In June 2013 #Withoutwords: Emerging Syrian artists opened at the P21 gallery in London. Organised in collaboration with Mosaic Syria, a London-based charity, the idea behind the exhibition was to collect the work of Syrian artists who are responding to the humanitarian crisis.
Fadi Haddad, the chief executive of Mosaic, travelled to the Middle East and Europe several times to collect the works of art created there. The risks taken to smuggle them out of Syria were considerable.
Tarek Tuma, a curator and participating artist, says “Basically the people involved in transporting these works were risking their lives just so these pieces could be seen by the British public.” Sadly many pieces were unable to make a safe passage through border checkpoints and got stuck in the conflict zones.
Diverse in style, the artworks include pieces created within Syria, as well as work made collectively in refugee camps and by exiled and expatriate artists.
The most recognizable work featured in the exhibition is that of well-known Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat. In March 2011, he broke what he called “the barrier of fear” and started to depict President Bashar al-Assad in his cartoons. He was attacked and his hands were broken by Assad supporters. He later fled to Kuwait where he now works.
Fadi Al Jabour’s work, “Near death”, is an unsettling series of portraits of artificial dolls whose expressions reflect the lives of the Syrian people. Al Jabour said, “Through this work I am trying to illustrate the daily life that every person in Syria is living – the co-existence with death, the situation of those who have gotten stuck in a war without choosing to be in one. In a blink of an eye anyone could fade out of existence without having an alternative option. It is as if this person is a doll in a falling state and passively waiting, just like a doll that exists in a void, the expression on the doll’s face being rigid with fear, or empty, or staring into an uncertain ending.”
Also prominent in the exhibition were the photographs of Lens Young. Unofficial citizen journalists and photographers have been documenting their country’s destruction and posting their findings on Facebook and Youtube. Branches have formed in Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. Together they unite under the banner of Lens Young.
The most vivid and arresting work is Tarek Tuma’s portrait of Hamza Bakkour, a 13-year-old boy whose jaw was blown off in an attack during the siege of Baba Amr, a district of Homs, in 2012. It is a sad and shocking reminder of the suffering of civilians who are caught in the crossfire.
Tuma, who also worked as a curator on the exhibition, painted Hamza Bakkour to express his feeling of guilt at being in exile while his country suffers, and to respond to that suffering. He believes that "Silence is as evil as the atrocity itself…”
Tuma first came to London as a medical student but followed his passion and enrolled in art school instead. Since the conflict broke out in Syria he has become a refugee.
His family remains in the rebel-held city of Douma. He has only sporadic contact with them due to unreliable phone lines and intermittent electricity. He speaks of how, during a phone conversation with his sister, he heard her children playing outside while warplanes flew overhead. “The city has been bombed every day for over a year now,” he says, “so they are coping with that, they are defying it and living life normally.”
While Tuma worries for his family’s safety, he also speaks of the remarkable resilience of the Syrian people in the face of so much adversity. “The community pulls together, they form committees. They run the city by themselves without any interference from the government. They grow food for everyone. They provide generator electricity, as the city has been without power for over a year now. So they are getting together to provide the basic needs for the people. They are making a huge effort. ”
Tuma says the main point of the exhibition is to “stop the bloodshed, whatever side it comes from. It’s the responsibility of the whole of humanity to make that happen.” He hopes the artworks evoke a sense of compassion “to relate to the sad situation, the tragic situation in Syria and that’s what makes a difference.”