Since Syria has been plagued by conflict and violence, many of the country’s artists have embraced exile and moved to safer shores. Nonetheless, this artistic diaspora remains focused on exploring their native country’s culture and history, examining the destruction caused by war. Whether referencing personal or collective memories, cultural and religious traditions or other psychological and personal experiences, the artists in this list are some of the foremost Syrian practitioners today.
Khaled Takreti (b. 1964, Beirut) studied Architecture and Design at Damascus University and worked at the National Museum in Damascus before moving to New York for two years (1995-1997) and then to Paris in 2006. His work is part of important private and institutional collections, such as those of MATHAF, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Doha, the Syrian National Museum and the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Art. He has exhibited extensively with Ayyam Gallery in Dubai (2012 and 2010), Beirut (2010) and Damascus (2009). His work has also been shown at Mathaf and the Alexandria Biennale, among other institutions.
A range of themes, deeply rooted in his cultural and historical Syrian heritage, provide the source of inspiration for Takreti’s canvases. Concepts he tackles include the recent conflicts that have plagued Syria and their repercussions on the population, the lives of women in Syria, questions of identity, memory and displacement, and memories from his childhood days in Damascus. The artist also combines references to both Western and Middle Eastern cultural views, a reflection of his multicultural upbringing and life. He advocates freedom of expression and creativity, which is paramount in his artistic practice: ‘Freedom is when someone can express their ideas and choices without fear and embarrassment.’
During his time in New York, Takreti was influenced by Pop Art, and works such as ‘La Vie en Rose’ (2008) and ‘La Chasse au Dinosaure’ (2009), shown at Ayyam Gallery Dubai (2010) clearly show such inspiration. An important turn in his practice comes with his most recent and first solo exhibition at Ayyam in London, Complete Freedom. The artist abandons his vibrantly colourful compositions in favour of subtle yet poignantly strong black outlines and silhouettes on raw canvas that use a heightened graphic style.
Khaled Takreti’s work can be found at Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Exit 43, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Dubai , UAE, +971 4 3236242
Ammar Al-Beik (b. 1972, Damascus) is a self-taught artist, filmmaker and photographer. His work has been exhibited and screened internationally, including at Sao Paulo International Film Festival, Edinburgh Documentary Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival. Al-Beik was the recipient of awards such as Jury Prize Winner at the Busan International Short Film Festival, Korea (2012) and Golden Award at the Rotterdam 7th Arab Film Festival, Holland (2007), among others. In 2006, he was the first Syrian filmmaker to win the award for best documentary at the Venice International Film Festival, with his work I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to her Grave. The film is a poetic and intimate account of the lives and memories of two people who considered art to be a way of life. Al-Beik’s work is renowned for his experimental nature, while at the same time it captures the essence of life in a cinematic, unconventional style often charged with political references. According to the artist, art must not only imitate, but capture life. His 2011 The Sun’s Incubator, presented at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, explored the events of the Arab Spring.
His photographic artworks also feature a cinematic quality and function as visual storytelling, presented in large-format Ultra-chrome prints with contrasting plays of light and shadow, traditional and modern themes. For example, in ‘La Strada’ from The Lost Images 2 series, he presents a grainy aged-looking portrait of a mother with a child, their faces barely recognisable, surrounded by colourful negatives of ancient sculptural relics.
In his 2012 solo show at Ayyam’s Al Quoz gallery in Dubai, entitled Boya Boya Boya, Al Beik’s deep reverence for the everyday resilience of human beings in times of suffering is expleted through an exhibition centred around the life of one single individual: Abou Hani, a Syrian shoe shiner living in Lebanon. The exhibition takes a significant turn for the artist, focusing on a more conceptual practice, through what he calls ‘an urgent need to express existence through objects, ideas, images, sounds and space.’
Ammar Al-Beik’s work can be found at Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Exit 43, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Dubai , UAE, +971 4 3236242
Tammam Azzam (b. 1980, Damascus, Syria) is from the younger generation of Syrian artists and lives in exile in Dubai. He has had various exhibitions with Ayyam Gallery at its different locations, including London (2013), Al Quoz – Dubai (2012, 2009), DIFC Dubai (2011), Beirut and Damascus (2010).
Azzam has come to prominence for his art that address the destruction and suffering of the Syrian populace in the face of the tragedies and devastations caused by conflict, as well as the apathy of the international community. In an interview, Azzam says about his work: ‘I’m an artist that’s doing artwork with a political background because of the situation, because I’m Syrian so I have to be involved in what’s happening in my country.’ He adds that he is not a soldier, he doesn’t care about the regime, nor is he fighting against the regime. ‘I’m fighting to support people so this is the difference for me.’
With digital technology, he has created the series The Syrian Museum, which juxtaposes Western masterpieces by the likes of Goya, Picasso, Da Vinci, with images of contemporary Syria and its desolate, defaced cityscapes. By combining images of some of the greatest achievements of mankind with humanity’s self-inflicted suffering and capacity for destruction, the artist highlights the absurdity of this dualism and the atrocity of war. Early in 2013, one of his works from the series went viral on the internet. Entitled ‘Freedom Graffiti’, the image features Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ overlaid as a mural on a bombed, bullet-torn building in Syria. With this work, the artist tried to send a message hoping for universal love for humanity to prevail and make peace come back to his homeland.
Tammam Azzam’s work can be found at Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Exit 43, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Dubai , UAE, +971 4 3236242
Hrair Sarkissian (b. 1973, Damascus, Syria) is a photographer and has been based in London since 2010. His formative training took place at his father’s photography studio, where he learned to master the art of photography and developed his unique style. Sarkissian has participated in a number of international events, and shown in institutions worldwide, including the Tate Modern in London and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. His work is part of the collections of Tate Modern, Sharjah Art Foundation and the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, Italy. In 2013, he was the first Syrian artist to ever win the Abraaj Group Art Prize in Dubai, for his series of work entitled Background.
Sarkissian’s practice is characterised by an element of search, as well as the dichotomy of visible/invisible. The search relates to answers about his personal memories and history, while the engagement with what is visible and what is not comes as a re-evaluation of larger historical, religious and social narratives. The invisibility versus visibility is evident in his often deserted landscapes and locations, devoid of human presence yet filled with human existence. Mankind’s intervention is, although invisible, tangible through the buildings undergoing construction or the ruined cityscapes, remnants of conflict.
A ghostly element is a constant presence that populates these liminal spaces, where time seems to exist in both a specific frame (that of its historical context) and an indefinite, eternal void, such as in ‘Execution Squares’ and ‘Istory’. In an interview with Paddle8, Sarkissian says: ‘These abandoned sites represent spaces deprived of time, where the time is stopped and we quest for its existence, since its visibility does not reach perception.’ The emptiness portrayed by the artist references this loss of time, which can be related to the consequences of the Syrian conflict, the loss of memories and lives and the processes of diaspora.
Nihad Al Turk (b. 1972, Aleppo, Syria) is a seminal Syrian painter, who currently lives and works in Beirut. He is a self-taught artist and began drawing when he was a child, switching to painting in his teens. In the 1990s, he launched his career in Syria and with the turn of the new millennium he started exhibiting extensively with Ayyam Gallery in Beirut and Damascus, the Armory Show and Mark Hachem Gallery in New York and the Latakia Biennale in Syria (2003), where he was awarded the Golden Prize for his work, and the Damascus Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (2009).
Al Turk’s practice is informed by his extensive readings across the fields of literature, philosophy and theory. His works are complex multi-layered compositions that explore the psychology of man. Taking into examination existentialist questions, myths, power struggles, his paintings are rich in symbols woven into intricate narratives. His rich visual imagery ranges from monstrous creatures and mythical demons to still lives and botanical elements that stand for anti-heroes, outcasts and rebels.
Often, his paintings adopt what Ayyam Gallery has called an ‘aesthetic of distortion’, depicting a deformed character, sorrowful and disappointed, or other deformed elements within the composition. Al Turk believes that every man is deformed from the inside and that life is about improving our deformed selves through living by love. The artist also believes that part of this improvement comes from the ability to observe and understand evil: ‘I believe that my task is to observe evil in life. Evil seduces me more. The mythical creature is the result of the contemporary human being. Since human being is viewed as ‘a distorted mass working hard to seek the best’, this is the meaning of finding a clear spark of hope in this creature, which is broken and deformed, but loves life at the end of the day. For example, I love the shape of the hunch, which points to a struggling and a repressed human being.’
Nihad Al Turk’s work can be found at Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Exit 43, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Dubai , UAE, +971 4 3236242
Ammar Abd Rabbo (b. 1966, Damascus, Syria) moved with his family to Tripoli, Libya and then to Beirut, Lebanon, at a young age. At the age of 12, he fled Lebanon during the Civil War and settled in France in 1978. A photojournalist by profession, Rabbo worked for media agencies and has published in the Time Magazine, Paris Match, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and Asharq Al Awsat, where he signed more than 60 magazine covers. With a career spanning over 20 years, he has photographed a wide range of subjects, from the war in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya, various heads of state and political leaders, celebrities like Michael Jackson and renowned actors, to events such as the Cannes Film Festival and Paris Fashion Week.
In 2012, Ayyam Gallery Beirut held his first solo exhibition as an artist, entitled Coming Soon and featuring a new series of work that veered away from his photojournalistic objectivity to focus on a more personal and intimate experience. The series portrayed nude pregnant women through artistically captured silhouettes bathed in shadows. The images are charged with references to the woman as a symbol of femininity and sexuality, and the association with ancient goddesses of fertility. By depicting women at their most vulnerable and yet empowered state, Rabbo aimed to ‘encourage the audience to think differently about pregnancy.’
Follow the Leader, his second solo exhibition at Ayyam in Dubai, is a series of 15 portraits of world leaders in their most spontaneous and personal moments. Including shots of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, Syrian President Bashar El Assad and his wife or Lybian leader Muammar Gaddafi, among others, the portraits come as a reminder that political icons are simply human beings like all of us.
Ammar Abd Rabbo’s works can be found at Ayyam Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Exit 43, Street 8, Al Quoz 1, Dubai , UAE, +971 4 3236242
Safwan Dahoul (b. 1961, Hama, Syria) is one of the many Syrian artists who left their country and relocated to Dubai. Dahoul attended the Suheil Al Ahdab Center of Plastic Arts and the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus and in 1987 he went to study Mons, Belgium, on a scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education, where he completed his PhD at the Higher Institute of Plastic Arts in in 1997. Dahoul has exhibited extensively, including at Ayyam Gallery’s various locations, Edge of Arabia, London, the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, and the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris.
Dahoul’s canvases are informed by his personal emotions and life, and particularly by his experience of displacement and diaspora and the conflict in Syria. His evocative paintings all share the title ‘Dream’, as a reference to the dreamlike mental state that characterises his present situation. Partly a tribute to his late wife, who becomes the storyteller in his latest series of work shown in London in 2013, Repetitive Dreams, his compositions feature muted and subtle gradations of black, white and grey. The colour palette symbolises the bleak outlook on Syria’s situation, as well as the plight and pain of the diasporic experience. The compositions examine some of the most intimate moments of the human experience, such as slumber, companionship, solitude and death. The artist weaves a variety of art historical and culturally significant references, from Egyptian perspective to Roman gestures and Arabic calligraphy represented in the geometric forms and the curvatures of the lines.
Diana El Jeiroudi (b. 1977, Damascus, Syria) is an independent filmmaker, documentarist, artist and producer, raised in Syria and Iraq. She received a BA in English Literature from Damascus University and worked in marketing and communication until 2002. She co-founded the only independent film production company in Syria today, ProAction Film, for the production of documentaries. She is also co-founder of the DOX BOX International Documentary Film Festival in Syria, which operates in collaboration with the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and the European Documentary Network.
El Jeiroudi came to international prominence with her short film work The Pot (2005), which explores the issues surrounding pregnancy and re-examines pregnancy as a social phenomenon. With a series of conversations and interviews, the short film features young Syrian women sharing their experiences of how pregnancy affected their own and society’s perception of them as individuals. The artist tries to illustrate how the female identity in the Arab region revolves around bringing children to life.
In her first feature documentary Dolls – A woman from Damascus (2007-2008), El Jeiroudi explores the phenomenon of the Fulla Doll, which represents every Arab girl’s dream and is the veiled version of the American Barbie doll. The latter lost its popularity as soon as Fulla entered the market, as its marketing manager says in the documentary: ‘She is Arabic, loving, caring and part of the community that she has been addressed to.’ The motherly figure of Manal is presented in parallel with Fulla. Manal is a young Syrian mother and wife who lives in a traditional social environment with conservative rules for women. El Jeiroudi juxtaposes Manal and the doll as two entities with a lot of common elements: they are wrapped in a scarf, trapped in a plastic box and have to follow others’ expectations. El Jeiroudi attempts to reveal a trend that utilises the commercial appropriation of a female model in order to limit freedom and control the mind of a young generation into accepting a set of officially approved social and religious rules.
Diana El Jeiroudi’s work can be found at ProAction Film, No 2 Gamal Al Din Abou Al Mahassen Str. – Garden City, Cairo, Egypt, +202 279333319
Houmam Al Sayed (b. 1981, Mesyaf, Syria) currently lives and works in Beirut. Al Sayed participated in his first painting exhibition in 1998 at Teshrin University in Latakia and has exhibited extensively ever since throughout the Arab world. His works have successfully sold at auction at Sotheby’s Doha and Christie’s Dubai.
Al Sayed works across various media, including painting, drawing and sculpture. He is particularly renowned for his unique painting style and his playful, almost childish portraiture of everyday people inspired by his sculptural background. As critic Edward Shalda says on the artist’s website, ‘Houmam paints unknown people belonging to a known reality.’ Al Sayed’s portraits are an exploration and representation of their personal and psychological state. The unreal characters come to create a parallel reality that carries the ‘weight’ of the present. The figures and faces are charged with symbolic meaning, deeply tied to the current situation in Syria.
The portraits, squashed and compressed as if under a heavy burden, reference a loss of hope, while their upward lifting facial features point to the confidence in the possibility for a new beginning. Often, his subjects only show one eye looking straight ahead, while the other is covered by a hat or hair. This element is a subtle criticism on the way people confront the current situation in Syria: they choose one side and one opinion and stick to it, but without taking the time to consider, reflect and create a dialogue for change. In his first solo show From Damascus to Beirut, Al Sayed references his memories of childhood in his hometown and his family life in Syria.
Mixing references to both of her western and eastern social and cultural backgrounds, Brooklyn-based Diana Al-Hadid (b. 1981, Aleppo, Syria) explores her fascination with Renaissance painters and the formative aspects of their practice. In an interview with Barbara Pollack for ArtNews, she said: ‘I am not so interested in decoding the mythology, but I am interested in decoding the structure of the painting. Maybe I am a little jealous of what painting can do with space.’
Using polymer, waxes, fibreglass, steel, plaster and other industrial materials, Al-Hadidcreates sculptures and installations that appear in ruins or in the process of melting. A great number of her works centre around the image, shape and concept of ‘tower’ and its various associations: power, wealth, technological and urban development, ideas of progress and globalism. The tower, at the same time, symbolises the problems of cultural differences. The mixed social and cultural background of Al-Hadid is apparent in ‘Self-Melt’ (2008), inspired by the 1563 painting ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Two melting towers, one upside down, join at the top as if trying to bridge their differences and point to a mythological point of origin, where diversity and its consequences have already been decided.
Al-Hadid says: ‘I am a builder more than I am an ‘architect’,’ and this aspect is evident in what she calls her ‘impossible architecture’, as exemplified in ‘All the Stops’ (2007), a tower in ruins that features an eclectic mix of architecture from various eras, from Medieval to futuristic.
Diana Al-Hadid’s work can be found at Marianna Boesky Gallery, 509 West 24th Street, New York, NY 10011, + 212-680-9889 and Galerie Michael Janssen, Berlin and Singapore, +49 (0)30 259 272 50 (Berlin) and +65 (0)6734 8948 (Singapore)