By Lois Stonock

21 January 2015 - 08:03

Syrian artists are looking to find an answer to the question of what happens next. Photo: Mohamad Khayata, Stitching My Syria Back, 2014
Syrian artists are looking to find an answer to the question of what happens next. ©

Photo: Mohamad Khayata, Stitching My Syria Back, 2014

Lois Stonock co-curated an exhibition, opening at the British Council in London today, by Syrian artists who are showing us the conflict in new ways. Based on Lois's preview tour, the edited transcript below describes some of the artists' perspectives on a conflict that’s destroying their country.

How the exhibition came about

I went out to Beirut, Lebanon, in September last year and spent a lot of time meeting Syrian artists, looking at their work and listening to what their reactions were to the conflict in Syria.

All of the works in the exhibition came through a grant scheme. We gave 78 grants to Syrian artists, many of whom had had to leave Syria and were in Lebanon. In this exhibition, we've tried to show a few of the Syrian artists who looked at some of the ideas coming out of the grant scheme.

I'll talk you through why I picked some of the works, and why they're representative of other artists working in those areas.

Snippets of Syrian experience in video and text

The first artist, Zaher Omareen, is based in London. You can see 11 of his short films on a show reel, and you can listen to them on headphones. Zahar uses footage that he usually finds on YouTube, or friends send it to him. Whenever they find anything they think is particularly powerful that comments on the conflict in Syria, they'll send it to Zahar. He juxtaposes it with stories, so some of them have poems on top of them, and some of them have sound. Some of them are just silent.

They are very short, just two or three minutes, and give a real glimpse into what is happening. They are also very emotive. One of the films, 'Mosquito' shows a tank and the sound of people drinking in a café, and the tank shoots at the café. And then the film just ends. So they're snippets that try to give you a viewpoint into what people are experiencing day to day in Syria. Some of them look at the conflict and how it can seem so completely strange and removed to someone who is not politically involved in it. Yet, by doing that, the works are quite political.

Another one that is really brilliant is a film of a prison in Syria. The story that Zahar's juxtaposed on the top is a story of a guy that's put in prison, and the guard asks him to tell a story to a young boy. He starts the story saying, 'There was a bird', and the little boy goes, 'What is a bird?'. He says, 'Oh, a bird is a thing that flies between trees', and then the little boy goes, 'What's a tree?'. It transpires that this little boy was born in prison because his mother's a political prisoner, and he's never seen outside. Again, it just ends like that, so it's just these really small snippets.

Patchwork quilt shows longing to repair the country

Another work is Mohamad Khayata's, which is a series of photographs called 'Stitching Back My Syria'. It's indicative of some of the artists who were coming through the scheme and were really looking at trying to find a solution, a kind of 'what's next?', 'what happens after this?' Mohamad collects small pieces of material from people who have been displaced from Syria, and then he stitches those pieces together into a patchwork blanket. It's a simple gesture. His mother used to make patchwork blankets, as did my mum and maybe some of your mothers when you were little.

He asked the people who had given him the pieces of material to wrap it around themselves or show it in a way that they would like to be seen wearing it, and then he takes photographs of them. This is actually a collection of something like 400 or 500 photographs, but we've just selected a few to show here. The art reflects how many of the Syrian artists really want their work just to be part of that conversation about what's next -- how to start to stitch Syria back together.

Interviewing Syrian refugee women about what they miss

'A Memory of a Woman' is by an artist called Bissane Al Charif, who is based in Paris. I picked this work because it was about giving a voice to individuals who have been exiled from Syria. Bissane met women who had to leave their husbands behind and take their children across the border for safety. Basically, they had to just dump everything.

So her pieces are interviews of her talking to these women and then telling their stories. The thing she's really highlighting through the photographs and the sound piece attached, is that the women constantly keep talking about things they miss, like their watch or their crockery set that they really liked or their shoes -- just really mundane everyday things. When we think about women fleeing a country, we don't necessarily think that their children might miss their favourite toy or colouring pencils. Bissane's work really gets to what it means for those women after they've left. The small mundane details accentuate the impact of what they've been through.

A lot of the artists did this type of work, presenting the voice of one person and their story and really amplifying that. We see these huge global stories on the news, but what happens to those individual people on the ground, what do they think? Where is their voice heard?

Dismantling a paper city

Bissane also did a sound piece with her husband Mohammad Omran. It's a film that you can watch on a loop. It's just the building up of a city made out of paper, and then the dismantling of it. It's just very, very simple work, commenting on your city, your town, your home, being dismantled before you. It's incredibly clinical in a way, but also quite beautiful. And I think the thing that I like about it is the time lapse which shows how fast it happens. The pace is quite shocking.

Unseen photographs of life in Syria

The final aspect of the show is photographs by journalists who are in Syria or moving in and out of Syria when they can, taking pictures and trying to produce a kind of other narrative that is coming out. I tried to pick images that you might not necessarily see in a Sunday Times supplement or the Guardian, but that showed how rapidly this conflict began and how it just immediately changed everything.

There's a photo of a doll left behind in a playground, an abandoned sewing machine. All of a sudden, everyday normality has completely and utterly been abandoned.

Some of the photos show everyday life carrying on despite everything, so there's an image of a little girl going off to school, a little girl reading in the rubble, and two guys by their house.

At the very end of the exhibition is a piece that I almost see as symbolising the exhibition and what we were trying to do. It's a photograph of two guys with video cameras who are filming what's happening in Syria. We're trying to show what the artists' perspective is, not trying to comment, not trying to have a curatorial opinion, but really just giving a platform for the artists' voices, and to show a different way of relating the story.

If you are in London until 18 February 2015, visit us at our headquarters in 10 Spring Gardens, just off Trafalgar Square, to see the Syria: Third Space exhibition, curated by independent curator Lois Stonock and the British Council's Alma Salem.

You can also take part in the digital tour today at 11.00 UK time or find out more about this exhibition.

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