In an exclusive interview with Your Middle East, celebrated Syrian artist Khaled Akil talks about his art and how to make sure Syria sees sunlight again.
YME: You have been praised for your art about the Syrian conflict. How does this latest series relate to the war in your homeland?
KA: “This series is not about war, it is about peace. Peace is the way of nature, war is man made. This series portrays the minimalism and impartiality of Sufism and nature, and above all, of humanity. The project can be described as a lone breath of a drowning man.”
YME: We’re seeing a man dancing with a white dove, a dove of peace if you like (at least that’s what I think of…). And you have dressed this man, our protagonist, in a Sufi-like dress. Sufism, often referred to as a religion of peace. So tell me, what’s the connection with Sufi ideas in these works?
KA: “Sufism is the most peaceful school of theology in the Middle East, and possibly in the world. The marriage between religious and natural symbolism swaying around curated Arabic poetry celebrates the remnants of peace amidst the chaos overtaking the region. The dove is dancing, essentially praying alongside the Sufi chanter, in hope for a better tomorrow and for a less grim today.”
YME: The man moves with grace. Is this important for you to portray, that in the midst of tragedy, dignity remains intact?
KA: “The Sufi chanter, Alper Akcay, is a Turkish performer and a talented artist who is highly concerned with the tragedy taking place in Syria and in the region. While filming and working on this series, Alper entered a state of trance in which he freely redefined the series. His emotions, reflected through his unplanned dancing with the dove, made the project harder to capture, but far more candid and heart-felt. The silent, still depiction of his performance represents dignity, clarity and sadness. Praying through dancing demonstrates the strength lent to him and other believers by their beliefs.”
YME: There are fragmented letters on the photos, tell us about those, what do they mean?
KA: “Arabic poetry, throughout history, has idolized peace and called for it. In contrast to the bloody history of the region and its blood thirsty warlords, Arab artists and poets have always contrasted misery by calling for and celebrating peace.
This work (below) for example saying I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place on earth, wherefore I praised the dead and the one who has never been born – Ecclesiastes 4:2, Old Testament”
YME: Quite a few scholars have written about art resistance in Syria. But things have changed the past year or so. What is the current state of that visual struggle; are the artists of the uprising as active as before?
KA: “Artists are among the most emotional beings on this planet. The struggle in Syria has reached levels comparable to the most tragic turning points in human history. International artists and Syrian artists especially are fighting a dual struggle: One is to express the tragedies taking place, and one is to remain sane in the middle of this insanity. Activity is relative as Syrian artists are fighting survival battles of their own, battles for freedom, stability and those of basic human needs.”
YME: You are now based in Istanbul, because of the war. Are you ever working collectively with other Syrian artists in exile?
KA: “Syrian artists are now spread across the planet, representing the skies above us with bright celestial bodies distributed evenly and elegantly. While I did not have the pleasure of co-working with other Syrian artists the past year, our collaboration and mutual support is determined by the nature of our united vision.”
YME: We’re all longing for a peaceful Syria. In your view, how do we get there?
KA: “While we are made to believe that all wars are for resources and power struggles, I personally believe it is more of a decision. There are people out there who can decide, and with a stroke of a pen, Syria can see sunlight once again. Our duty is not to get astray and to remain focused on what matters the most, which is peace and dignity for all what is human.”