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Arts + Culture: Meet the Rebel Artist Painting on Mortar Shells

With canvas in short supply, Akram Abou al-Fouz paints on the shells scattered around his neighborhood in Douma. “We had shelling showers, so to speak,” he says.

Written by Youmna al-Dimashqi and Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Artists in war-torn areas often channel turmoil into avant-garde work. Syria is no exception, and painters, photographers and craftsmen here have even turned bombs and bullet casings into art that tells the story of the country’s war.

Nine kilometers from the Syrian capital of Damascus is the small city of Douma, an opposition stronghold and one of the areas most heavily bombed by the Syrian government. In this city’s dusty, destroyed streets, an artist named Akram Abou al-Fouz has redefined traditional materials. Instead of painting on hard-to-find canvas and paper, he paints on mortar shells.

Abou al-Fouz, 35, says he wanted to express his views on the conflict by pairing his color palette with the physical remnants of battle. A self-taught artist, his formal education was limited to primary school.

I didn’t have enough material, so I used remains found in my destroyed house. The most important tools were the paint brush, paint and color tubes, and these are rare in Ghouta and expensive if they are available.

Douma has suffered more than other cities. We had shelling showers so to speak, or as the regime dubbed them: gifts. Around the city, we had so many of those shells.

When the revolution started, I tried to help in any way I could. Most of my work was in media: I used to come up with the design and the calligraphy for protest banners. When we picked up arms, I helped in the medical aid sector, helping paramedics and such. But I never gave up on [art], my hobby.

About a month ago, it occurred to me to get a mortar shell and place it in my home as a reminder. I thought about drawing on it and so I came up with the concept of “painting death,” which I really like.

Usually, I would bring the material I couldn’t find in Ghouta from Damascus, but even then it cost me a fortune. When passing checkpoints, I had to pay an “entrance tax” to get back into Ghouta. So it was only rarely that I actually bought the material and mostly depended on whatever I had at my disposal.

Power cuts also slowed me down. In Ghouta, the power shortages have been going on for months at a time. I can only work in the mornings.

I need paint thinner to mix the paint and that costs between 2,500 and 3,000 Syrian pounds in Ghouta. A paint brush costs 500 pounds. But most importantly, one color tube costs between 1,000 ($6.60) and 1,500 ($10) pounds. All these prices would double if I bring the needed material in from Damascus.

This was something I did on my own. After all, art is a state of being. It’s not something someone can share with you. I tried to teach my kids the “art of life.” They were happy when they watched me paint. They tried to imitate my drawings first on paper, then on a shell or rocket. Drawing childish things has, I think, helped quell the fear within them.

There are some colors and drawing that I try to use, like stained glass, and red and blue. Because I want to give the notion of peace and life through my art, I use bright, rich colors that contrast with what the mortar shells signify.

I love Middle Eastern art. I even designed my home and incorporated those motifs. Sadly, my home has been burnt to the ground. [Work] is at the house I live in now. I know I’m still starting out [as an artist], but I hope to have a show to present my work in a city I’ve always been proud to belong to.

I believe such work must remain as a reminder of events. Right now, all I care about is depicting the bright side of my city and of my country. But if I get the chance to have my work shown at renowned galleries, and if I need a lot of money, then I’ll sell it. [My work] is truly a message. I’m trying to tell the world that we are art in and of ourselves. We love life. Let the world know what war has done in Syria. The work for the revolution doesn’t end. What I’m doing is simply a part of it, and I will continue to do so until I’m satisfied with what I’ve given.

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