Warning: contains images and ideas that some may find shocking/controversial.
War is a cruel and powerful muse. Those affected by the death, destruction and misery create works as acts of rebellion and survival against the inhumanity, chaos and insanity thrust upon them. The people of Syria rose up against the oppressive culture of fear of the Assad regime during the Arab Spring in 2011. The Syrian Army and its Russian allies have been trying to reimpose the old order since then in an extremely complicated web of conflicting alliances formed from the many armed groups and nations involved.
Parallel Republic: The Art of Civil Disobedience is an exhibition of Syrian art, born of the conflict in Syria, currently on display at Manchester’s People’s History Museum till 2 April 2017.
The war in Syria continues to rage, increasingly in Bashar al-Assad’s favour, but this isn’t the first time the people of Syria have risen against the Assad regime. In 1982 the people of Hama rose up against Bashar’s father president Hafez al-Assad. The Assad regime’s response was to unleash the Syrian Army on the city to massacre an estimated 20,000 people.
Due to the repressive regime in Syria, the 1982 massacre in Hama could only be referred to as the events of 82, the grief and trauma of the event submerged by a regime enforced tyranny of silence. The current uprising against Bashar al-Assad has met a similar response with bullets, bombs and chemical weapons being used regardless of combatant or civilian status.
But in spite of the bullets and bombs raining down, freedom of expression has flourished with many Syrian artists expressing their opposition to the Syrian state by illustrating, painting, photographing, filming and creating music.
One of those artists is the multi award winning Sulafa Hijazi, who was born in Damascus. She set up the Blue.dar digital production company between Damascus and Beirut in 2010, which is now based in Berlin. Hijazi kindly gave permission for her artwork to be reproduced in this article. Her artworks depicting the macabre sewing machine producing military uniforms and a woman birthing weapons speak of the essence of humanity being corrupted and distorted by war into the mechanical reproduction of the means to pursue and propagate war.
Syrian citizen journalists have appeared to record war crimes and atrocities carried out by all sides that are left unreported by a resource-starved western press that is no longer up to the job. The outstanding work done by Syrian journalists was celebrated in the 2016 British Journalism Awards. Waad al-Khatib won the foreign affairs prize for her reporting in Aleppo and the citizen media group ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ was given the Marie Colvin award for its bold reporting from the city controlled by the Islamic State.
In 2011 a group of school children from Dera’a scrawled on a wall ‘Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām’ (The people want to overthrow the regime). In the UK this would have been unremarkable but in Syria it was enough for them to be arrested and tortured by the police, igniting increasing unrest during the Arab spring. Kartoneh is an anonymous collective whose work on display echoes of that message written on a wall in Dera’a. Writing mainly with school chalk on black paper they create banners and signs with messages, derived after long discussion, about the conflict in Syria.
Laughter is an important safety valve for releasing stress that might otherwise break something inside us, and is often found in the most unlikely places. Having never experienced war, I can only imagine what it is like to endure such huge stress levels for such a long time, but can see why the satirical Top Goon puppet series is so popular.
Masasit Mati is the anonymous Syrian art group that created the Top Goon series. They decided to use finger puppets to tell their stories as they were easy to smuggle through checkpoints. The episode above, ‘There’s nothing like helping people’, as well as poking fun at dictators such as Assad, also calls into question the motives of some western journalists in Syria. There are also four other episodes of Top Goon videos at the exhibition, as well as comic strips from Comic4Syria.
A picture called About a Young Man Called Kashoosh, by Kalil Younes, depicts the death of Ibrahim Qashoush by having his throat cut, bringing to a violent end his work as a fireman, singer and poet who penned anti-Assad songs. Younes’s works at the exhibition depict the visceral and violent nature of the war on Syrians that is often sanitised in western press reports limited to listing casualty figures.
Photographs on display show the sorry state of war torn cities in Syria, whose buildings are so damaged they provide little shelter from the elements, but still offer some protection from the bullets and bombs. These images also depict the Syrians who have stayed on in these devastated areas to fight for their family, their culture, their homes and freedom.
An extract taken from The Silence and the Roar by Nihad Sirees, which is uniquely depicted in one of the works on display, sums up perfectly what this exhibition represents to me:
“In countries ruled by leaders obsessed with supremacy… THE LEADER… imposes silence upon all those who dare to think outside the prevailing norm. Silence can be the muffling of one’s voice or the banning of one’s publications… Or it might be the silence of a cell in a political prison or, without trying to unnecessarily frighten anyone, the silence of the grave”
Freedom of expression is a beautiful thing that allows our humanity to flourish: it is worth fighting for.
Feature image: Artwork by Sulafa Hijazi (with permission)