Sources for this story asked that only their first names be printed in order to protect their identities.
There is a story making the rounds of the Syrian artist community in Beirut, Hussein tells me. Government planes were heavily bombing the eastern Damascus neighborhood of Barzeh last year. During a break in the bombing, artists in the local community organized a workshop for children in a public square. They set up a large canvass and encouraged the children to work together to create a hopeful mural despite the difficult times.
While everyone was gathered in the square, a government fighter plane passed overhead. Everyone fell silent in fear and looked toward the sky to see where the plane was going to bomb. They had become so accustomed to the planes that they could tell what neighborhood it was going to based on where it was in the sky.
The plane passed over Barzeh. Everything was silent for a moment. Then they heard the bombs exploding. When the explosions stopped the people in the square continued painting their mural together.
I wasn’t there, Hussein says. It’s just a story I heard from friends, but I think it explains the situation of Syrian artists in the revolution.
Hussein is currently living at the Art Residence Aley. He left Damascus a little over a month ago after bombs started going off in the neighborhood of Damascus where he lived and the situation became unbearable. Most of his friends had already come to Beirut before him, and he found out about the Art Residence from them.
The Art Residence is in a two hundred year old stable with arched stonewalls. There is a crackling fireplace at one end and small, but cozy, living quarters at the other. Canvasses and sculptures of all sizes, finished and unfinished, lean against the walls and sit on most surfaces. Outside the stable there is a patio with a ping-pong table, a grass lawn and a small paved area with a basketball hoop. Above the paved area there is a recently planted organic garden underneath the branches of a three hundred year old walnut tree.
Raghad, a Syrian civil engineer who left the country with her two children for Beirut in 2008, leased the property in 2011. She restored the stable and grounds, which had lain in ruins since it was bombed during the Lebanese civil war, and added basic living accommodations.
When the restoration was completed in May 2012, Raghad invited an artist friend who had left Syria and was living in Istanbul to stay at the property so he could work on his art. “To produce art you need to be in a certain mood,” Raghad says. “You need to have your space. You have to also be disconnected from all the disturbances.”
When artists leave Syria and come to Beirut they have very little means, Raghad continues. They live in very small rooms without much space to work. Sometimes 10 artists share one apartment in the city.
While the first artist was living at the property in Aley, Raghad started hosting informal gatherings for Syrian artists. The idea for the Art Residence grew organically from these gatherings. “They all loved to stay in the place, express their feelings, what they are going through, what they have witnessed, and what they want for their country,” Raghad says.
Now, the Art Residence has hosted 15 artists from various parts of Syria and many different ethnic backgrounds. Most of them are young men who do not want to be forced to join the military in Syria, but there are also women who hear about the project and want to contribute. The residence provides a space for them to process what they witnessed and experienced in Syria, make art, and transition into Lebanese society.
Artists stay at the residence for free and Raghad provides art supplies, a living stipend to cover necessities and connections with galleries or helps finding scholarships to continue their studies. In return, artists leave one of the works of art they created during their time at the residence. “It’s becoming a kind of a museum for all the young artists and their work after the revolution,” Raghad says.
The community aspect of the experience is very important, Raghad says. Two artists live in the residence at a time and there are always other guests and friendly gatherings taking place. The artists living at the residence share meals and coffee and work in close proximity to each other. Friends also come to visit and there are regular community gatherings. “They feel the support of being together and having the same feelings and situation,” Raghad adds. “One thing that brings us all together is this huge pain we are going through.”
When artists first arrive they often come directly from Syria. They spend the first two or three days at the residence recovering from exhaustion and acclimating to the place. One artist slept for twenty-four hours when he arrived from Damascus because he was so tired. He could not sleep in Damascus, Raghad says.
Most of the artists who come to the residence challenge themselves with big canvasses. The things they have witnessed and experienced in Syria have a big impact on them, Raghad continues. So they need to express it on a big canvass.
One of the pieces made by an artist at the residence looks like a collection of colorful shapes on a large canvass from far away. Up close, it becomes apparent that the colorful shapes are miniature representations of corpses wrapped in brightly colored and patterned shrouds.
During times when there is a lot of killing, Raghad tells me, people run out of white clothe to wrap the dead in. So, they resort to using curtains and other fabric they can find. This was the inspiration behind the piece, she says.
Hussein’s art is comparatively abstract. When he was in Syria he could not work. For everyone, looking after the basics and trying to survive take precedent over culture, he says.
There are no dead bodies in his work, but the emotions of the conflict do come out in his paintings. He is stuck between wanting to produce art that is not connected to a particular period and feeling that art produced in extraordinary situations should be a spontaneous expression of what people are experiencing.
Before the revolution started “we tried to separate art from politics, but it’s not possible,” Hussein says. In difficult situations artists feel like they have a mission to express the society’s struggles. “You don’t respect art that doesn’t have an ethical position in a conflict,” he adds.
The Art Residence is primarily about bringing artists together to create a collective expression of the revolution through their works. “We didn’t have this solidarity before, and we didn’t feel that we could make a difference,” Raghad says. “We were just living on the margin of our country.”
“Now we feel every one of us has a responsibility to fix what has been damaged, get close to each other, and support each other to be able to build a new Syria away from arms and the killing and the violence,” she continues. “We are more aware that we should go back to Syria and build the country away from all these conflicts and sicknesses.”
To that end, Syrian artists in Lebanon have taken the initiative to organize informal art workshops with children to help them cope with the trauma of the conflict. The workshops are grassroots organized and not supported by an NGO or other organization. Raghad is also considering plans to organize trips for Syrian children to come up to the residence for workshops and other activities.
“Despite where the revolution has come now,” Raghad says, “art remains the civil way of expressing ideas, communicating, and trying to change for the better.”
You can find out more and follow the activities of the Art Residence Aley at its website: www.artresidencealey.com