In the year since the start of the Syrian uprising, perceptions of developments on Lebanon’s border have become clouded with uncertainty.
The brief, often harrowing, Internet videos of events on the ground have been as powerful as the skepticism they provoke in certain quarters, because they have been so difficult to verify.
To mark the anniversary of the first Syrian protests Espace Kettaneh Kunigk is hosting “Artists from Syria Today,” an exhibition featuring works by 16 Syrian artists, most currently based in Syria, some unable to leave.
“We were asked by one of our collectors if we would like to do a show of Syrian artists,” explains gallery owner Naila Kettaneh Kunigk. “He added that they wanted to show on March 15, because for them it’s an important date, as you can well imagine.
“They want to show that they are survivors,” she continues. “That they are continuing their work, and that their work will be shown outside.”
The exhibition was organized at the last minute, the artists approaching Kettaneh Kunigk only a month before the scheduled opening. Kettaneh Kunigk agreed to postpone a scheduled show to accommodate opening the exhibition on March 15.
One of the participating artists is Youssef Abdelke. In a telephone interview from Damascus, Abdelke said he hopes to share a simple message with the Beirut art community. “That we stand with our people against violence, against dictatorship, against the regime and for a different future for our country,” he said, “a future of freedom, democracy and human rights, where the people are in control of their own lives and their own future.”
The week before the show opened, Kettaneh Kunigk said she’d not yet had the chance to meet with (or even speak to) most of the artists, who approached her through well-know Syrian sculptor and painter Fadi Yazigi.
“We didn’t have the chance of seeing all,” Kettaneh Kunigk continues. Yazigi “introduced himself and these artists, because they have difficulties in coming in and out of their own country.”
Kettaneh Kunigk says she hopes that all the artists will be able to attend the opening night, but co-worker Marc Mouarkech is skeptical since “some of them cannot leave the country.”
The artists are submitting one or two pieces each, representing a wide range of forms and styles. The exhibition will include sculpture, painting, ink and charcoal drawings, photography, calligraphy and several mixed-media pieces.
“We’re not going to talk about the quality of the work,” says Kettaneh Kunigk, “because for them it is extremely difficult to get things out. Even paintings today seem to be blocked. So they ... smuggle them.”
“At the moment what’s very organized becomes frightening,” says Kettaneh Kunigk. “They get detected.”
Speaking via telephone from Damascus, Yazigi says that because of events in Syria his work has changed over the last year. “Now my human figures are becoming a little bit different,” he says. “Some people are waiting for something, and I have something new – birds coming through the painting or going out of the painting ... Some people look very empty, their eyes especially. They don’t know what will happen. Watching. Waiting.”
Yazigi has submitted one painting for Kettaneh Kunigk’s exhibition, an abstract rendering of a man’s severed head on a platter, which he says was inspired by other works, themselves based on the story of John the Baptist.
Yazigi’s bold, colorful lines crisscross to create a sketchy, almost child-like version of the bloodless, severed head on its plate. Below it, seemingly floating in space, is a severed hand. To the right, another man’s head regards the platter, another detached hand just below it.
“I did a sculpture of the same thing,” says Yazigi, whose bronzes have been widely exhibited. “But I don’t know if I can take it with me, because I took it to the foundry last month so I don’t know if it’s possible to finish it in time for the exhibition.”
Otherwise known for his beautiful, ultrarealist still lifes in charcoal, Abdelke has also taken an active role in organizing the exhibition, designing the invitation and issuing an unusual artist’s statement that will be displayed alongside the work.
The prose piece says nothing about the works in the exhibition, talking instead about courage in the face of death. “The blood is all over the streets,” his statement begins, going on to ask, “What does an artist do while in a lake of blood? Nothing but protest, while death awaits him.”
Abdelke is outspoken about his stance on the events of the last 12 months. “I have been in opposition for the last 40 years,” Abdelke says. “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.”
His work too has changed as a result of the political situation. “Since a year ago I’ve been drawing people – men, women, things like that,” he says. “It’s among the rare times that I’ve used human beings in my work ... For 15 years I have only done still life.”
Abdelke will show two pieces in the exhibition. One is a drawing of a father and daughter. The other is a still life, a charcoal rendering of a knife. For enthusiasts of the artist’s work this drawing is instantly recognizable as Abdelke’s, due to its delicate shading and impressive realism.
The black-and-white knife, its menacing edge delineated by the extreme contrast on the blade, is depicted with almost photographic accuracy. Huge and slightly curved, with a hefty wooden handle, it’s clearly no table knife but a thing for rending flesh.
Due to the difficulty in transporting work through the Syrian border, the artists’ pieces are arriving bit by bit, with no paperwork or explanations. The gallery has managed to identify the artist behind most of the pieces, and says that many of them are dated as recently as 2012. Yet a week before the opening it still didn’t know the works’ titles or, sometimes, the precise media used. In some cases even the artist who created the piece was as yet unclear.
One striking piece of Arabic calligraphy – a simple black, red and white design deploying an angular script, looks like the work of a famed Syrian artist, but Kettaneh Kunigk is reluctant to name him definitively as the creator of the piece. “As it’s not signed,” she says, “or nowhere that we could see it, we didn’t want to take the risk that it’s not him.”
Most of the pieces are not overtly political, though one large acrylic-on-canvas painting speaks volumes – an impressionistic rendering of a young man lying in the street, his white shirt standing in shocking contrast to the pools and rivulets of blood surrounding his ravaged head.
Other pieces appear to be an exercise in self-censorship, or perhaps a study of censorship itself. In one mixed media collage, small face sketches and other mysterious outlines can be glimpsed through layers of collage. A huge white sheet of torn paper obscures most of the page, leaving only a tantalizing impression of the intricate drawings beneath.
Though the works on show – as well as the number of artists in attendance – is still uncertain, “Artists from Syria Today” promises to provide a glimpse of some of the artistic responses to recent developments in Lebanon’s closest neighbor.
“Artists from Syria Today” opens Thursday March 15 at Espace Kattaneh Kunigk in Clemenceau and will be on display until April 5. For more information please call 01-738-706.