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Azzam achieved more fame than nearly any other Syrian artist since the start of the revolution this February, when he created a piece that overlaid Gustav Klimt’s seminal “The Kiss,” in which a couple shares an idealistic kiss, against a photo of a destructed street in Douma.
It was part of a series featuring famous works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Dali and even Andy Warhol, set against destroyed locations in Syria. As to why “The Kiss” went viral? “Maybe people need love more than war right now. But I preferred the Goya [the Spanish artist’s “Third of May, 1808” against a demolished city street]. I think it shows what’s happening in Syria more than the other one does.”
In a corner of Dubai’s Gate Village, the leafy, art-strewn corner of the International Financial Center, is Ayyam Gallery. Once one of the more avant-garde offerings in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Ayyam has reopened in the safer climes of the United Arab Emirates. Owned by a Swiss–Syrian, it’s maintained its Damascene edge, bringing Azzam along to continue his six-year artists’ residency.
“I can’t go back to Syria now,” Azzam says. “The regime’s official newspaper wrote something very bad about my artwork, that I get a lot of money from the U.S. and from Gulf leaders to do work that goes against the regime.”
When he shows his art now, he gets one reaction from the Syrian patrons who wander in and out of the gallery: “Sadness.”
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His road to creative dissidence began in Suada, a village of 600 near Deraa, where the revolution began. He says Suada is a town friendly to amateur artists, unlike others in Syria. (Even in a time of war, “all people want their kids to be doctors and engineers. You know.”)
“It’s not traditional to be an artist in Arab countries,” Azzam says. “But 20 to 30 years ago it was harder. Now it’s easier. I decided when I was six years old. I said, ‘I want to be an artist, I want to draw all the time’.”
After graduation from an arts academy in Damascus, he began to paint oil landscapes.
When the first protests began in Deraa in spring 2011, he, like so many other Syrian artists, discovered political leanings he didn’t know he had.
“I hadn’t cared about politics all my life,” he says. “I just liked painting about people’s lives.” He was able to shift his interest in depicting ordinary life into painted commentary on the change around him – fleeing families, destroyed homes.
The “Laundry” series “shows how people leave things behind when they leave – what they leave. The memories of the people who were there. It’s really nothing about politics. It’s just about people.”
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Like for many others, Azzam’s waterloo came “when four people were killed in Deraa [in March 2011], the first day of the revolution. It was the moment not just for me but for all the Syrian people. It was too much, those four people.” (The civilian death toll has now climbed past 70,000.)
On that day, he took refuge in the place he knew best. “I went to my studio, and I did three works. After seven months of the revolution – and please, use the word revolution, because the media, I know, want to make it a civil war or a conflict and for me it’s still a revolution – I decided to move to Dubai with Ayyam. And I still don’t have my own studio. I used to go every morning. I still don’t have a studio.
Azzam is working on a new series now, riding the wave of recognition that came from his spin on “The Kiss.” It depicts buildings that have been destroyed in the war.
“All the buildings in Syria now are like that,” he says.