Massarah Mikati explores how Syrian-American artists are responding to the war in Syria.
Leila Khoury never forgot the stunning bathhouse she saw when she visited Aleppo at the age of 15 — the intricate patterns weaving in and out of one another; the deep, dull blue painted on select sections of the walls; the intricate details that lined the multi-colored floors and ceiling.
“That was my most vivid memory of Aleppo,” the artist said. “Aleppo got the lion force share of destruction (in the Syrian Civil War), but rather than perpetuating that image of destruction I wanted to bring back to life a piece of beautiful imagery.”
So Khoury got as close to revisiting that bathhouse as she could, recreating this distant figment of her memory by constructing the interior of the unforgettable bathhouse into a life-size diorama in an attempt to show her American audience Syrian heritage, rather than Syrian war.
Khoury, a daughter of Syrian immigrants born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, is one of many Syrian-Americans who use their artwork to cope with the Syrian Civil War, whether it be through preserving their culture and memories, exposing different perspectives of the factors at play in the war, or exploring their own identities in face of their burning country.
“FIGMENTS OF YOUR IMAGINATION”
One of the first pieces to catch the eye when walking into Mary Ann Peters’ Seattle studio is the magnificent, white carpet laid carefully across 15 feet of the floor. Upon closer observation, you realize that the carpet is in fact not woven out of fabric, but actually pieced and slabbed together with pastry flour. Intricate details and patterns are delicately etched into the carpet, painting an oriental visual with an original twist.
Using the pastry flour as the main component of the staple oriental carpet was Peters’ way of showcasing how critically agriculture and drought shape the culture and politics of the region.
“Americans don’t really understand how important or influential drought has been in Syria,” Peters said, explaining how the drought shut down the farming industry in entire areas throughout the country, leading to farmers initiating some of the preliminary protests of the Arab Spring. “(The carpet) was beautiful and fragile, but also a way for me to say it’s the ubiquitous item for the Middle East.”
Peters named the piece “on my eyes and my head”, which is a literal translation from a common Arabic expression that essentially means, “I would do anything for you.” The piece constitutes her series’ “impossible monument.”
“Impossible monuments are these things I’m identifying as present in culture and tend to be very mundane, so they won’t be elevated to the status of the monument,” Peters said. “But, in the life of the people, they would be essential.”
And if there is one word to describe Peters’ artwork, “essential” would be it. The second-generation Syrian-Lebanese is on a mission to find elements of her family’s culture that are not obvious, but that are poignant.
Peters’ mission shines through the unique bronzes displayed in her studio, in the shape of loaves of pita bread. She got inspiration for the piece when the met a Lebanese migrant while doing research in Mexico City.
“His father had said to him, ‘Learn how to make bread, because if you can make bread, you can eat it, you can sell it, you can share it,’” she said. “You can basically bring into focus all the things that are integral to a life and take care of yourself.”
But above all else, Peters is determined to find the truth in history, such as in her painting “painting the river red”, which portrays the city of Hama, Syria’s annual ceremonial gesture of pouring red dye into the Orontes River, signifying blood in remembrance of Hafez al-Assad’s 1982 massacre of Hama.“What I know is happening, and the part that is emotionally resonant for me, is how easily histories are overrun and reconstituted,” Peters said. “It’s important for me to step beyond my sentiment and look at real histories, and see if I could grapple with those in an artistic way.”
Khoury is in the same boat, fighting the same battle for history as Peters. But Khoury’s battle is under more explicit terms, fighting for the side of preserving history in the war against ISIS. Her piece “Palmyra 2015”, for example, was in response to ISIS’ destruction of the ancient remains in the historic city of Palmyra.
“It was very impromptu — I was faced with this giant slab of concrete that I was sketching into while it was still wet, and I had an hour of working time to try to recreate my idea of Palmyra without looking at any photos of it,” Khoury said. “It was a really spiritual experience because I was having to face the fact that I might never see this place in my life while I was making it.”
Palmyra 2015, according to Khoury, is the best example of the artist’s grieving process throughout the Civil War — and grieving is a common theme that threads itself throughout her attempts of preserving her heritage, and her family, in the case of “Muses”.
‘Palmyra 2015’ by Leila Khoury
“Muses” is a collection of five statues made out of concrete and arranged around each other in a circle. In ambiguous human shapes, each statue towers at five and a half feet tall, but feels smaller as the heads droop toward the ground in mourning.
“(‘Muses’) represent the human side of (the Civil War),” Khoury explained. “It’s a relationship with these individuals or communities that you once felt close with, that you can no longer even remember — their facial features are blurred, they don’t have identities, there’s gender ambiguity.”
Khoury drew inspiration for this piece from her mother’s family that remains residing in the war-torn city of Homs.
“There’s all these people I knew and practically grew up with who are virtually strangers to me now and hard to keep in touch with,” she said. “They’re just figments of your imagination at this point.”
DIVIDE AND BE CONQUERED
When Nabil Mousa proudly presented his entry for the 2015 ArtPrize competition to his previously-agreed upon venue, Grand Rapids City Hall in Michigan, he was shocked to hear the city would no longer be accepting his installation, which they deemed controversial. The rejected piece caused an uproar, igniting debate and discussion that spread like wildfire nationwide — and it is Mousa’s proudest piece of work.
“Paradise built on the bones of the slaughtered” is a sculpture of metal towers modeled after the Twin Towers that were destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. Attached to the sides of the towers are rods off of which torched pages from the Quran, Torah and Bible are hung.
“The 9/11 image in my head never left me,” Mousa said. “(The piece) was to mimic the scene of people jumping out to their death. It was not just one particular group of people of color, faith, or nationality who died — it was people from every religious faith, every country, who died during that atrocity.”
‘Paradise built on the bones of the slaughtered’ by Nabil Mousa
Mousa, born in Syria but raised in the U.S., focuses on the contempt of religion throughout his artwork, questioning the motives behind it with pieces that manipulate pages from the holy texts of the monotheistic religions.
“Are they trying to say that there is a god, or that there isn’t a god?” Mousa asked. “When I see these types of atrocities, it says to me that there is no god.”
A new piece Mousa is working on, titled “The veil of ignorance”, consists of pages of the Bible, Quran and Torah collaged onto a canvas and covered with wrinkled, heavy burlap.
“Religion has turned out to be more oppressive — it forces us to stay within rules and regulations instead of allowing us to be who we are,” Mousa said as he explained the significance of the constrictive burlap.
“Those three religions have always affected my life, and unfortunately have always been more negative because they’ve always used one of the religions as an excuse to kill somebody that belongs to the other.”
While Mousa’s artwork portrays religion as a main point and cause of conflict, Syrian immigrant Mohamad Hafez portrays religion as a source of bliss and comfort in his artwork.
Much of Hafez’s work replicates Syria, both before and during the war, in vividly realistic diorama boxes. The full-time architect recreates every detail of his memories, and current exposure to images, of Syria — depicting everything from the bullet-riddled, paint-peeling walls, to the laundry hung on lines outside homes, to the lightbulbs lit within the crumbling structures themselves.
“It was all about getting a realistic reading, recreating something that is thousands of years old from scratch,” Hafez explained.
But throughout many of his pieces, Arabic calligraphy is meticulously painted on the walls of his real-life windows into Syria, bringing to life verses from the Quran.
‘Unfaced’ by Mohamad Hafez
“When I model destruction so realistically, the work is not to be pessimistic because I confuse these Quranic verses in the work,” Hafez said. “It’s my message to my people that ultimately things will be made right one day. When you add an optimistic, promising phrase like this, it gives a soothing condolence to the viewer of the work.”
Ultimately, though, Hafez pushes his audience to see points of commonality amongst the monotheistic religions.
“In the Middle East in general, our people are very religious — whether they’re Christian, Muslim or Jewish,” he said. “It all points back to the same god. I like focusing on the common denominator among all humanity, not just details that separate people out.”
‘Reflections’ by Mohamad Hafez
Khoury expresses this exact sentiment with her piece “Dirges”, which is an arrangement of three dome-like statues that vaguely represent spiritual buildings.
“I drew inspiration from every place of worship that you can imagine, without it specifically representing one over the other,” she said. “These specific religious groups’ buildings could have had stained glass or wood carvings, something that gives it its individuality, but they no longer do — that identity is the bare foundation of the building after it is destroyed.”
And that bare, foundational identity, she said, is the same across all boards — which all the artists agree on.
“It’s not the religion, it’s the ignorance that’s causing all of these atrocities,” Mousa said. “When we get rid of the ignorance, we won’t be fighting over these petty things.”
FINDING, DEFINING, PRESERVING IDENTITY
Mary Ann Peters has always been involved with her familial ties of Arab descent, but it was not until the past five years that she started diving into deeper explorations of her background.
“As a second-generation Arab-American, and not somebody who is directly affected by the war or conflicts in the area, you have to think about how you might contribute,” she said. “I had to give myself permission to start being more literal in my approach to my work.”
Once she decided that the desire to start conversation on the topics was permission enough, she launched herself into research and travels to inform the most insightful artwork she could produce.
“What I’m trying to understand is how my personal history, that’s somehow threaded to current times, is going to be in some ways manipulated by what happens (in Syria),” she said. “How it manifests itself is, what can I make to get locked in the after-image of someone’s visual vocabulary that will make them think about (the War) differently?”
All of the artists share the same goal as Peters. And through their attempts to ignite discussions, they also find themselves in deep reflections of their own identities.
For instance, while Peters’ artistic journey has helped her further discover her roots, Khoury’s has been an attempt for her to cope with the war and preserve the culture she grew up with.
“I feel pretty hopeless about (the war),” Khoury said. “(My artwork) took the form of mourning and grieving for a long time, but there’s only so far I could go with grieving — I had to turn that into something hopeful because there’s a lack thereof otherwise.”
Mousa, on the other hand, has leaked his own problematic experiences of religion into his artwork. As an openly gay Syrian Christian, Mousa was eventually disowned by his conservative family. He realized how truly constricted he felt when working on a series called “The Burqa”, which portrayed women coerced into wearing the veil in certain countries in the Middle East.
“Through this artwork, I realized that I was really talking about myself,” Mousa said. “I grew up a gay man who is always afraid to be true to who I am. Through my own work I was talking about my own oppression in my culture — I had to live my entire life behind this invisible burqa.”
Hafez, on the other hand, has simultaneously been expressing homesickness, but also his dual identity throughout his artwork. Though he is a Syrian immigrant, Hafez and his family spent most of their lives traveling between the East and West, adapting to both.
“This background allows me to relate to both worlds, talk to both worlds without really growing full roots in either one,” Hafez said. ”My goal is to be one of those bridges across cultures that caters to both worlds in a peaceful, humanitarian aspect.”
At the end of the day, these artists all have the same goals: to preserve and portray the richness of their culture, to spark productive discussions seeking peace, and to humanize the conflict.
“Artists are the critics of society,” Hafez said. “Art is that beautiful medium that allows you to touch on these issues without going too much into politics, because our society today is so divided — the way around this artistically is to humanize the conflict.”