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:

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:

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.



About zakharifblog

Art historian and curator, living and working between Berlin and Geneva. Formerly based in Damascus.
This entry was posted in Activism, contemporary Arab art, Damascus, Revolution, Syria. Bookmark the permalink.

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