A father tries to shield his daughter from blood splattering on them from every corner. Necks snap, heads are severed and women give birth to guns and knives instead of children. Yet even amongst the violence, children play, women pray and men sing songs of hope.
Each of the pieces at a new exhibition of Syrian protest artwork - Culture in defiance, continuing the tradition of satire, art and the struggle in Syria, opening on Thursday at the RichMix cultural centre in Hackney, north London, as part of the Shubbak Arab festival - is a window into turmoil.
Music, dance, puppet shows and other forms of artistic expression form major coping mechanisms for Syria, as the country braves the second year of a war that started out in March 2011 as peaceful protests against the government of Bashar Al-Asad. The uprisings metamorphosed into rebellion and then a full-blown civil war. To date, an estimated 92,000 people have died as a result.
For the organisers of the exhibition, it is a chance for the outside world to see the war through the eyes of artists who are “experiencing it and thinking about it” and to know that there is still “a revolution within the war.”
Nawara Mahfoud, one of the co-curators, admits that there are no guaranteed answers and it will take more than an exhibition to solve Syria's problems. Still, she says, the art work is prove that there is some real internal dialogue about how to get the country back on course going on in the country.
Speaking to her and co-curators, Aram Taham and Malu Halasa, the theme of hope and dreams of a better Syria is recurrent. Halasa says a lot of the people who come into the exhibition leave the place sobbing but that:
“It is important to look inside, however painful.”
From graffiti and paintings to words of tragic poetry, shared clandestinely over the internet, the works stretch out and draw you into a disturbing embrace, whispering the story of a people determined to have their voices heard - no matter the cost.
Images like those of Khalil Younes - black and red, themed on death and blood, and depicting burning buildings and lines of mourning grave yards - are likely to get anyone who sees them out of their comfort zone. You cannot help but feel the surge of pain in Younes' painting of a woman's breasts sewn up with barbed wire. Nor can you ignore the loud voices behind the anonymous paintings of forlorn faces of people that died for the revolution.
“I am taking to the streets. I will not obey a government that has lost its authority,” reads one piece by Damascus university students. The mixture of rainbow colours speaks of youth and resilience, contrasting sharply with the black and red pictures of death and calamity on the wall adjacent to it- and eases you into the graffiti that lines the exit where you meet Sulafa Hijazi's shocking and graphical portrayals of the Syrian war.
The dream is that one day human rights and democracy will triumph over the brutality and impunity. That those responsible will be brought to book and women will once again birth babies instead of guns. Then, the art will represent a time past when the nation was only a little crazy. In the words of one artist: “We should make something that not only reflects a revolution right at this moment, but make something that will be remembered two generations from now.”
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