Ambiguous Flowers: Imran Qureshi at Deutsche Bank KunstHalle, Berlin

Just before leaving for Florence’s Villa Romana to take part in the “Pas de deux” project of Alya Sebti and Angelika Stepken (, I went to see Imran Qureshi’s exhibition at the Deutsche Bank KunstHalle in Berlin. Imran Qureshi is this year’s “Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year” and is a master of ornament and miniature art, an art form that has a long tradition in the “Islamic world” and that still flourishes in Pakistan, although it has almost died out in other countries and regions.

The artist combines this ancient art with a contemporary approach and deals with concerns that are very much part of our times. His art might seem decorative and pretty on the surface, the mastery and elegance with which he draw his motifs and his use of luxuriant colours seems to exert an irresistible attraction on the viewer, but once one gets closer to the works, the violence inherent in the scenes becomes clear. Qureshi uses and plays with this ambiguity in many of his works. One such piece was the site-specific installation “Blessings Upon the Land of my Love” he presented in 2011 at the 10th Sharjah Biennial ( Seen from afar, one might think that the place had witnessed a horrible crime that had left the ground covered in blood. On close inspection, the visitor saw the refined flower motif drawn with red colour.

The same flower motif was used in a series of large panels in the exhibition. After being greeted by a refined miniature self portrait of the artist, the visitor stepped into a wide space whose walls were adorned by large oval panels in red and white or red and gold. The beauty of the motif was there, but the ambiguity that is so intriguing in other works was entirely missing. The panels seemed more like something one would find in a flashy Dubai gallery than in a non-commercial exhibition. Moving onwards, one almost fell into an installation of crumpled pieces of paper, each piece showing a variant of the red flower-motif and referring to a hidden or forgotten act of violence. But also here, the fine ambiguity of installations like “Blessings Upon the Land of my Love” seemed missing. And the work seemed ill placed in a room that also served as a kind of passageway linking the first and the third part of the exhibition.

The most interesting part of the exhibition was the third part: An artificial construction of a labyrinth-like space on two floors, claustrophobic and dark, like the corridors and cells of a prison. And, as the artist explained in the film that was shown in the bookshop, it was a chance discovery of a prison that had inspired him to create this installation. Moving through the corridors and entering the “cells”, the visitor would find a series of miniatures, beautiful and refined, yet depicting scenes filled with hidden violence.

This third part of the exhibition was by far the most convincing (even if one might intervene that the constructed space seemed overly artificial). The seemingly pretty, decorative images revealed their hidden meanings at close range, leaving the visitor faced with their violence and with no other way out than to move on through the labyrinth.

Despite its shortcomings, Imran Qureishi’s exhibition in Berlin was worth a visit. But one cannot help thinking that the potential of this artist was left unused to its full with no large scale architectural work included. Those who have the possibility can see such a work in New York:

Posted in Art history, Contemporary art, Exhibition, Installation, Miniatures, Painting | Leave a comment

Istanbul Days

Since 2010, Delphine Leccas and myself have been organising the Visual Arts Festival Damascus. At the time of its launch in Autumn 2010, we did not know that it would be the only time the festival would take place in its “hometown” Damascus. When the revolution started the year after and especially since it increased in violence, it was clear that we could not pretend nothing was happening in the country and therefore decided not to hold an artistic event while people were being killed on the streets of Syrian towns. But the idea to offer a space for young artists working in contemporary media and to bring them together with their peers in the region remained as relevant as ever, especially in view of the huge social changes taking place around the Mediterranean and especially in the Arab world. Young artists were active participants in these movements and their work reflected new ideas of civic engagement and cooperation.

For this reason, we decided to change the format of the festival, to make it nomadic and to look for international partner institutions to invite us to set up our festival elsewhere. The name, Visual Arts Festival Damascus, was kept to reflect the focus on the young, Syrian art scene and as a statement of our attachment to Syria and Damascus and our intention to return to Damascus with the festival as soon as this would again be possible. Unfortunately, this does not look as if it would happen very soon.

After having been hosted by the International Film Festival Rotterdam in 2012, we were very happy to organize the 2013 edition at the experimental art space DEPO in Istanbul. It was with growing concern that we were following events in Turkey during the last weeks of preparation, also asking ourselves what they meant for our project. Again, we felt we needed to take events into account and adapt our statements and program accordingly, especially since the artists participating in the festival all relate their practice to the international, engaged artistic community. Our aim was to create a common space for meetings of artists from Turkey and different Arab countries, to offer an opportunity for discussion and meetings in an open and free atmosphere away from the mainstream art world.

Here is a link to DEPO’s page with the list of participating artists and our statement:

The week we spent in Istanbul proved to be a constant change of enormously inspirational meetings, worries for our colleagues who went directly from work to protest every day, the occasional dosis of tear gas and of course hard work to set up the exhibition. What was striking about the protest movement was the high level of very conscious organization, a strong sense of why everybody was there and a creative way to react fast to claims and accusations by the government and mainstream media. Thus, CNNTurk was airing a documentary about penguins during one of the brutal crack downs of the police. Activists were quick to react and penguins became a symbol of the protests and mainstream media’s refusal to address the issue.

Some examples can be found here (and elsewhere on the Net):

Humour and satire have been important weapons in all recent protest movements, from Tahrir in Cairo to Occupy Wall Street and even in face of the increasing violence in Syria. The protests in Turkey also seem to have given rise to a new way of demonstrating, as the example of the “Standing Man” shows. Erdem Gunduz stood motionless for five hours facing the Atatürk Cultural Center, puzzling the police and making it impossible to use their usual violence. The phenomenon grew and triggered solidarity actions elsewhere in Turkey and internationally, showing a connectedness across borders, of people with people.

This kind of solidarity and connectedness was one of the issues discussed during the open discussion “Artist-activist: Social, political and collective practice in time of digital arts” where the chances of artistic online activism and new media in defying authoritarianism were discussed. Online platforms offer an opportunity to create new networks and collaborations. It is important that we keep this in mind and actively defend these spaces, just as we defend the public spaces of our cities.

To read more about the outlook of the Visual Arts Festival Damascus and the people behind it, check this interview with the Italian art magazine SuccoAcido:

Posted in Activism, contemporary Arab art, Contemporary art, Damascus, Exhibition, Public space, Revolution, Syria, Traveling festival, Video | Leave a comment

Communicative Spaces and New Media in the Context of Political Emergencies: Strategies of Palestinian and Syrian artists

A figure runs across a barren desert landscape towards the viewer. As it nears, we can discern the figure of a young man, smiling and friendly looking. He seems full of hope, happy to have reached his goal and stops right in front of us, facing the camera. But suddenly, something happens. A change occurs in the young man. His expression turns from surprised to fearful, even terrified. He turns around and starts running. The camera, and with it the spectator, is jolted out of its inert spectatorship and follows him. In the final commotion, the young man falls to the ground, the camera shakes and stops.

Seen now, in October 2012, at a moment where Syria seems on the verge of a long and bloody conflict and the original goals of the revolution are increasingly lost in the immediate exigencies of reacting to the horrific violence, Rami Farah’s short video Point, shot in 2005, seems almost prophetic. The hopes of the young revolutionaries who took to the streets to protest peacefully for freedom and dignity, the following brutal crackdown by the regime, and the complicity of an international spectatorship watching a catastrophe unfold, without taking action, all thisseems present in this three-minute long video. At the time of its realisation, it also seemed to refer to the situation of many young Syrians, who had hopes for their future, fuelled in part by the superficial opening of the country after Bashar Al-Assad took over power from his father in 2000, but who mostly saw those hopes and dreams crushed. Of course, it also lends itself to a much more general reading, referring to the hopes, struggles and disappointments of any ordinary human life.

This multi-layered approach, which allows for multiple readings of a work, and of speaking between the lines, was long characteristic of Syrian artistic production, where artists were obliged to wrap critique in a complex visual language of metaphors and symbols. With the revolution and its hopes for individual freedom, artists developed the desire to leave the world of symbols behind and to speak a novel, more direct language.

When protests broke out in Deraa in southern Syria in March 2011 as a reaction to police violence and the brutal torturing of a group of youngsters following their arrest, the regime did not hesitate to react with extreme violence in its attempt to crush the movement from the beginning and also quickly banned foreign journalists from the country. As a consequence, Syrian citizen journalists and activists started taking over the task of reporting and documenting the unfolding uprising and started using the internet as what might be termed an “informal news channel”, used by Syrians and the international audience alike. Soon, more creative expressions of civil dissent appeared, and over the course of the year the number of websites, YouTube channels and Facebook groups called into existence by Syrian creatives increased steadily. They offered a continuous flow of videos, drawings, and poems, commenting on the events on the streets of Syrian towns and villages and expressing hopes for a better future as well as declaring their commitment to the non-violent ideals of the revolution. Initially, it was mainly works by non-professionals, something that stresses the fact that the Syrian revolution started off as a popular uprising and not as a movement led by intellectuals. Professional artists joined in later, and thereby gave the internet a new dimension as a space for artistic expression and dissent.

The calls for freedom and dignity on the streets were paralleled in the artistic and cultural field by a desire to leave behind the encoding of critique that was characteristic of socially and politically critical art prior to the uprising, to address urgent social and political issues openly and without restrictions, and to denounce the brutality and arbitrariness of the regime. However, this outspokenness perforce came with a price. Many artists have had to hide their true identities behind pseudonyms, as echoed by blogger and writer Amal Hanano (also a pseudonym): “We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity“.

Here’s a link to Amal Hanano’s essay: ‘The Real Me and the Hypothetical Syrian Revolution (Part 2)’, Jadaliyya 2012,

This is particularly the case for artists living inside Syria, but even artists living in exile have had to consider the risks to their personal safety and that of their families very carefully. The parents of musician and composer Malek Jandali, who lives in the USA, were attacked and severely beaten in their home in Damascus, after Jandali published a music piece that called for freedom. As stated by Dani Abo Louh during the 7th Berlin Biennale earlier this year, for Mohamad Omran and himself, the decision to publish their video Conte de printemps (2011) under their own names wasreached only after long and careful consideration.

Not only in terms of directness are these new videos different from their pre-uprising forebears, but alsoin the techniques applied. Often produced with the simplest technical equipment, they do not try to hide this fact and thus bear witness to the urgency under which they are produced. Characteristic of these works is an extended use of found footage, something that was not very common in Syrian video works before the uprising (one exception being Ammar Al-Beik who made extended use of it in a number of works), as well as the mixing of different techniques, such as animation, performance and drawing. The above mentioned video Conte de printemps interweaves documentary footage with animated drawn paper figures. The figures rise and are crushed before a background of images of demonstrations and violent repression, but manage to rise again, crumbled and dishevelled looking, yet in defiance. With very simple means, the video tells the story of the hopes of the Syrian revolution, hopes that refuse to be crushed (or at least did so for a long time during the earlier phase of the uprising), even when faced with brutal violence. A similar strategy is adopted by the artist who has produced the video “LIBERTé” under the pseudonym Philip Horani. In a filmed painting performance, set before the background of images of real protests, the artist draws groups of figures holding up banners that grow increasingly dense until they are wiped out by red paint. At the end of the video the official Syrian flag appear, its two stars having taken on a flower-like appearance as a sign of hope.

As strong declarations of solidarity to the ideals of freedom, citizens’ rights and non-violence, these works have found their audience in the semi-public sphere of online networking forums, where they have been widely shared. At a time where Syrian artists have been forced underground or out of the country in large numbers, the online spherehas offered a space in which to share both an artistic dialogue and a commitment to the uprising. It has also given artists access to apublic they did not have before, specifically, their own fellow Syrians.

While the works of a number of Syrian artists up till the revolution could be termed ‘critical’ rather than outright ‘activist’, Palestinian art was from its beginnings ‘activist’ by dint of their being‘ Palestinian’. In a cultural context where simply the word ‘Palestine’ is deemed controversial and in which itscorresponding people, the Palestinians, have been consistently denied their existence, the naming, representing and imagining of Palestine, its lands, cities and villages, its history and its everyday culture, becomes a matter of cultural survival and of re-claiming lost spaces. Beginning with the “Liberation Art” of painters such as Ismail Shammout, Suleiman Mansour, Ibrahim Ghannam and Abdul Rahman Al-Muzayen, and others, toworks experimenting with local and natural materials in the time following the First Intifada, upto the works from the last decade, Palestine – the land, its people and its living conditions – continuesto be the theme that most artistic production revolves around.

Since the late 1990s, but particularly since the early years of the new millennium, a young generation of Palestinian artists emerged, who succeeded in bringing the Palestinian cause onto the stage of the international art world. Internationally trained, the works of these artists operate within the visual language of the international, contemporary art world, as contrasted to earlier generations of Palestinian artists. This has allowed them to engage the policies and standards of art institutions and challenge existing power structures that had kept out works of Palestinian artists in the past. In this way, they were able to bring hitherto disregarded and marginalized discourses into the public space of the exhibition circuit. This has not always occurred undisputed: there have been numerous cases of sabotage of running shows and attempted censorship, the most prominent recent case being the ejection of Larissa Sansour from the shortlist of the Lacoste Elysée Prize in December 2011, an incident that garnered much interest internationally and which led to the cancellation of the Prize by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.

The work of Emily Jacir deals very closely with the Palestinian situation and her early works had a distinctly activist character. A number of these projects address the restricted mobility of Palestinians, chief among them Crossing Surda (2002), Where We Come From (2001 – 2003) and Sexy Semite (2000 – 2002). Crossing Surda, a video that bears the subtitle ‘a record of going to and from work’, is exactly that. The artist filmed her daily walk across the Surda checkpoint (which interrupts the Ramallah – Birzeit road) on her way to Birzeit University, where she was lecturing at the time. Jacir was forced to shoot the film with a camera hidden in her bag, after an incident in which she was detained for three hours, faced with a gun, and had her video tape confiscated. The shaky images of a road in disrepair, military vehicles and armed soldiers, especially when blown up onto a large screen in a darkened room, leaves the spectator with a profound feeling of discomfort. As the artist states of the work: ‘[Crossing Surda (a record of going to and from work)] exists because an Israeli soldier threatened me and put an M-16 into my temple. If I had not had this direct threatening experience this piece would not exist’

The interview is to be found here:

Mobility is also at the centre of the project Where We Come From. The artist asked fellow Palestinians to send her requests of tasks they could not perform themselves, due either to the status of their identity papers or residency status. Jacir, who thanks to her American passport was able to travel freely promised to undertake the different tasks. She documented her activities, which included a date with a girl for a young male requester, paying bills for another requester and placing flowers on the grave of the mother of a third. Presented as a series of photographs documenting the fulfilled assignment together with the original request, Where We Come From is a record of how mobility restrictions stand in the way of the most mundane tasks and render any attempt at normality futile. Applying a more subversive approach, Jacir used personal newspaper ads in another project to comment on mobility and stereotypes. In Sexy Semite (2000 – 2002), the artist and some friends inserted 50 mock ads in a newspaper (The New York Village Voice), seemingly of Palestinian women seeking marriage with an Israeli. The language is that typically deployed in such ads and the tone is light and playful. However, each of them refers somewhere in the text to common stereotypes and national symbols: ‘Ready to start a big family’, ‘Redhead Palestinian ready to be colonized by your army’, ‘Do you love milk and honey?’, ‘Still have house keys’. The reality behind this project, that mobility for Palestinians is restricted to a point where the only way out of the deadlock might seem to marry an Israeli, is in stark contrast to the light tone of the ads and points out the absurd effects of mobility restrictions on people’s lives. The project thus shows the ‘ridiculousness [of such restrictions] by contrasting it with the ease of other forms of exchange or with easy exchanges enjoyed by others’ (Demos, T.J.: ‘Desire in Diaspora’, Art Journal , Vol. 62/4, Winter 2003, p. 76). In its initial form (the project has also been exhibited in art spaces), Sexy Semite presents a cunning subversion of the communicative space of private newspaper ads, relying on the distribution of the paper to assure the work’s exposure. In the way that the project makes use of existing communication tools, it relates to other forms of similar art practices, such as Mail Art. Conceived by artists as a means of distributing art through the international postal system in protest against a restricted and corrupt gallery and art market system, the movement came to have a particular importance for artists in socialist Eastern Europe and Latin America, for whom travel was either impossible or severely restricted. Mail Art was used in the 1970s and 1980s to reflect upon and attempt to overcome their state of isolation, both geographically and artistically, but also as powerful acts of dissent. The Chilean artist Eugenio Dittborn even developed a particular form of Mail Art he termed ‘Airmail Paintings’, large works using lightweight material that were folded and sent out of the country during the dark years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. For the artist, the works that often revolved around themes of repression represented ‘messages in a bottle’, a ‘way to get out’. They also allowed the artist to enter into a dialogue with an international public, something that would not have been possible within the conventional modes of distribution and exposure of the art world.

Similarly to Emily Jacir, The work of afore mentioned Larissa Sansour also comments on the occupation of Palestine and its consequences for its inhabitants. The artist’s work references pop-culture and light entertainment, a deliberate strategy the artist has chosen in order to counter stereotyped images of Palestinians as either terrorists or as victims in mainstream media. By using formats that the public normally associates with entertainment (TV shows, popular cinema, sci-fi comics), she seeks to convey a political message and undermine the representational mainstream norms that apply to the Palestinian situation and that the public seems to have got used to and even expect. 

This strategy first appeared in the two early videos Bethlehem Bandolero (2005) and Happy Days (2006). In both videos the artist herself takes a leading role, which is typical of Sansour’s work, undertaking seemingly absurd actions. In Bethlehem Bandolero, the artist stages a gun duel with the Israeli separation wall. The imagery is reminiscent of 1970s Italo-Westerns, from the opening, sped-up approach of the protagonist feature that breaks with the genre and adds to the general feeling of absurdity) through the town, the menacing church bells, up till the final show down, in which Sansour faces the terrifying wall. Happy Days takes its theme from apopular 1970-1980s American TV show and presents a satirical take on a ‘happy’ life under occupation that of course remains worlds apart from the idyllic 50s and 60s USA portrayed in the original show. In a series of vignettes, the video shows typical scenes from daily life in occupied Palestine: the Israeli army, watchtowers, road blocks, identity controls, tourists on visits to the Holy Land and the artist herself as ‘The Palestinian’. As in Bethlehem Bandolero, the sped-up sequence of images appears playful, renderingthe contrast to the reality behind the images even more disturbing. Lately, Sansour has turned towards bolder fictionalisation, with the sci-fi inspired works of A Space Exodus (2009), the graphic novel The Novel of Nonel and Vovel (2009), Nonel and Vovel’s Inferno (2010), thelatter two both collaborations with artist Oreet Ashery, and finally her most recent project Nation Estate (2012). All these works operate in the space between highly stylised fiction and political reality; a space the artist considers the most adequate for her work.

Larissa Sansour in an interview with Wafa Gabsi:

The examples above show how artists use different communicative spaces to convey a political message, in the case of Syrian artists by using the internet and in the case of Palestinian artists by “using” the spaces of the international art circuit of exhibitions, institutions, biennials, etc. Works by Palestinian artists, like those mentioned, and which have been widely shown on an international scale were produced with the clear incentive to criticise and challenge the status quo of Palestinian politics and have succeeded in turning the exhibition space into a communicative space, a space in which to articulate protest and invite a re-thinking that might ultimately lead to change. In a similar line, Valie Export recently compared the museum with the public space of the street when asked to comment on the seeming paradox of her feminist activist works now being hosted at major museums of the world.

Interview with Valie Export:

In this context, it is interesting to compare the two different incidents of emergence of activist art in a form formerly not or only sparely known: First, the many works by young Palestinian artists who in the early and the middle years of the first decade of the millennium addressed very openly the conditions of living under occupation. Sharif Waked’s video Chic Point (2003) and Jacqueline Salloum’s Caterrorpillar (2002), a mock toy she also “promoted” on her now defunct website, are other poignant examples in addition to the above mentioned works. This “wave” happened in the light of the growing disappointment with the failure of the Oslo Accord, the second Intifada, the building of the Israeli apartheid wall, and the increasing infringements of the mobility of Palestinians in general. That these artists succeeded in bringing an issue widely deemed controversial by Western public opinion into major international art institutions in a manner that was hitherto unseen should be seen in the light of a complex net of cause and effect: The increased presence of non-Western artists on the international art scene from the 1990s onwards, the international interest in contemporary art from the Arab world after 9/11, as well as the emergence of a generation of internationally trained and globally mobile Palestinian artists.  

Second, the use of online social networks by young Syrian artists, frequently geographically isolated from one another and from a large part of their public, to call for attention to the on-going violence in their country. The internet did not present itself as an option for artistic expression until it rose to prominence at the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. The way Syrian artists make use of the internet to overcome their isolation is reminiscent of the importance of the Mail Art movement for the once geographically confined artists of the Eastern block and Latin America, an exchange that for these artists often represented their only contact with international artistic developments.

Activist art is most commonly linked to alternative spaces for expression, spaces that fall outside the traditional sphere for artistic expression, whether this is the street or other urban spaces, converted buildings or international communication systems. The online networking spaces currently used by Syrian artists stand in the tradition of the latter. That the institutional frame of the international art world can be put to such a use and present itself as a communicative space that allows for alternative discourses and lines of communication is seen in the case of the Palestinian artists mentioned.

In 1969, John Berger wrote in the foreword to his Art and Revolution. Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R., that ‘What matters are the needs which art answers’. In 2012 we could add: And art will always seek out a space within which to articulate it, inside and outside of the institutional framework’.


[1] Hanano, Amal, ‘The Real Me and the Hypothetical Syrian Revolution (Part 2)’, Jadaliyya 2012,

[3] Abo Louh, Dani, personal statement at the 7th Berlin Biennale, on the 3rd of June, 2012.

[4] This is a recurring theme of recent Palestinian history. Most famous is probably Golda Meir’s statement of 1969 to The Sunday Times, ‘There are no Palestinians’, but this is not the only case and as recently as 2011, the BBC was involved in a controversy about the alleged censorship of a song by rapper Mic Righteous, that contains the sentence ‘I can still scream ‘Free Palestine’ for my pride, still pray for peace, still burn the Fed for the brutality they spread over the world‘. The word “Palestine” was edited out of the song and replaced by sound effects,

[5] Palestinian artist Samia Halaby dedicated an entire publication in 2003 to this group of artists and sought to define it as a distinct art movement: Halaby, Samia, Liberation Art of Palestine. Palestinian Painting and Sculpture in the Second Half of the 20th Century, New York: HTTB Publications, 2003.

[6] The Surda checkpoint interrupts the road linking Ramallah and Birzeit and is required to be crossed by foot.

[7] Emily Jacir, interview with Michael Z. Wise, published in New York Times, January 30, 2009,, retrieved September 12, 2012.

[8] Demos, T.J.: ‘Desire in Diaspora’, Art Journal , Vol. 62/4, Winter 2003, p. 76.

[9] Eugenio Dittborn, quoted in The Economist, ‘El Genio Dittborn. Pinning down an escape artist’, published January 19 2011,

[10] Larissa Sansour in Gabsi, Wafa: Fiction and Art Practice: Interview with Larissa Sansour, A Space Exodus, Contemporary Practices X, p. 117,, last visited September 12, 2012.

[12] Even though a closer examination of these interconnected circumstances seems highly rewarding and interesting, it would burst the limits of this essay and must be left to another study.

[13] Berger, John : Art and Revolution. Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the U.S.S.R, New York: Pantheon Books, 1969, introduction, no page number.

Posted in Activism, Art history, Censorship, Conceptual art, contemporary Arab art, Contemporary art, Exhibition, Revolution, Syria, Video | Leave a comment

Imagining Syria or Can you get contact lenses in Deir Az-Zor?

A comment on a recent article discussing the complex situation in Damascus during these days of inner-city fighting between the FSA and the regular army referred to the difficulties Lawrence of Arabia encountered when reaching Damascus. It was not quite clear to me what the comment meant, as the historical situation seemed to have only little similarity with any current events. But then I realized that the writer was probably not referring to any historical details, but rather to David Lean’s 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia”, starring Peter O’Toole. Upon entering Damascus, a council of Arab leaders fails to achieve an agreement, instead breaking into small disputes of a personal character. Obviously, Arabs cannot focus on important issues, but will forever only quarrel over minor, stupid details and take everything into the personal realm. Or so we as spectators are supposed to believe.

Now, much has been said and written about the image of Arabs in Western popular culture, and much more eloquently that in my brief note here. A beautiful satirical video by Jackie Salloum, “Planet of the Arabs” that was based on Jack Shaheen’s book “Reel Bad Arabs” is one of the best illustrations of this:

It is not my topic, either. But the mentioned comment on an article addressing a very contemporary issue struck me as symptomatic to the way Syria is represented in international media (Western and non-Western). For more than a year, international media has reported on the Syrian uprising, very often without ever getting close to the country, its people and the multi-layered reasons for the ongoing revolt. With a few notable exceptions (who deserve great recognition), international journalists reporting on Syria mainly do so from near-by Beirut and often without any profound knowledge of the country. Until the Syrians began their long and uphill struggle for civil rights, Syria was not considered “cool” for foreign journalists (nor for any person who considered him/herself “cool”, whether political scientists, sociologists – or art and culture workers; in fact most of my art world colleagues did not understand my strange passion for the country and considered it some weird personal whim). Hardly anybody seemed interested in visiting the country as part of their professional work or getting to know it more closely.

And this lacking familiarity with the country and its citizens shows in much of the reporting on the unfolding events. It seems that the international image of Syria is strangely static, sometimes the country is compared to the European past, to France and Britain in the 19th century, without acknowledging contemporary realities, sometimes it appears as a-historic, locked in its ancient past. And not even this time of global connectivity seems to have changed this. But how did the image of Syria remain this way? And how come that the people actually visiting Syria as tourists (and the Syrian tourism industry was booming in the years just before the beginning of the uprising) never seemed to notice the bustling energy of young, contemporary Syria? I remember a (Syrian) friend telling me of an American student he had met, who had been absolutely astonished when he didn’t find any camels and men in flowing robes on Bab Tuma square, but rather cars and young girls in tight jeans. We laughed quite a lot about this at the time, and of course we could never have known that this image of Syria would have such heavy consequences a few years later. Is the failure of the world to connect with Syrian revolutionaries in the same way it connected with Egyptian youth on Tahrir Square linked to this missing image of a contemporary Syria? Is Syria now paying for the fact that the country has had such a limited space in international imagination? And when it made its way into the global consciousness, it was as a millennia old fairy tale place? The Syria of Zenobia of Palmyra?

Ancient city of Rasafeh

But even when your main interest is the ancient history of a place, this does not necessarily mean that all contemporary reality needs to be left out of view (although it often seems to work this way). When I first visited Syria in 1998, I was a student of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Heidelberg and came to work at an archaeological excavation in a remote village east of Deir Az-Zor. Being on an archaeological excavation means that you spend several months in a place, but remain quite isolated, simply because excavations are generally located far from urban centres, in remote, rural regions. You spend most of your time working, time is usually short and the amount of work at hand quite overwhelming. Some weeks into our stay, I needed to renew my supply of cleansing liquid for contact lenses. I asked some of my colleagues who had been coming to the region for many years, where I could get it, but just got a look of bewilderment and the answer “you can’t get such things in DEIR AZ-ZOR…”. Meaning, how could I ask such a stupid question and expect modernity to have arrived to this desolate spot of the Earth. When I came back to the town a few months later on a private visit, I found that you could actually very well get both contact lenses and all necessary equipment in Deir Az-Zor.

What this little, unimportant anecdote keeps reminding me of, is that mental images can be very persistent once they have taken hold. And apparently, the image of Syria in the international imagination is of an ancient country, caught in conditions comparable to remote history, but with nothing to relate to for a contemporary human being. Just like those colleagues of mine 15 years back. And therefore the country appears puzzling, enigmatic, impossible to understand. Inhabited by people who are just as strange and unpredictable.

Syria, however, does have a contemporary reality. It is currently a very violent reality, where children are loosing their parents, parents mourning dead children and whole families are wiped away. Syrians are paying a very high price because they dared to dream of a life in dignity and freedom. The kind of things we take for granted. This should not be so difficult to relate to. No matter how unfamiliar a country might seem.

Posted in Activism, Archaeology, Revolution, Syria | 1 Comment

A morning’s gift

A young child is enjoying a relaxed weekend morning in bed. The sun is shining and casts a soft light onto the white sheets. He turns around, hugs his teddy bear and hides under the sheets, telling how much he used to enjoy being waken up by music and his mother’s playful and soft games. This happiness is abruptly brought to an end by the sound of bombs and shattered glass, the camera shaking and struggling to find its balance. Then we see the child standing in the midst of smoke and rubble.

This touching and lovely short film, based on the memories of a child who survived a bombardment during the July War of 2006 in Lebanon, was made by a Syrian aspiring film maker, Bassel Shehadeh, and secured him a Fulbright scholarship to study film making in the USA. The film shows a delicate and sensitive cinematic vision, a remarkable talent. But we will not have the pleasure of seeing this talent develop and blossom. Bassel was killed on May 28 2012, as he was filming in Homs, Syria. He had left his studies to return to his country at the beginning of the revolution, dedicating his talent and knowledge to filming and teaching editing techniques to young citizen journalists. Thanks to people like Bassel, we (the world) have been able to stay informed about events in Syria.

I did not know Bassel when he was still alive. It was his tragic death that made me discover his talent, a talent that has now been brutally crushed. We will never see the films Bassel Shehadeh were going to offer us in future. We will not have the pleasure of being lead into the stunning world of his imagery. Syria is paying a high price for freedom. So many lives are lost. Who can tell what these young people would have had to offer to the world later on? We will never know.

This is Bassel Shehadeh’s short film:


Posted in Activism, arab cinema, Damascus, Film, Revolution, Syria, Syrian cinema | Leave a comment

Creative Strategies of Protest in Syria: Mapping the Virtual Agora

Since the protests started in Syria last year and the large scale ban on foreign journalists, we have been witnessing a wave of disturbing images from inside Syria, caught on camera by brave citizen journalists under great personal risk and uploaded online, free for the world to see. The images show the brutality and extreme violence of the Syrian regime and one might often wonder what means are left to the individual citizen to counter this.

The level of violence partly explains the different forms of the protests used by activists in Syria compared to Tunisia and Egypt. The element of surprise is a recurring feature. Early on in the revolution, activists used creative interventions to pass on their message, the well known actions of the red fountains of Damascus, balloons with freedom messages, protests songs played from buildings and in garbage bins, these are all examples of the wit, cunning and creativity of the protesters, as is the importance of song and dance in the protests. Over the past year, the Syrians have been re-discovering themselves and their country, have re-claimed their streets and cities.

The activism of the streets has been accompanied by a wave of creative manifestations on the internet, also from people outside the art circuit. Critical artistic positions are not new to Syria, but critique used to be carefully wrapped in metaphors and symbols, a necessity if artists wanted to protect themselves and their family and hope to have their works displayed in public. Such precautions are now gone. The regime is openly denounced for its crimes and its fall is demanded. However, the artists who produce such works need to work under the cover of anonymity, if they are inside the country. Only in exile, can they lift this cover.


Mohamad Omran & Dani Abo Louh: Conte de printemps (2011)

What we are currently seeing on YouTube and other online platforms, are a mass of new, creative videos, from young artists and from amateurs using an artistic format to comment on events and express their hopes and dreams for a better future for Syria. Film maker and activist Hala Alabdallah has termed these short pieces “auteur films”. In the sense that they are manifestations of personal dreams, shot with true feeling, this is what they are. It is still too early for elaborate, reflective works, time and especially distance is needed for this. The new activist videos are produced with the use of only very basic technique, making wide use of found footage. They do not try to hide this, just as they are clearly marked by the need to act fast. They are hereby sure to influence the visual language of productions to come.


Philip Horani: LIBERTé (2011)

I will talk about this new video phenomenon and show examples at the European Media Art Festival in Osnabrück in Germany on April 20, 2012. For more info on the program, please check:

Check also an article I wrote earlier this year on creativity in the protest movement in Syria:

For details on the videos and updates, please check my website:

Posted in Activism, arab cinema, contemporary Arab art, Contemporary art, Creativity, Film, Public intervention, Public space, Revolution, Syria, Video | Leave a comment

Mapping a Revolution

Elyes Baccar’s Rouge Parole

Sometimes, when we get stuck by tedious everyday business while pursuing a dream, it is good to be reminded of why we started on the path we are following. With revolutions, this is also true. So while we might now, in the second year of the Arab revolutions experience a feeling of increasing disenchantment and start wonder whether all was just in vain, some people – artists, film makers, novelists – present us with a reminder of what the ideals of the beginnings were. Elyes Baccar’s film “Rouge Parole” is such a powerful reminder. It is a film about the Tunisian revolution and yet, it is not a film about the revolution. It is a poetic work of free associations, of single incidents experienced by individuals that formed part of what is now defined as “the Tunisian revolution”.

Baccar takes the spectator on a journey through his country, invites us to accompany him on his own personal search for the background of the media stories, to talk to people behind the news headlines, and to follow the stories off the news. We meet the people who have life stories full of struggles and humiliations, but who also show us their strength and dignity when facing violence and injustice. We witness heated discussions about freedom, freedom of speech and the freedom to be different, to disagree. We get a glimpse into a country that is redefining itself, of people re-discovering themselves and each others. Of people who incredulously stare at a bookshop’s window displaying hitherto banned books, crying of happiness over this newfound liberty and youngsters wandering through the villas of the ousted president and his family while expressing their outrage at the divide between the luxury on display and the misery of ordinary Tunisians.

“Rouge Parole” is a manifestation of love that manages to steer free of revolution nostalgia and sentimentality. It is not a rose-coloured image of the uprising, it is an honest film, told in a beautiful and strong cinematic language, of a country and a people who surprised themselves and the world in 2011 and became a worldwide inspiration for change.

Baccar says of his film that he wanted to create a reference, to remind his fellow Tunisians of how the revolution started and what its ideals were about in the beginning before the day to day business of negotiating a new Tunisia took over.

Therefore, let us keep in mind that at the basis of the Arab revolutions are several million people’s wish for freedom, dignity and the end of despotism. And let’s not forget that revolutions take time.

Watch the trailer of Elyes Baccar’s “Rouge Parole”:

Posted in arab cinema, Film, Public space, Revolution, Tunisia | Leave a comment