On the evening of Friday the 20th of November 2015, the night of the Paris attacks, I woke up to the news of the atrocities in Gaziantep about five miles from the Turkish border with Syria. I was at the second stop on my trip around the border of Syria where I was interviewing artists to find out about their response to the conflict in Syria. Beyond or perhaps before the glitz and glamour of the art market artists are always looking, trying to find new ways to communicate ideas, stories and thoughts. Following headlines throughout 2015 of the refugee crisis across Europe I was in Gaziantep to meet and interview artists about their experiences.
Gaziantep is small city in the South-West of Turkey, it is known for creating the best baklava in Turkey but this area of Turkey also has a darker, more serious, past – the Armenian Genocide (Medz Yeghem) – which resulted in the massacre of the Armenian population of the city in 1915. Today it is full of refugees who have escaped the attacks in Syria, many coming from Aleppo which is directly across the border. The town is flooded with refugees escaping the conflict, resulting in children selling tissues to try to survive and most visibly the crowds of people just sitting waiting in outside the hospital. Though only a few kilometres from the border with Syria the language spoken here is Turkish not Arabic, as a result there is little communication between the host community and the Syrians. On the evening prior to my arrival the IS detonated a bomb just a few metres from my hotel killing more than 20 people though that didn’t rate a mention on the news channels. A constant pall of smoke enveloped the city, blowing over the border from the Syrian side, a blurring reminder of the war happening a few kilometres away. That same evening there were reports of cars carrying IS soldiers, young men of 15-16 driving around the streets of Gaziantep, celebrating the attack on Paris this time not brandishing guns but the flags of IS.
February 2015 broke UK news with the story of Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase leaving their East London homes to travel to Turkey and eventually crossing the border to Syria to join the IS. The Press pondered how this could have happened and governments sought to blame each other. The girls had been silently radicalised, meeting IS fighters on the internet, isolated from others in their class at the East London School, from their families and from their communities. They found comfort in the doctrine of IS, the clarity, the honour and they were welcomed and embraced. They packed their bags and left the UK.
A few months later the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, announced ‘the world finds itself facing the worst refugee crisis since the second world war’, a quote which is now used by countless aid agencies, adverts and is regularly reproduced in countless news reports and articles across the globe when talking about the consequences of the war in Syria and Iraq.
The same news reports talk about the immigration crisis, the refugee crisis and the cost of war, while the photographers continually capture people in their most desperate hours trying to escape their war torn homes to illustrate these reports. These photos demand our empathy, our outrage and perhaps most importantly our attention. Nilufer Demin a photographer from Turkey’s Dogan News Agency captured the photo of 3 year old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach near the popular Bodrum holiday destination. Following this David Cameron vowed that the UK would fulfil its ‘moral responsibility’ and take more refugees into the UK. Another image, this time of a father, his face streaked with tears of joy, clutching his daughter as they arrived safely on a Greek beach. The story of this family has become an international news story with follow up reports and features on Mr Majid’s family’s journey. The Austrian press captured the first image of 71 dead in the back of a van in Hungary, perhaps the most eerie being the image of the empty van capturing the holes the refugees had made in the roof of the truck out of desperation in the searing heat. Then there is the footage and photos of the refugees in Hungary stampeding at the border and camerawoman Petra Laszlo tripping up the immigrants in the middle of the rush.
Cameras on our mobile phones coupled with access to huge audiences via social media gives immediate coverage as humanitarian crises unfold. This kind of transparency wasn’t available during the Second World War and in more recent conflicts we have seen images filtered to us via various photographers and newspapers. Many Syrian’s, like the rest of the world, have smart phones and have been able to record their experiences and upload them as they happening. We can see if we want to the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War unfolding by the second on our smart phones. Today we can see the consequences of bombs falling moments after they have fallen.
Recording conflict is not something which has always been tied to the camera. War Artists of the First and Second World War were employed by the UK government to document and record the events of war. Starting in the First World War, the idea was to use the artwork to illustrate propaganda. The programme quickly expanded and today we can see these paintings and drawings were doing saying much more than simply documenting the moment and have played an important role in helping proceeding generations to make sense of war. They captured tension, destruction, grief, wonder and pain. CRW Nevinson and the Nash brothers depicted scenes of the First World War to chill your spine. Bleak winter, trenches, barbed wire, death, bombs the fire; red’s, blacks, yellow.
Perhaps we no longer need artists like the Nash Brothers to record war or crisis, we have smart phones which can not only take photos but can also film. The Nash Brothers had the skill and craft to be able to see a scene and record it on a piece of paper but these works capture more than just a recording of an event. The painting emote the impact of the industrial revolution on war and in others the contrast between dark and light depict something more akin to renaissance view of Hell rather than a battlefield. Today there are hundreds of Syrian artists working around the border of Syria, across Europe and the rest of the world. They are using their art to tell their stories and other’s stories, some are political, some aren’t but they all give us a deeper understanding of the consequences of having to live in a war zone or flee for your life. It’s not just art for artist’s either, NGO’s are increasingly engaging artists to help them reach their objectives. Artists are helping build relationships with communities in fragile environments in which NGO’s operate and the more savvy organisations are asking what the artists can do where they cannot make progress. One organisation I spoke to in Southern Turkey on the border with Syria are working with a group of actors and theatre directors to make a play with young men who are susceptible to radicalisation from the IS. The format of inhabiting other characters allows them to discuss some of these pressures in a safe environment. They are looking to see how artists give voice to people and build trust between communities, where aid programmes cannot.
Are these actors and theatre directors the War Artists, the John and Paul Nash, of today? Not painting, but never-the-less using their medium to make sense of war? What do these artist tell us what isn’t already in the headlines? Could they be the ones to explain what is happening to the people in Syria, not with the armies or government, just to the ordinary people who are either enduring the war-zone or fleeing for safety? The Syrian artists provided a different window for conversations that we might not be able to find a place otherwise to say. Things we only see in passing on the news, ideology that is briefly passed over or ignored and conversations that could begin to approach radicalisation, extremisms and viewpoints that may not be what we want to hear. Could these artists help us ask if there is anything we could have done to stop Shamima Begum, Kadiza Sultana and Amira Abase leaving their East London homes and is it possible to broker discussions through the arts that are not possible to have, even in a free and open society like the UK.
I met over 50 artists on my short trip around the border of Syria, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. They all worked in various mediums and with various subject matters, however they all had one thing in common, the revolution has completely changed they way they made work. The scale of the humanitarian crisis facing Syria is impossible to translate into words. However, there are distinct trends in how Syrians are making work and what they were making work about. The artists are filling a gap for the people, either protesting or giving new perspective, using their skills to help people face the horrors they had experienced and most importantly acting as a lifeline to the rest of the world. The lifeline I saw in the UK and movement that got me out there.
The pace is incredible, as much these artists are providing a lifeline to the rest of the world their lifeline is their work. Artist by artist they have adopted an incredible pace to their work, often they are making work by the day or even the hour. They are changing as Syria is changing, as the world’s perception is changing. It is as if they are capturing and preserving the shifting and decimated Syrian culture in their work. This pace of work and change means it would be unfair and unrepresentative for me to pinpoint certain artists or artworks to depict what is happening in Syria. Social media outlets like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook showcase the work and don’t expect to see paintings like Nash and Nevison, instead expect film and photography, brilliant theatre performances with small casts (obviously it’s cheaper). In these incredibly tense and stressful times, through looking at the work of these artists you can get a sense of the lack of certainty, of the frustration, sadness, anger and conflicting guilt, the guilt of being safe. You see what Nash and CWR Nevinson were doing in First World War.
The first thing I noticed before left the UK was the huge movement of people. The artists are moving, and moving quickly away from the border countries. I had been to Beirut less than a year before where I had met many Syrian artists however a mere 12 months later more than half of them had left for Europe. For every three calls I made to arrange a meeting at least two of them were now in Germany (mostly Berlin) or Sweden. Restrictions in Lebanon do not allow Syrian people to work legally, finding an apartment is difficult and if you do don’t have the right paperwork it can be dangerous.
A new generation of artists have developed out of the conflict. There were artists who have started to make work as a result of the revolution. 100’s, perhaps 1000’s, of people using their mobile phones to document and film the atrocities being inflicted on the innocent daily by an army administered by a ruthless dictator. In a reflection of the propaganda films being disseminated by IS, civilians are making their own films to show the world what is happening to them. Paris and situations like it are happening hourly to innocent people in Syria and these artists are risking their lives to film and photograph it.
The Internet is the Institution. Fundamental to every artwork is the audience, so where do you show your work when you are displaced in a country that affords no opportunities to a Syrian? Easy, the answer is the internet. 1000’s of films, photographs, animations and paintings flood sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The message is in the immediate for in the next minute, hour or day there will be something else to say. It might undermine what was said yesterday but this is a war, everything changes on a daily basis. The internet is their network.
It is here that debates happen in chat rooms, on Facebook and WhatsApp. Travel for those fleeing the conflict is no longer possible without dual nationality or refugee status in a western country. It is worth mentioning here that in Lebanon and Jordan is it illegal for any Syrian national to work. In Jordan if you are caught the authorities will send you back to Syria.
Artists are working in the refugee camps. Time, or more realistically boredom, is one of the biggest enemies in a camp, you are stuck in limbo between your home and a new host country and, as mentioned previously, the immediate host countries around Syria don’t offer much security or hope. Artists are actively working in these camps, mostly with children but often with adults too. In the Shatila camp in Beirut, the NGO Basmeh-Zeitooneh has set up a cultural and education centre. There are over 1000 children on the waiting list alone. The Cultural centre has 2 staff and runs a variety of programmes include a sewing business for women in the camps to make money from their needle work. Open mic sessions bring together the old and the young, the academic and illiterate to debate and discuss the important and mundane, ranging from the daily work of the NGO’s in the camp to women’s rights.
Art as Therapy. In Jordan I visited an arts centre, an artist led and administered centre close the capital Amman. The centre was underneath the flight path of the Amman Queen Alia Airport. The centre provided a safe place for refugee Syrian children to learn and take respite from chaos at home; it kept them off the streets and from begging and selling tissues and kept them learning. During that workshop a plane flew overhead, flying a little lower than usual, the sound rattled through the small room. Immediately children ran to the corner of the room, like they had just spied sweets and others hid under the chairs. They were preparing for a bomb to fall, the facilitators explained as they went to coax the children out of their hiding places. Many of the children were terrified of aeroplanes and automatically ran for protection.
Artists are taking their skills into the heart of communities to share their skills so others can tell their stories. The Molham Centres in Amman, Antep and now in Northern Syria are rehabilitation centres for children who have lost limbs as a consequence of the conflict. They come and live at the volunteer run centre for up to a year, have physiotherapy and make art together. They are supported by social workers who can respond to fears and anxieties raised by the artworks. Many of the volunteers in the centres are practising artists.
Art to remember. Development agencies would probably call this something like ‘preserving cultural heritage’ but for the artists I met they just wanted to remember. One 23 year-old musician was risking his life by going between Turkey and Aleppo to learn traditional Syrian music which was passed on through the teachings of others. This young drummer was risking his life to go into Aleppo to learn this music so he could write it down and remember it even if all those playing it now were lost.
There is an overwhelming sense of injustice in all the people I met. I saw a frustration with the media and above all a feeling of abandonment and a lack of will to save their country. They didn’t want saving from IS they wanted saving from dictatorship and now they need saving from both and tackling one without addressing the other suggests yet more suffering. Within the art they find a space to talk about issues which they cannot talk about openly in public; settling into new societies, the Assad dictatorship (this is particularly dangerous in Lebanon where government parties have allegiances with the regime), leaving their home, houses and land and their story of fleeing.
Syria is host to one of the oldest cultural sites in the world and is referenced in Islamic, Christian and Judaic doctrine. I met doctors, paramedics, therapists, aid workers, farmers and many more that make art to try and show to the world what is happening. They are recording their own histories, ones that are free of international agendas and that depict the consequences on those trying to stay alive. They draw on their experiences to talk about what is happening and to help others deal with their trauma; this can be the content or the focus of the work. It was overwhelming just how many people were willing to tell me about their work.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from these artists was the willingness to share experiences both good and bad and to talk about what was happening. Sometimes this is too hard to do so and utilising the arts to help find ways to do this seemed a succinct and successful method. In the West it is now radicalisation that we are all scared of, with a number of young people having left the UK to go to fight with IS we need to think about how we can create opportunities for more open and honest discussion in schools, without using the labels ‘at risk’ or ‘problem’. In Turkey they are dealing with some of these issues using forum theatre, creating a safe space for young boys, 12–16 to talk about the IS gangs trying to recruit them and often, their fathers encouraging them to join. Theatre is giving them an avenue to think about their stories and where their decisions will take them, it giving the perspective and confidence to take a break and reflect before being drafted in these groups. There is no wrong opinion, all voices are heard and talented arts workers navigate this sensitively and with courage when many would flee. The Syrian artists understand what happens when people are silenced and are embracing and finding ways to encourage young people to share.
Here in the UK there is so much we can learn. Firstly we can see what is happening and what are the consequences of war, what happened to those living the cites Russia has bombed, what it is like to have had to flee your country in fear, what it feels like to be terrified of your government or too scared to talk. Secondly, we can see how artists are finding ways to help answer some of the problems people have to face, living in hostile communities, dealing with the risk of their young men being radicalised or simply helping people face trauma through the arts.
We need to create opportunities for people to discuss their ideas and beliefs and above all we need to understand where these come from. We need to do this so we can challenge these ideas and provide new opportunities for our young people and I think some of these Syrian artists may have an idea.