Kisses, balloons and dancing towards destruction: Syrian artist Tammam Azzam – profile

The Syrian artist makes art reflecting turbulent times.

Art Radar profiles Syrian artist-in-exile Tammam Azzam, whose romantic yet uncompromising body of work forces us to see the crumbling devastation and despair of today’s world.

Tammam Azzam, 'Freedom Graffiti: A reference to Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘Freedom Graffiti: A reference to Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Around Valentine’s Day in early 2013, Tammam Azzam photoshopped Gustav Klimt’s iconic painting The Kiss onto the photograph of a war-torn, bomb-ravaged, pockmarked wall of a building in Syria. Within five hours, the artwork had gone viral, liked by 20,000 people on Facebook and shared 14,000 times.

Unaffected by this, Azzam continued to build an impressive, diversified oeuvre. His pieces never fail to invoke simultaneous feelings of loss and hope in turbulent times.

Painterly beginnings

Azzam (b. 1980, Damascus, Syria) had dreamed of becoming a painter since childhood and, at the age of eighteen, he enrolled at the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University.

At 28, persisting in his craft whilst working other jobs to earn a living, Azzam became well-known in the Arab art scene for his absorbing abstract expressionism. His paintings depicted ordinary items such as chairs and trees in quiet shades of black, white, brown and green.

In a 2001 interview, Azzam described a career-changing encounter with Syrian painter Marwan Kassab Hashi, which made him realise that:

It wasn’t just about art, but about how to see life and how to express what we see in our work.

Portrait of Tammam Azzam by Sueraya Shaheen. Image courtesy the artist and Sueraya Shaheen.

Portrait of Tammam Azzam by Sueraya Shaheen. Image courtesy the artist and Sueraya Shaheen.

Beyond the canvas: digital media

Azzam soon branched out beyond painting, creating mixed media works such as his thought-provoking fabric installations showcased in his solo exhibition “Dirty Laundry” (2011-2012). Inspired by his two-year-old daughter playing with clothes and pegs on the clotheslines, Azzam created works that symbolised his own memories of home as well as the connections and shared destinies between human beings.

Shortly after the outbreak of the Syrian War in 2011, Azzam fled Damascus and was forced to abandon his canvas: seeking refuge from the violence, Azzam took his wife and daughter with him to Dubai. Displaced from his workspace and unable to find a studio, Azzam began to experiment with digital media.

Tammam Azzam, 'The Syrian Museum - Mona Lisa', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘The Syrian Museum – Mona Lisa’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Freedom Graffiti: A reference to Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ (2013) is his first famous image, but by no means the only powerful one. In the now well-known series “The Syrian Museum”, Azzam superimposes imagery from classical masterpieces of Western art history onto scenes of devastation across Syria. In doing so, Wall Street International writes that Azzam:

focus[es] attention on the destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage and […] juxtapose[s] the creative capacity of humanity with the damage it is also capable of inflicting.

An artist in exile

Azzam’s shift to the digital coincided with a change and maturing of artistic themes. After fleeing the war, his work took on a markedly political flavour, addressing the painful plight of Syria on the one hand and critiquing averted Western attention and international humanitarian failings on the other.

Tammam Azzam,'Bon Voyage - London', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘Bon Voyage – London’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

The whimsical Bon Voyage series (2013), for example, transports a war-torn Damascus residential building to London and other European cities. Brightly coloured balloons add a touch of hope and dark humour to the grim dialogue of the image: Azzam is speaking simultaneously to his fellow Syrians as well as to the Western world. As Muftah puts it,

The Bon Voyage series […] extracts a fragment of civil-war-Syria and transports it west, forcibly transposing Syria into the daily lives of Londoners, New Yorkers, and Parisians […] a Damascus apartment complex – formerly home to at least five families – floats above a swirling River Thames encroaching on British Parliament […] a testament to, and perhaps a warning of, the impermanence of all political constructions.

Digital protests and street imagery 

In an interview with DAMn Magazine, Azzam reflects on the force and power of digital imagery:

Once an image or a piece of information is uploaded online it’s almost impossible to remove all traces of it […] In terms of an image of protest, the digital realm gives people the freedom to speak out against a controlling government through a means that is difficult to suppress.

Tammam Azzam, 'Syrian Olympic', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘Syrian Olympic’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Like digital images, street art is a similarly democratic form of protest and Azzam references the coarse street imagery in recent works. In Exit (2013), a row of armed soldiers stand to attention while a hunched figure exits the frame, “echoing the continued exodus of Syrians from their homeland“, as Wall Street International writes. Meanwhile, in Syrian Olympic (2013), Azzam satirises the perceived inaction of the international community.

Tammam Azzam, 'Like', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘Like’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

The artist and the Syrian

As The Huffington Post observes, the escalation of bloodshed in Syria made Azzam’s art “more experimental, uncertain and disturbed […] greatly diverged from the days of Freedom Graffiti“. Azzam was quoted as saying:

The world can come out demonstrating against foreign intervention, and yet it does absolutely nothing to stop the slaughter […] How many gassed bodies of children do you need? Why is Syria a plaything? Why is it simply entertainment?

Tammam Azzam, 'I, The Syrian', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘I, The Syrian’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

The Huffington Post goes on to note that Azzam “turns the blame on himself, for his own cowardice, and for making a living out of the situation.” So many people have died in Syria that he is not sure that “art makes any sense anymore.” In his latest and first solo exhibition in the United Kingdom, entitled “I, The Syrian” (2014), the deep anguish and conflict between the artist and the Syrian is revealed.

Tammam Azzam, 'The Syrian Museum - Matisse', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘The Syrian Museum – Matisse’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

A triple mission

In times of war and destruction, Azzam takes on a triple mission. The first is that of raising awareness: works like Matisse (2013), featuring dancing figures in scenes of war, as well as the Mona Lisa (2013) in “The Syrian Museum” series, are a direct accusation at the world for turning a blind eye. Azzam himself writes:

People will endlessly debate the secrets within Mona Lisa’s eyes, yet there is an urgent secret in Syria that needs more attention.

Tammam Azzam, 'We Were There', 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Tammam Azzam, ‘We Were There’, 2013. Image courtesy the artist.

Secondly, Azzam gives a voice to the suppressed and the suffering. As Muftah writes, We Were There (2013) speaks in the first person for all of Syria’s displaced children.

Thirdly, Azzam uses his art to fight war. In spite of his inner conflict and anguish about his role as an artist, Azzam knows the impact of his work in raising awareness and inciting anger and intervention. In an interview, he once said:

I think that right now art doesn’t make sense for people there, because death steals every moment in Syria. But as an artist, I am not a soldier, this is how I can fight.

When Art Radar spoke to the artist about art as a tool of protest, he said:

In Syria, I didn’t ever believe that art had more power than bullets. But that doesn’t mean we should stop.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Syrian artists, digital art, art and the Internet, art and conflict, political art, art and trauma, art about violence, artist profiles

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