Interviews

Reflecting on a Family Tragedy, an Artist Looks at Aleppo

An interview with artist Christine Gedeon about her current exhibition explores her personal history in Aleppo and a particularly painful family story.

Artist Christine Gedeon at her show at A.I.R. Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Aleppo may be synonymous with war and destruction nowadays, but many of us remember the city as a cosmopolitan hub with a long and difficult history. I was reminded of that other Aleppo, the one Westerners rarely see, when I visited Christine Gedeon‘s new exhibition in Dumbo, Brooklyn.

A view of Gedeon’s one-room installation at A.I.R. gallery

Part of the Four Weeks And Forty-Five Years series at A.I.R. Gallery, Gedeon has created a one-room weeklong installation that follows her family history in Aleppo from its early years after World War I until they left in the late 1970s. Using maps, text, and abstract forms, her display suggests a history that is half-remembered, half-present, and all encompassing. I spoke to her about Aleppo, being Syrian, her family history, and her art, because I couldn’t resist an opportunity to speak to a fellow Aleppine about a city that is often so misunderstood.

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Il Meshtel, digital drawing with thread, pencil, and tape on archival paper, 6” x 7”, 2017 (image courtesy the artist and used with permission)

Hrag Vartanian: What does Aleppo represent to you now? Your project reflects on a difficult personal history that is strangely too familiar to those of us from the city.

Christine Gedeon: What Aleppo represents is the genesis of my family history, the core of what made us who we are, and the tragedies experienced are a thread in our make-up, it’s in our DNA. Although my maternal grandparents came from Mardin (what is now part of Turkey) after World War I, and my father was Lebanese, I still see Aleppo as the formation of who my family tribe is.

With the virtual obliteration of the city, and so many unanswered questions related to some tragedies in my family history, these answers have become as tenuous as the city itself. With this project materializing these places in Aleppo and in other areas in Syria, I feel it was the only way to create something tangible from this rubble.

HV: Well, Aleppo has always been a place where people of all walks of life converged, my own family arrived there from cities just to the north. So what was it about Aleppo that you wanted to retain, examine, and/or celebrate? I ask myself this because Aleppo is many things to many people.

CG: I never got a chance to know the city well since we moved to the US when I was three years old, and I only went back to visit in 2006. I visited cousins in both Aleppo and Damascus, but was only able to stay in Aleppo for a few days. I connected to the city immediately and found the place quite magical as the city glorified its history. It was a place that retained its culture with very little Western influence, and the hospitality was ever present — even in the souks, restaurants, stores, etc. After I visited, I remember thinking that I can just return and explore it more deeply one day. Sadly the war started five years later, and at this point seeing it as it once was is an impossibility. So the only thing I can retain are the memories and stories from family members of these places.

As you were also born in Aleppo, and emigrated with your family the same time I did, what does Aleppo represent to you, as a Syrian with an Armenian background, growing up in Toronto? Which part of your background do you identify with most? You had mentioned that sometimes people don’t consider you a “real” Syrian. Can you elaborate on that more?

“Uncle Nabil’s House” (2017), digital drawing with thread, pencil, and tape on archival paper, 34 ½” x 25 ½” (image courtesy the artist and used with permission)
The text that accompanies “Uncle Nabil’s House” (2017) (image courtesy the artist and used with permission)

HV: I went back in the 1980s and spent probably the most memorable summer of my life there, and then I didn’t go back again until the late 1990s because of military service. Then I couldn’t go after 9/11 because I was placed into the NSEERS registry (the so-called first “Muslim registry”) and my lawyer advised me — if I wanted to stay in the US — to avoid the country and region until I got a green card. And then I eventually got one and the war started. So that connection to Syria has always been difficult and painful, which is why I connect to your story so much.

In terms of the “real” Syrian part, that’s usually from non-Syrians, since they have stereotypes of who is Syrian and who isn’t, not even realizing that definition has always been malleable over the centuries. Also, few people I know in New York have ever asked me about Syria, which tells me they don’t associate me with the place, which is interesting. They ask me about Armenia though, and I haven’t ever had a relative there until recently, when my cousin relocated to Armenia after his kidnapping ordeal near the Syrian-Turkish border.

I enjoyed how you used maps in a way that manipulates the geography. I think that’s so true in many ways, in that we see the place differently now and many of us don’t even know what the places we knew look like anymore. Which leads me to my next question: So why the maps?

CG: Maps, urban planning, and architecture have been a topic in my work for a while, even before this series of works on Syria. In this case, working with the topic of piecing together memory through location, maps point to a forensic investigation of our family history and tragedies. I also look at maps as I’m interested in rebuilding especially after war and how we define ourselves in relation to the built environment around us where buildings in the urban context interact with one another and allow individuals to create a narrative of who they are — past, present, and future.

Our memory and identity are forever changed after buildings and monuments are destroyed through war, natural destruction, and urban planning. The subsequent rebuilding both “as it once was” as well as a complete modern reconstruction suppresses memory, seemingly creating a sense of utopia. So, by using these maps of locations in Syria which will ultimately change, it creates a blueprint of what once was and what will most likely disappear.

“Our House” (2016), digital drawing with pencil, and tape on archival paper, 23 ½” x 16 ½”

HV: What’s your take on being Syrian in the US? I personally find it hard to talk to the majority of people about anything related to Syria because they’re either indoctrinated by Western media narratives that feel disconnected from the reality there or are just uninformed. I may sound frustrated, but I guess I am. I’m curious about your take on the issue.

CG: I spend most of the year now in Berlin, and there is a much different dialogue in relationship to the war in Syria, and more suspicion to what is presented in the Western media, than there is here. I don’t want to get into the politics and theories behind this war, but it is frustrating when many just listen to their usual news sources and form conclusions without pondering other theories behind what could have caused this war. I think that’s an easy route when you’re used to your usual news sources. But it is refreshing when I do meet people who are also aware of this, as there is definitely a segment of people I know that do realize this.

Do you feel the same way when you discuss the topic of Syria to people in Canada? Do you think they are less indoctrinated by the Western media as they are here?

HV: I just don’t discuss Syria with people who don’t know the place well, as I find it very frustrating. And so many people’s knowledge of Syria usually comes from the Bible, which isn’t exactly a good place to start conversations. Not sure if you have this experience, but in Catholic school I would often be asked during religion class to play the “Syrian” characters, which was funny.

CG: [Laughs] That is funny. Well, in fact, when I was growing up in school, most kids had never heard of Syria, or if they did, they didn’t have the best impression of it. It was frustrating to have to explain to people that the culture was not a bunch of desert bedouins riding camels, and most people didn’t know how diverse and religiously tolerant the culture was.

HV: Yeah, I got the camel thing all the time too. Reading your text I realized we were both born in the same hospital, Kassis, which is a funny coincidence. What were some of the things you discovered about your own history (and maybe the way you felt about it) that you didn’t know?

CG: I had always known there were some good years in my family history in Aleppo, pre-1958 before the Pan-Arab union with Egypt, but the tragedies that followed had always stood out more in my understanding of our background. In working on this project and speaking mainly to my mother, uncle, and aunt, I understood that when they spoke about their lives before the political mess in Syria, they had quite fond memories and until now speak about those times with sentimentality. There really were some good times in Syria that had remained in the background, but the subsequent tragedies are really what affected how my family remembers Syria.

What was the period before and after 1958 for your family in Aleppo like, and how did the Pan Arab union affect them? You had said your father wanted to leave Syria since then, but wasn’t finally able to until almost 20 years later. What were the circumstances that allowed you to emigrate to Canada?

Another view of Gedeon’s one-room installation at A.I.R. gallery

HV: It was during 1958 that my dad decided to ultimately leave, even though it took him almost two decades to do it. He said attitudes towards minorities changed during the United Arab Republic, and he told me he clearly saw the writing on the wall. I used to think he was paranoid but now I realize he wasn’t as paranoid as I thought.

What’s it been like for you to watch the war remotely? Do you still have family there?

CG: When the war started, all of us were in shock as we didn’t think the Arab Spring would spread to Syria. Watching it remotely, we kept thinking it was just a matter of time until it would end and resolve itself, which unfortunately didn’t happen. I remember waking up in the middle of the night many times and feeling such a loss, like a death, as the war kept continuing.

My family had left Aleppo and Damascus a few years ago and now live in Beirut. It’s not easy of course, to give up your home and life, and being Syrian in Lebanon isn’t very welcoming. They, however, are fortunate, and have a home there, and work, and have many friends and a life there now. The ones from Damascus continue to go back from time to time, as life there is still functioning, but the ones from Aleppo of course had to close their door completely. My mother still knows some people who stayed in Aleppo, who live in the western parts of the city, which is more livable than the east, but they have to contend with life in a war zone — blackouts, no running water from time to time, looting, super expensive prices, lack of fresh produce, etc. But they have no choice, especially the older ones, and are just waiting it out.

What was your reaction at the start of the war, and was it surprising for you as well, or did you see it coming? And what about your relatives there? Did they all manage to leave?

HV: Most are still there believe it or not. I will never forget that my dad said this was all coming for decades. He was right, and his side of the family all left. But my dad, unlike my mom, grew up in poverty and lived in different parts of the country so he had more knowledge about the regional, sectarian, and political problems Syria faced.

Do you plan to go back? Will you visit the first chance you get?

CG: Right now I have no plans to go back. I think it would be too heartbreaking to see it after it was destroyed and I’d rather keep the memory of it. But I do wonder in years from now how it will be rebuilt, and if it would turn into a place like Berlin where so much of the history was erased through new architecture, although the post-war feeling still permeates the air.

A detail of one of the works in Gedeon’s exhibition at A.I.R. gallery

HV: I always wonder about artists feeling compelled to make certain kind of work at times of crisis. Did you have that urge — or feel that pressure — making this work? Did people expect you to make work about Aleppo since your family hails from there?

CG: A while after the war started, I had the urge to do work related to Syria and it was impossible for me not to. It felt like a natural trajectory, and also knowing my family history was so intense (but quite normal for Syrian standards), I had to do something with this background.

My first project related to the war was a collaboration with a sound artist, Bent Bøgedal Christoffersen, called “Syria…as my mother speaks.” It’s an interactive playable “string instrument” that was first exhibited at the Textilmuseum in Bocholt, Germany in May 2014. Using strands of nylon wire connected to the architecture of the museum, this instrument, when triggered, played layered sounds and snippets of the stories and conversations with my mother (mainly in Arabic), centered around the war in Syria, my relatives there, and her memories before the war. Realizing that the war naturally came up in topic while speaking to my mother, and how personal many of the stories were, I needed to do something with them. It also reflected upon the popular musical tradition in Aleppo where families in the past used to sit in their courtyards and play their string instruments, and sing, while the destruction of the place had erased that tradition as well.

After showing it at the Textilmuseum, I had also shown this piece at a sound venue in Berlin and in Dubrovnik two summers ago. Coincidentally, all post-war areas but the language is universal.

Here is a short video showing the sound artist playing some snippets, when it was installed in the Textil Museum in Bocholt, Germany:

HV: In your work you talk about your uncle who was detained by the Syrian police in the 1970s for what your family believes was an argument with an employee at the Syrian embassy in Paris, is that right? Did your family ever hear from him again?

CG: No. Sadly, we never heard from him since he was kidnapped in 1978 in Damascus. He was living in Toulouse, France, studying to be an anesthetist doctor, then after he finished his schooling, he came to visit us in the US before heading to Damascus to set up his practice there. He wanted to go back to Syria and help the people there, although he got offers to work in the US and in France, but he was kidnapped by the Secret Service a few weeks after he got there.

There are many theories, one being that he had Communist leanings, but it didn’t make sense — if he was living in France, then why would he choose to go back to Damascus and live and work there? The one theory that made the most sense was that when he was in Paris at the Syrian Embassy, forgetting where he was and how things changed in Syria from when he left, he said something anti-Assad (after seeing one of those ubiquitous posters of al-Assad that are all over Syria and embassies) and the officer warned my uncle that he will suffer a brutal fate once he returns to Syria, which he did. Apparently he wrote a very bad report about him. We really never found anything out, and the government kept denying that he was in their prisons, although people did see him there.

My family got Amnesty International to help, even Jimmy Carter tried to intervene, but no luck in getting any information from the Syrian regime. I think, for the past 30 years or so, since we received no news about him anymore, we all assume he’s no longer alive. This period is a really dark time in my family history, and the lack of closure or real knowledge of what had happened, and all the different theories we have, makes me want to work on a specific project related just to this story.

HV: Also, one last thing, is it true your grandmother went to school with the renowned photographer Yousef Karsh in Mardin?

CG: Yes, she did! My mother had told me after we saw an exhibit of his in Boston some years back that teta (my grandmother) had gone to school with him in Mardin, before they all fled to Aleppo in 1918. She was just a young girl, around six or seven years old, but I don’t think there was any more interaction between them at that time.

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Christine Gedeon’s weeklong exhibition as part of Four Weeks and Forty-Five Years at A.I.R. Gallery (155 Plymouth St, Dumbo, Brooklyn) continues through October 1. There is a scheduled artist conversation on October 1, 3pm, between the artist and curator Rosario Güiraldes.

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