Syrian artist paints devastation, disintegration and the arduous journey of immigrants in latest show.
“The Road”, which opened at Ayyam Gallery Dubai on 18 January 2016, comprises a new body of work by celebrated Syrian artist Tammam Azzam, including his first series of paintings since his relocation from Damascus to Dubai.
Tammam Azzam (b. 1980, Damascus) fled the war in Syria with his wife and daughter more than four years ago, moving to Dubai with Ayyam Gallery. The move meant that he had to leave his studio and his work behind, arriving in a new country with nothing but suitcases. His art changed in tandem, exploring themes of war, violence, migration and the inability or reluctance of the international community to help his homeland. In the absence of a studio, he turned to digital media and graphic art as a form of expression.
From the canvas to the computer – and back
Educated at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus with a focus on oil painting, Tammam Azzam is today renowned for his mixed media and new media artworks. The move to Dubai, he tells Art Radar, caused his work to change “beyond recognition, mainly out of necessity at first”:
As well as being an artist, I am also a graphic designer, and without a studio I was forced to express myself through digital media that only really requires the physical resource of a computer. This change in my practice also served as a kind of psychological catharsis as the trauma of leaving my life in Damascus meant that it was difficult to focus on a canvas.
Pouring the emotion of leaving his country behind – and watching helplessly as it disintegrated – into his digitally created art, Azzam quickly gained recognition for several of his works, including the famous Freedom Graffiti: A reference to Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ (2013), which went viral online. Common motifs included the superimposition of timeless Western classical art such as Da Vinci, Dalì and Matisse on photographs of war-ravished Syrian landscapes in “The Syrian Museum” (2013); a broken Syrian building attached to a colourful bunch of balloons flying over various international locations including London’s Westminster and the United Nations building in Geneva in “Bon Voyage” (2013); and various graphic art pieces critiquing everything from the Olympics to Disney.
Azzam implicates the international community in Syria’s inability to prevent massacre and the mistreatment and prevention of refugees from accessing safety, highlighting the unequal and unfair representation and dehumanisation of his people. In a recent interview with Toute la Culture, he said:
People in Syria now just want to stop all the fighting and keep on living. […] But in Syria nothing has changed in five years. It’s only worsening. And Europe is refusing to help refugees in a shocking way. I believe that both ISIS and the regime, and even the police in Greece or in Western Europe shooting at refugees are the dangers. It’s not about nationalities or religions. We would need to bring about a big change mentally.
While the digital medium enabled Azzam’s work to reach a wide audience and inform the world about the crisis in his country, he says that he is “first and foremost a painter”. He started painting again nearly three years ago, but “The Road” is the first exhibition of his paintings since he left Syria.
His studio in Damascus was his sanctuary, especially during his military service, and the one thing he misses most about home:
It’s gone now, just a memory… but I am relieved to be in a safe place where I continue with my work and I know that I am among the lucky ones. Slowly we have begun to rebuild our lives here; I now work from my studio attached to Ayyam Gallery in Dubai. It is safe and secure here, but it is not permanent, it’s not home…
In “The Road”, Tammam Azzam tackles the issue of displacement – what lies ahead, but also what gets left behind. He tells Art Radar:
The Road is about the journey, in all its manifestations, both psychological and physical. For someone trying to flee a warzone like Syria, a journey often has no set direction or destination but rather it has endless trajectories and countless unseen obstacles along the way.
The central focus of the exhibition is a series of monumental expressionist paintings from the artist’s “Storeys” series, featuring abandoned war-torn buildings in monochromatic hues. Windows, walls and frames criss-cross on canvas presenting a blunt, bleak visual of the physical remnants of conflict, while also referencing psychological chaos and the painful act of rebuilding life. Two immersive installations and a new series of digital composite works referencing roads and journeys complete the show.
The motif of the journey appears in Azzam’s earlier work as well. In “Laundry” (2011), he used mixed media to create tactile representations of the possessions people leave behind when they are exiled. The unpredictability and impermanence of the life of a refugee recur in his work through symbols such as maps, passports and suitcases, often dripping blood. He laments not only the violence but also the politics and red tape that create numerous obstacles:
I don’t consider myself as a political artist. I’m an artist who came out of this political background. I’m not producing posters against a dictator or a regime, but artworks about people, which is the main purpose for me. There are stories in my mind, and where [do you] get stories, except from your memory and your place? […] This is the way we can express ourselves. But we cannot fight. As a person, how to change things? [sic] Politics always prevent us. For instance, if I need a visa to enter a European country, there are so many papers I need to gather; I feel powerless.
Just a Syrian artist
Even as a respected and renowned artist, working with a well-known gallery in Dubai, Azzam has faced trouble with bureaucratic processes in various countries, having being denied (but ultimately granted) a visa at least five times to be present at his own exhibitions. This is by no means an experience limited only to him; many artists from the region have faced similar issues, including Syrian artist Thaier Helal and Afghan artist Hanifa Alizada.
In a world that is grappling with violence and consequent mass migration, the unequal treatment of human lives and their worth has become more apparent. From dehumanisation and suspicion to stereotypes implicating the innocent, there are more borders than ever. Where the mainstream media, operating with entrenched power structures, often falls into the discourse of ‘Othering’, the artist can attempt to counter this rhetoric.
This is what Azzam has tried to do with his work: using the means available to him, including social media, to show the world what is going on in his country and reinforce that “empathy should not be limited to the first world”.
I have experienced so many difficulties with acquiring visas myself; except for Turkey it is almost impossible to obtain a visa, both in Europe and in the Arab world, so we Syrians are trapped. […] We are human beings that find ourselves in a desperate situation.
And underlying it all is the conflicted journey of being an artist, wondering whether art even makes sense amidst all the bloodshed. Grappling with the idea of making a living by using his country’s plight as a subject but also insisting that art is necessary for documentation and dialogue to give the world a better understanding of the situation, it is clear that Azzam’s work and his approach to art-making are deeply self-reflexive, evolving and also serving a therapeutic purpose. He says:
Personally I cannot see a future in Syria. I just want to move forward with my life… wherever it may take me.
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