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Panelists Examine the Impact of Syrian Protest Art Collected by the British Museum

By Carrie Snurr

The British Museum recently added and displayed many pieces of Syrian protest art inspired by the country’s uprisings against president Bashar al Assad.

The pieces come in the form of prints, posters, drawings and photographs as part of the museum’s “Living Histories” exhibit. It ran through last summer and featured artists from around the Middle East, including many artists from Syria.

On Nov. 29, The Middle East Institute hosted a discussion with Malu Halasa, the writer of Syria Speaks - Art and Culture from the Frontline, and Venetia Porter, who joined the panel over phone, the British Museum curator responsible for the museum’s collection of Islamic art and for developing the museum’s collection of modern art in the Middle East.

The discussion focused on Syrian protest art and the implications of major art institutions acquiring that art. Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University moderated the panel.

Middle East Institute Syrian Protest Art British Museum

Sanjit Sethi, director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University, who moderated the panel, opens the panel discussion, emphasizing the importance that Syrian protest art has. (Photo: MEI)

“I don’t think there’s ever been a more important time to talk about the intersection regarding creativity and its response to armed conflict,” Sethi said. “Creativity be it performance or visual arts or be it design or architectural practice can offer keen insights not just in response and reflection, but in driving possibilities for solutions.”

In 2011, protests against Assad broke out and turned violent, dragging the country into a civil war. The Syrian government brutally cracked down on its people, at times using chemical weapons in communities held by rebels.

The international community has condemned the Assad regime and abuses toward its people. The United States and other allied have provided training to Syrian rebels in the past. President Donald Trump quietly ended the U.S.’s clandestine program to aid rebels last summer.

Non-violent activists have been using art in Syria to protest the Assad regime since the violence began in 2011. The panel showed several works created by the Syrian artists, including videos which were not featured in the exhibition because it only featured art on paper.

The showing included a short film by Zaher Omareen called “Flickering” which recounted experiences in a Syrian prison through narration and images projected onto different parts of an artist's body. Omareen uses footage he and his friends have made and footage from the internet for his pieces. Omareen is a Syrian researcher and writer.

Malu Halasa Middle East Institute Syrian Protest Art British Museum

Malu Halasa, the writer of Syria Speaks - Art and Culture from the Frontline, describes how the pieces of Syrian activist art journeyed to the British Museum exhibition. (Photo: MEI)

The British Museum featured many works by the anonymous poster collective Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh’s or, The Syrian People Know Their Way. One of the posters featured in the exhibition shows an all black head with three bullet holes bleeding the Syrian flag. It is titled “Freedom.”

Halasa explained how Syrian uprising art began to be shown throughout Europe and detailed how the art managed to get to the British Museum. She said it was difficult to obtain art at first because artists were sharing it online and acquiring high-resolution images was challenging because of the urgency of the art.

The British Museum faced challenges trying curate the art because many of the images were reproductions, digital files or videos, Porter said. The museum does not collect video files. The posters used in the exhibition were used by anonymous collectives to be used during protests and to be shared on social media.

Porter emphasized that the collection was only a sample of the work of Syrian uprising artists. Many artists did not want to sell their work for the museum.

Sethi asked both panelists about avoiding “fetishizing” war through the artwork. Porter explained that it is important to represent the work being made in areas like Syria. The British Museum had the exhibition evaluated to determine what the public would perceive of the works.

Halasa said many of the artists felt validated by having their work featured in the exhibition. But, she added, that many felt uncomfortable about having their art collected by the museum and it has brought up other personal questions for the artists.

Middle East Institute Malu Halasa Syrian Protest Art

Sethi and Halasa discuss what Syrian protest art means and what implications there might be for large museums collecting the art work. Venetia Porter, the British Museum curator responsible for the museum’s collection of Islamic art and for developing the museum’s collection of modern art in the Middle East joins the conversation over phone.  (Photo: MEI)

Asked about social justice and the role art plays in shedding light on those issues, she said that many works by uprising artists have shed light on Syrian prisons which have become notorious for abuses including torture. But, she added, that focusing on social justice issues takes away from the power of works as art.

“The Syrian uprising art archive at the British Museum throws up a multitude of questions,” Halasa said.

“‘What is the function of art during conflict?’ ‘And how should this art be considered?’ ‘Has art from the Middle East become like literature with an onus to reflect or shed light on the time of its making?’ But what the archive did do and continues to do now is allow a platform for these kinds of questions to be asked and potentially answered.”

 


Carrie Snurr is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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