterly surprised at my question and had to admit that they were not concerned about modern art.

But why is this so? Why should a country’s modern artistic heritage be less worth protecting than archaeological remains, traditional storytelling traditions or traditional dances? Do we only perceive “heritage” in terms of traditions that go back to the very distant past? Can more recent, more hybrid and less “comfortable” (because not locked in historical distance) artistic forms not be part of what is termed “cultural heritage”? Why shouldn?t the modern heritage of the Non-West be protected just as archeological sites?

Maybe it would be worth taking up this discussion….

Posted in Archaeology, Art history, Cultural heritage, Damascus, Film, Modern art, Museums, Painting, Syria | Tagged , | Leave a comment

On Orphan Objects

Geneva’s Musée Ariana (museum of ceramics and glass) is currently showing an exhibition of their collection of ceramics from around the „Islamic“ world:

Terres d’Islam – l’Ariana sort de ses reserves II: http://www.ville-ge.ch/ariana/index.php?content=1.2.1.1.1.1.&id_eve=1329&langue=frs

In many ways, it is a conventional exhibition, highlighting a fine collection of Medieval Iranian ceramic, some Ottoman and some lusterware from Iran and Syria, but mainly from Spain, both Islamic and post-Reconquista. It is beautifully presented, together with some interesting examples of European pottery that show clear inspiration by Islamic art and a very interesting small collection of Meybod ceramics, assembled by the anthropologist Micheline Centlivres during her fieldwork in Iran.

But what is particularly interesting with this exhibition, is that it is the first attempt I have seen of seriously addressing some controversies that inevitably surround collections of non-European artifacts in European museums. The Ariana’s collection largely consists of legacies and donations made to the museum by private people. And these were collectors, travelers, archaeologists, adventurers who liked to bring exceptional pieces with them from their adventures in far-away places. Hardly anybody asked any questions about provenance of these objects. Often, they had passed through the hands of a long row of art and antiquities dealers, often they came from illicit excavations. And since the market for beautiful objects was seemingly insatiable, objects were especially produced and restored to satisfy European tastes.

The Ariana decided to take apart certain restored pieces in order to show, how “complete” objects were produced from multiple shards that all came from different pieces. Leaving all controversy apart, one cannot help admiring the ingenuity of these past restorers whose practice was so different from museum restorers of today. What they created were in fact, the illusion of perfect Islamic artefacts, an idea of what Islamic art was, rather than any past art historical or archaeological reality.

Here is a photo of a “de-restored” lustre vessel:

Image

 

This open approach to the museum’s own collection is what makes this show so rewarding. When it comes to the doubtful, even sometimes dubious provenance of some objects, most museums prefer not to address this issue at all. It is a fact that only few objects present in our collections actually came from regular excavations and still fewer came from excavations with a division policy (a written agreement on how artifacts were to be divided between excavating country/institution and the country where the excavation took place). Most objects can be assumed to have been bought from local art and antiquities dealers and originally come from illegal excavations. The loss of all contextual information makes them useless in an archaeological sense, although they might be visually attractive. Due to their “lost identity”, such objects are often called “orphan objects” and occasionally fierce discussions have flared up as to how to handle these objects, should they form part of public collections or should they be banned.

Researchers like archaeologist Oscar Muscarella, a specialist on ancient Iran and former research fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have written critically about museums’ acceptance of objects of doubtful provenance and even forgeries (particularly in The Lie became Great. The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, published in 2000). Muscarella’s book included a list of objects of dubious provenance in public and private collections and was naturally not too well received by the museum world. Neither did it open up any meaningful debate on the subject. And yet, it could still prove one step on a necessary road to take in the future. Ideally, museums and critical researchers would work together and start a discussion about the role of collections and museums in creating art history and myths. The exhibition at Musée Ariana gives one a glimpse of hope.

 

 

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Artistic dialogue, a provocation?

Yesterday was the opening of the first event of the FORUM for new arab art this year. I launched the FORUM in 2012 as a platform for showing art produced in different Arab countries and by artists of Arab origin living elsewhere. The project is multidisciplinary and seeks to follow up on new discussions arising among artists and to show work by artists who are not necessarily visible on the international biennial circuit. Studying the selection of artists shown on the biennials, one could easily get the idea that there are only 30-40 artists working in the entire Arab region, whereby I do not mean to say, that those artists frequently presented do not produce work of high interest. My point is merely that there are so many other artists that merit greater visibility and I would certainly wish that more among my curator colleagues were more interested in doing profound research among artist communities instead of relying on the selection of their colleagues for their own shows. The ever polemic Jerry Saltz said 2009 about the globalized art scene of the 2000s to the German art magazine “Monopol”: “It’s a shame that it is always the same 23 professional, international curators who curated the same 123 artists into their exhibitions. Therefore, the exhibitions all looked the same”.

The full interview is to be found here (in German):

http://www.monopol-magazin.de/artikel/20101131/interview-roberta-smith-jerry-saltz.html

 

It was to give more visibility to a greater variety of artistic production in and from the Arab world that the FORUM was launched. Since then, we have presented two group exhibitions (Alien Body in December 2012, Re-Touch in September 2013), a performance event (If I Perform) with Younes Atbane that developed out of a residency where Younes and I worked together in Italy in August 2013 and the Video Dialogues (Aus-Land in June 2013 and Traced Patterns now, in May 2014). More information on these different events can be found on the blog of the venue, Art-Lab Berlin:

http://artlabberlin.wordpress.com/

The original festival model with exhibition and parallel screening program soon gave way to a model of smaller events presented throughout the year, as this allows us to be more flexible and better follow and react to new developments.

The Video Dialogue Traced Patterns presents two videos, Jerusalem HD (2007) by Syrian artist and film maker Ammar Al-Beik and Urban Scene XI: Last Station (2009) by Swedish artist Ninia Sverdrup. It is a premiere in the sense that it is the first event where we open up the FORUM for an artistic dialogue between an artist from the Arab world and an artist from another region. More events of this kind are planned for the future. The event was well received from our audience, but some also seemed slightly taken aback by the concept. Apparently it is still provocative to show Non-Western art on an entirely equal footing with European art. And in a sense, it is still rarely seen. The past 15 years have seen a proliferation of events with a geographical focus showing “Arab art” or “Middle Eastern” art. And as I mentioned above, a selected handful of Middle Eastern artist regularly show on the international circuit. But these shows are still overwhelmingly dominated by Western art, the globalization of the art scene notwithstanding. So, there is still a clear hierarchy. The other artists are invited into the exclusive club of the international art scene.

AmmarAlBeik_JerusalemHD_WebAmmar Al-Beik: Jerusalem HD

 

 

 

 

The FORUM events work the other way around. Instead of being an event where we invite a few Arab artist to show together with European artists, these (or artists from other regions) are invited to show their work with artists from the Arab world. There is no hierarchy; each artist, each work is given the same space. It is interesting, that this still seems to provoke members of the audience. But it has also shown us that we are doing something right, that we ARE in fact, opening up some necessary discussions.

NiniaSverdrup_LastStation_WebNinia Sverdrup: Urban Scene XI: Last Station (2009)

Posted in Artistic dialogue, contemporary Arab art, Contemporary art, Curating, Exhibition, Video | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Humanity in pieces

Humanity seems to be forgotten these days in Syria. The world has got used to horrific news from the country and every time we think that a low has been reached, something even worse appears. Today, the news were the killing of more than 600 people in the Damascus region (I should probably say that the number of killed has not been verified – our world is fond of statistics and they need to be right by all means). It seems that sarin gaz was used together with conventional weapons. Many of the killed were children.

This happens while the news is full of other horrors from Egypt, but these events are better documented and it seems that the Syrian regime is using the focus on Egypt to commit yet another massacre. It remains to be seen if the world will take notice.

Since the beginning of the Arab revolutions, news from Syria has often drowned in the international focus on other countries. The situation in Syria is seen as too obscure, too many interests are involved, too many islamists among the “rebel fighters”. But does this excuse systematically ignoring the human suffering? Children being forced to grow up too fast, families ripped apart, children without parents, parents without children. Journalists killed or detained while trying to work in the country and revolutionaries, dissidents and intellectuals imprisoned and disappeared.

About a month ago, the artist Youssef Abdelke disappeared after being arrested at a checkpoint near Tartous together with two friends. Abdelke, a well known artist and dissident who has been fighting for democracy and human rights in his country for many years and paid the price of a long exile in France, had since the beginning of the uprising been working tirelessly in his studio in Damascus, commenting on events with his drawings and denouncing the violence around him. He founded the Facebook group “Art and Liberty” and invited fellow artists to upload an art work every day for as long as the uprising lasted. The one condition was that artists use their own name and thereby take a stand against oppression, for freedom.

About twelve days after news of Abdelke’s disappearance had become known, I wrote a short article about him, but as so often, the situation in Egypt was escalating and becoming increasingly dramatic, taking up the German media’s entire focus. Therefore the article was never published. Apparently, we cannot cope with more than one Arab crisis at a time. This was Youssef Abdelke’s bad luck. Although the article is now almost a month old and much of the content has been published elsewhere, I am copying it here, in the name of the humanity that is suffering in Syria and as a personal act of denouncing the Syrian regime’s violence and the world’s silence.

The Disappearance of Syrian Artist Youssef Abdelke

On July 18, the Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke was arrested together with two friends at a checkpoint near the Syrian city of Tartous. Since then, he has disappeared, his whereabouts unknown. Abdelke and his two friends are the latest in a long list of victims in the fight of the Syrian regime against intellectuals in the country. Shortly before his disappearance, Abdelke signed a petition together with 100 artists and intellectuals, calling for Bashar Al-Assad and his entourage to step down. The news of his disappearance was met with outrage among artists and intellectuals throughout the Arab world and petitions and solidarity actions organized. Thus, a large number of artists and intellectuals gathered on July 30 in Beirut’s Agial Gallery to declare their support for Abdelke and call for his immediate release. “This is an artist who never used a weapon. He’s a painter, he defends his belief in democracy, and we wanted to do this to say that anyone of us could have been him”, gallerist Saleh Barakat told the Lebanese newspaper, The Daily Star.

Here is the link to the article in The Daily Star newspaper:
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2013/Jul-31/225662-artists-gather-in-solidarity-with-abdelke.ashx#ixzz2capyNW00

Youssef Abdelke had always been a tireless critic of the Syrian regime and was arrested for this during the 1970s. After his release, he left Syria for France, where he lived in exile until he was allowed to return to Syria in the mid-2000s. His return was celebrated enthusiastically by his friends and is one of the most moving key scenes of the experimental documentary film  Ana alati tahmul az-zuhur ila qabri-ha (”I Am the One Who Carries Flowers to Her Grave“, 2006), a collaboration of Abdelke’s wife Hala Alabdallah and Ammar Al-Beik. Since his return, Abdelke stressed his decision never to leave his country again on several occasions. His wife recalled his words, “you do not leave your house when it is on fire, you stay and put it out”. But even if he had wanted to leave Syria, the regime’s travel ban would have hindered him from doing so. Such reprisals did not make him give up his dream of a different Syria and so he continued to work in his house in Damascus, all in the name of a peaceful and relentless resistance.

Abdelke’s art was always committed, his dark charcoal drawings of pierced flowers and fish, severed fish and sheep’s heads, skulls and dead birds appear like images of a tortured nature, symbolic of repression and the destruction of life. Yet, despite the darkness inherent in these images, the objects gain a particular dignity in their state of decay. It seems as if Abdelke’s careful approach to his subjects, his meticulous love for details hold the conviction that even in a position of weakness, life can be strong. His work Elegy to the 1970s Generation (2005) shows a fist and underarm, probably the most common symbol of anti-imperialist and left-wing resistance. But here, the fist is not raised, but rather shown lying on a bleak, flat surface. Sign of a lost fight as a melancholy commemoration of a generation who fought for their ideals and were broken. And yet, this fist still appears to be imbued with strength.

Youssef Abdelke never seemed to be broken either, but rather set on continuing his fight, particularly since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in 2011. “I have been in opposition for the last 40 years. For someone like me, who is in this position, the events in Syria are really something very positive. They open the doors for the Syrian people, for a future of freedom and democracy”, he said on the occasion of an exhibition in Beirut in 2012 commemorating the beginning of the Syrian revolution. Back then, it still seemed possible to hope for a near end to the violence.

Link to The Daily Star’s article about this exhibition:
http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2012/Mar-15/166680-art-smuggled-from-a-country-in-conflict.ashx#ixzz2cayVqt6W

The work of Youssef Abdelke changed since the beginning of the revolt. He started drawing human figures again, after concentrating on still lives for 15 years. In their dark colouring, the new works are related to his earlier ones. But despite their universal and symbolic quality his martyrs and martyrs’ mothers are filled with a new warmth that was absent in the still lives. In both cases, however, the fragility of life stands is the centre of his work.

Through his art as well as through his political commitment, this Youssef Abdelke has always been a model and an inspiration for several generations of artists in the region. “It’s a shame not to declare our political position with regard to his arrest. It’s thanks to Youssef and the other great Arab artists that we have been able to achieve what we have”, artist Ayman Baalbaki told The Daily Star (see link above). We can only hope that Youssef Abdelke will be released soon so that he can continue to produce images that can “break the walls of a small room”, to use the words of the singer Samih Shouqair, who 25 years ago wrote the song Ghurfah saghirah (”A Small Room“) about Abdelke’s imprisonment. Images that remind us of the importance of all life and that it is worth fighting for its preservation.

 

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