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Arts & Culture: Syrian Painters Fight a ‘Culture of Emptying’

Meet the organization helping Syrian artists in Lebanon traverse Beirut’s burgeoning arts scene while maintaining their identity.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The day Raghad Mardini first saw a crumbling Ottoman-era horse stable in the mountains above Beirut, she saw artistic potential. Trained as a civil engineer in her native Syria, Mardini moved from Damascus to Beirut in 2008 and promptly bought and restored the stable, transforming it into Alley, an artists’ studio and residency hosting two Syrian artists on a month-to-month basis. It provides them with the space and freedom to express themselves through their art.

Little did she know at the time that it would become one of few such spaces for Syrian artists fleeing the country’s conflict. At the end of their stay at Mardini’s collective, each artist leaves behind a piece of his or her work, which she hopes to grow into a vast collection: a “cultural safety net,” capturing and preserving the country’s history and beauty. For many Syrian artists, the key to economic survival now lies in their ability to establish themselves in Lebanon’s fledgling art scene. Here, she discusses how she and others are helping to facilitate the process while encouraging a creativity kept stifled in the war zone.

I lived in Syria all my life. I moved to Lebanon in 2008 with my children. When I came to Lebanon I was looking for a house to restore, and found an Ottoman-style stable for horses that was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war. It was under dust and rubble, but it was not hard for me to see the beauty behind it.

There was a beautiful walnut tree outside. For me the tree was symbolic. The tree wasn’t dead; it just needed care and love, just like my country: there is a lot of ugliness and violence on the outside, but there is still love and beauty on the inside. There is a culture of emptying in Syria, especially among artists and intellectuals who are witnesses but not able to express themselves. In the beginning, we thought the situation in Syria was temporary and that people would go back. We now know this is not the case, and that people have to consider other options to survive.

The idea of Alley came from my belief in the importance of art and protecting artists during conflict, as a way of communicating with the world. In Alley, for a period of one month, two artists share a working space. The artists are refugees from all parts of Syria, from different social, religious and sectarian backgrounds, and they all live together. We started in May 2012 and have since hosted 33 artists.

We look for artists aged between 20 and 30. This is usually a promising age, with lots of possibilities on the horizon, but this Syrian generation is lost, full of nostalgia and fears for their future.

Alley is in the mountains. It is quiet, warm and there is solidarity in the collective community. There is an atmosphere of friendship. We make events, music, dance, and cook together. We play together. We all need to play together, especially during this time. We unite under this pain we are enduring.

I give the artists all the art supplies they need, so the people feel supported and safe, and then the ideas come from within them, and they create.

One Syrian artist called Iman came to us exhausted, and rarely smiled. She chose art performance as a way to express herself, something she had never done before Alley. She had a 45-minute interactive performance outside in the garden. She found herself, her freedom in this performance, and she said Alley gave her the courage.

We accept all forms of art: plastic art, painting, sculpture, photography, contemporary art, video art and installations. We have a workshop for interactive theater, workshops for etching, and host art performances that bring people from all around the world to Alley to teach our artists. We have had artists come from Spain, New York, Germany.

One artist was Tunisian. His performance was held on the streets of Lebanon. He called it “Screaming”. He talked about how a person can be freed from his chains through colors and art. Another upcoming Syrian artist is from the Golan Heights, who will send us his videos from there because he can’t enter Lebanon with his passport. We are also coordinating with the refugee camps and are inviting the children to spend the day with our artists in Alley.

It is hard to integrate into society in Lebanon, but the Syrians came as a creative power and have created a big wave on the Beiruti scene. Many galleries are now opening featuring Syrian art, and our artwork has helped to breakdown the barriers of resentment so that the Lebanese, who have experienced their own conflicts, no longer only see Syrians as workers, soldiers, refugees and a burden on society.

In that way, we provide an intermediate place where we introduce Syrians into the Lebanese art scene. We help get people connected to galleries, organizations and people interested in their art, establish studios, help them make a new life for themselves, and shield them from the traditional barriers and exploitation of working for profit.

We have a lot of Lebanese friends who support us: four of our board members are Lebanese, we are now officially an NGO registered in Lebanon, and have received grants from several organizations.

I’ve seen a lot of misconceptions about Syria. People associate Syria with statistics: numbers of coffins, refugees, the displaced. I want the world to see Syria as a living nation, as people who have lots of talent and creativity, people who are resilient despite the difficulties. We need to keep showing the real talent in this generation that has lost everything.

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