DUBAI — Exile physically rips people from the sustenance of familiarity, culture, land, language, family, and history. Without allowing for any possibility of returning home, exile becomes a ceaseless misery that only compounds as the days, weeks, months, and years go by. To bear witness to an artist in exile is to observe a unique, horrendous intensity: that exile, unlike death, remains mercilessly visceral, undulating, vivid, and stubbornly present.
As a pertinent example of this pain, Tammam Azzam’s solo exhibition The Road at the Ayyam Gallery highlights the wreckage, the resulting humanitarian crisis, and the strife borne by the 6.6 million (and counting) refugees fleeing the ongoing conflict in Syria. The show presents Azzam’s first body of work since 2012, when he was exiled from his native Damascus. It is his most ambitious and attentive exhibition to date, providing moving fragments of his conception of exile and identity.
Azzam is perhaps best known for “Freedom Graffiti” (2013), a superimposition of Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” on a bombed-out wall in war-torn Damascus, which went viral not long after it was made. His recent work abandons the themes of resilience and love, replacing them with darker, more somber tones, confronting the unbridled destruction, dispossession, and deprivation at the core of exile’s predicament.
The exhibition is centered on large-scale canvasses from Azzam’s most recent “Untitled Storeys” series (2015), filled with images the artist sourced from Reuters and other news outlets, which are void of any figuration or presence of human life, depicting instead the stillness, alienation, and haunting sense of absence experienced by the millions of men, women, and children who have fled, to destinations unknown, in search of asylum. If this is not sufficiently lurid, Azzam accompanies these works with boulders and debris strewn throughout the gallery, leading to an installation of rubble that filters down a large industrial stairway. Accompanying the monochromatic paintings are brightly colored digital media works such as “Wallpaper” (2015), depicting the interior of a dilapidated building that shows, in the background, wallpaper made of ornate gold leaf, offering some brightness to an otherwise drab and overcast palette.
In contrast to the intense self-flagellation of Ai Weiwei’s recent staging of himself as Alan Kurdi, the drowned Syrian infant found lying facedown on a pebbled beach near the shore of Bodrum, Turkey, Azzam’s work takes on a much more isolationist, less offensive, and less egotistical aesthetic. Rather than acting as a refugee, Azzam negates Weiwei’s sensationalism and amazing moral blindness, resisting any attempt at sentimentalizing the plight faced by asylum seekers as they make the often perilous journey in search of safety and solitude.
Accordingly, Azzam’s work speaks to a more careful and deliberate reflection, which proves to be a much more humanizing and ethical approach. He traces the banditry of war and destruction, reminding us that within our age — characterized by intense yet short-lived political polarities, extreme economic disparities, and non-linear war — the present is also marked by the undocumented unsettlement of unhoused exiles, refugees, and sequestered and besieged populations, and there exists no artwork or discourse that can possibly fully express what they go through.
Azzam depicts this sentiment exactly, with profound feelings of unsettled energy, giving each work an overarching sense of incompleteness, a longing for a place to which one can never return. This is precisely the kind of work that deserves widening awareness beyond academic specialization and/or rarified art criticism, as it is capable of revealing the contours of the modern diaspora, whose silence effectively becomes the standard model by which artists like Ai Weiwei reap capital and cultural gain by appropriating the tragedy and voices of refugees as his own.
Naturally, work like this also leads us to question notions of cultural imperialism and identity. Indeed, it is of Azzam’s salient and sound moral principles that artists and critics ought to take note. By excavating the horrors of the ongoing war and resulting humanitarian crisis in Syria, Azzam develops an aesthetics of exile that brings to the fore the silent memories and experiences of barely surviving groups.
The Road continues at Ayyam Gallery (11, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz 1, Dubai) through March 3.
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