LONDON — News from Syria suggests the pen, the paintbrush, the camera, and even needle and thread may be mightier than the sword after all. For what other reason would the government have broken the hands of a political cartoonist. But the fully recovered cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, is back at his desk, ridiculing the follies of man, and his nemesis President Assad may soon be looking for ways to avoid trial as a war criminal.
Ferzat’s cartoons are existential and profound, but hardly feature the vicious personal attacks which characterise UK satire. His most scurrilous work appears to be a sketch of Assad grooming himself before a giant mirror, which sure enough, makes the dictator look giant sized. Other neat illustrated tricks include a floral sapling which upends a tank and a man who throws the blueprint for a ladder to a supplicant trapped in a ditch.
Laughter is otherwise thin on the ground in a new exhibition of Syrian art, much of which has been smuggled out at no small risk. Titled #withoutwords, the London show offers testimony rather than political direction; its dozen artists are broadly oppositional to the regime, but it is war they oppose above all. And in a country where the West, the East, and a myriad of faiths all have a political stake, we should remember that war is no solution at all.
Along with the satire, the conflict sees developing forms of reportage. Anonymous artist collectives have come into their own. Citizen journalism has never been healthier. And Lens Young, a network of photographers based all around the war-torn region, feels like a positive new thing. Seven black and white photos represent them here. With lack of artifice, and occasional lack of technique, shots include smoke billowing from an apartment block, a semi abstract study of tank tracks and a MiG Fighter plane at close range. Well, they put your latest Instagram down at the pub into perspective.
#withoutwords also features community art without any cosiness, as Hazar Bakbachi-Henriot came to hold textile workshops in a refugee camp in nearby Turkey. Displaced Syrian women, aged from 15 to 50, depicted themselves in mourning among an array of tombstones bearing Arabic words for martyr or quotations form the Qu’ran. This is outsider art to the nth degree since the women cannot get back into their own country, never mind the art world.
Ramez Bakir, on the other hand, has made a sophisticated film installation with an intertext familiar to many Syrians. His installation “Dam(n),” takes up where late filmmaker Omar Amiralay leaves off, their shared topic a 1970s dam in the river Euphrates which led to the flooding of many villages. It may have been a Utopian project. But the flooded valley was once the cradle of civilization, having settlements dating back to the stone age. So much for modernization.
Sound is well deployed in this show. It is the ambient rumble of a three-year-old conflict which has become part of everyday life. Take the stairs at a given moment and you may be rocked by a mortar hit. The source is video piece “Tuj,” a ‘Syrian short story’ in which an unseen child bounces a ball in a stairwell. But filmmaker Khaled Abdulwahed lets the sound of the bounce give way to the sound of shelling. The building suffers a direct hit and debris falls from the ceiling. The most heartbreaking aspect of war must be that children keep on playing. So this is one of the most accomplished pieces in the show, the friendliest to conceptual Western eyes.
Tuj is available on YouTube (and posted above) along with Abdulwahed’s other piece in the show “Bullet.” If any aspect of a bloody civil war can be described as exciting, it would be the way in which brave artists on the wrong side of the regime have been able to disseminate their work on the web. The conflict in Syria has become known as a YouTube war, with all those pros and cons. Artwork, at least, is much more likely to calm the situation than, say, the footage of rebel commander Abu Sakkar taking a bite from a human heart. If new media is the front line we should be gratified to have embedded artists.
With this in mind, painting seem a slow way to respond to horror. But in fact the many canvases have cost some £30,000 to bring to London. The Assad regime are presumably no more happy with us seeing such cris de coeur as those by Hamid Sulaiman, Amjad Wardeh, or Tarek Tuma. Tuma’s glowering painting of Nietzche reminds us just what the human race has done to God. But even the delicate abstract work by Bakbachi-Henriot is given a political spin with the title Gunshots. There is no painting for the sake of it here. The damaged dolls of Fadi Al Jabour are also quite unambiguous.
They bring us back to the youngest victims of the conflict. In 2011 a group of schoolchildren was arrested and allegedly tortured for writing on a wall. If a government would do this to its children, what might it do to artists? The most disturbing photos here carry an 18 certificate in a closed off room. We see corpses of all sizes. We see a child holding a shell. We see a pallbearer, tears silvering his face. The oppositional artist must be all these things, mournful, playful and prepared to sacrifice everything. This is a tragic, urgent show.
#withoutwords: Emerging Syrian Artists continues at P21 Gallery (21 Chalton Street, London) through September 1.