Living Museum

Brian Kennedy discusses his 2010 trip to Syria, where he visited artist-led projects and galleries, and his recent experience attempting to bring Syrian artists to Northern Ireland.

I first went to Syria in November 2010 to make a visual study of the Dead Cities. These are the remains of towns and villages from the Eight and Ninth Centuries: wonderful examples of Byzantine architecture that have remained remarkably intact.  They are typical of the country’s rich heritage and offer a real life understanding of its history.  Having remained complete for so long, they are now being subjected to modern warfare; their rich contribution to our knowledge of a past era is being lost forever.  Sadly, this is true of many important sites and places of historic interest across this fascinating country, which has always been an important crossroads between East and West, between cultures and religions.

Another site I visited, now suffering the effects of modern warfare, was the Krac des Chevaliers, considered to be the finest example of a crusader fort, once considered almost impregnable, has already been damaged. 

Palmyra, Syria ©Victor Sloan, 2010

I remember standing shivering in the cold desert night air at the ancient Roman site Palmyra, waiting for the early rays of sunlight to turn the sandstone buildings their famous shade of gold. Palmyra is as far east as the Romans ever built a town or trading centre: they realised the never-ending desert beyond was too vast to be controlled. The Free Syrian Army are now dug into this important site, based in an ancient castle that overlooks these historic remains.

Syria is a vast living museum.  One just has to walk around to experience the culture that is interwoven with everyday life, and there is a tangable sense of history that I had never experienced before.  The country has its museums but it is simply better to walk around the streets soaking up the atmosphere.  Both Aleppo and Damascus claim to be the oldest cities in the world and I was certainly aware of an ancient culture and long history when in either city.

The current violence broke out just a few months before I visited Syria but there was absolutely no hint of what was to come.  At the time I was interested in seeing what contemporary art practice existed against the long cultural history of that country.

In Damascus I visited AllArtNow which lies inside the ancient city walls and in an area where the Christian, Muslim and Jewish quarters used to border each other and people lived together in relative harmony.  The building that houses AllArtNow is an old decaying house with several rooms closed off as they are unsafe.  Like many initiatives driven by young artists making a way for themselves, it felt full of energy.  The organisation often uses alternative venues around the city to stage events and it also has links with international organisations like the British Council, Centre Culturel Francais and the Goethe-Institut. Because of their links to foreign embassies and their diplomatic significance, these organisations and their venues were less likely to be hassled by the authorities.

Serjilla, south of Aleppo, Syria ©Victor Sloan, 2010

After Damascus, I travelled to Aleppo where I met Issa Touma, a photographer and director of Le Pont gallery, the first photographic gallery in the Middle East.  As well as the gallery space, Issa often uses a large adjacent space that used to be Aleppo’s electricity generating plant.  The Women’s Art Festival which covered all art forms was regularly shown here.  It must be remembered that many Syrians consider their society secular and I found it interesting that artists were encouraged to deal with women’s issues.

Just a few months after I returned from Syria, the violence started.  I kept in touch with AllArt Now and Le Pont by Skype and email.  Both organisations continued to organise exhibitions.  It was still possible to travel at this time; Issa did a lecture tour of Europe and Nisrine Boukhari, an artist from AllArtNow, also travelled to Europe to make work. But slowly the situation got worse.  Then, in February this year, the British Council introduced a special scheme that allowed Syrian artists to travel to Britain to meet other artists.  Nisrine Boukhari and the curator Abir Boukhari, both from AllArtNow in Damascus, were given funding as was Issa Touma and a group of photographers from Aleppo.  For whatever bureaucratic reasons, Abir and Nisrine were given visas but everyone from Aleppo was denied a visa. So, even though the initiative was being sponsored by the British Council, the British Embassy decided to deny visas to the majority of the artists. 

While I was annoyed that all the planning, working out itineraries and almost booking airline tickets was for nothing, Issa was furious. He had made several lectures tours to Britain and Europe before talking on subjects  that would not have gone down well with his own government, and felt that after years of doing this he had been badly let down. 

I could do nothing but plan the trip for those who did have visas, Nisrine and Abir. Soon after their arrival we started with the ‘tourist’ trip.  Our driver Billy certainly had ‘views’ about the Troubles, the current situation and how to solve everything.  While visiting the ‘peace wall’ our guests experienced Belfast humour: Abir was writing something in Arabic on the wall and this wee Belfast man, out walking his dog, came up and asked where she was from.  When told she was from Syria he went up to the wall to look at Ibir’s Arabic writing and, with a straight face looked at her and said ‘Well your spelling is good anyway’. 

Saint Simeon's basilica (Qalaat Sam'aan), near Aleppo, Syria ©Victor Sloan, 2010

The studio visits were enlivened by the idea of virtual residencies. Nisrine had been offered a residency in Ramallah but, coming from Syria, it was impossible to get a visa to go to the West Bank, so she did a virtual residency with the organisation in Palestine.  The final, and perhaps the visit that had most impact on Nisrine and Abir, was to ‘Draw Down the Walls’.  This organisation was started in one community in Belfast but its success meant that the other community soon saw the positive possibilities.  It engages with young people - its aims are intervention, prevention and planning - and attempts to manage any possibly violent situations. 

It is common now to say that Belfast and Northern Ireland are in a post-conflict situation, but Brendan who works on the Draw Down the Walls project, still feels he is in a conflict situation. It is just the means to an end that has changed.  Both Brendan and Ian gave an enlightening tour of some of the flash-points in their part of Belfast, places where, if a local youth was seen writing on the wall, it’s more likely that they would be pulled in by the police than have someone crack a joke with them.

So, what can contemporary art offer a new Syria? Art is often at its best when it has a reason for existence and playing a part in the regeneration of this troubled country is a very real reason.  The fact that some galleries have continued to exist will provide a platform for this debate and continued contact with international organisations and artists will widen its scope. New media, which became such a crucial tool in the Arab Spring uprisings, has facillitated this dilogue and helped deepen our understanding of what it means to practice as an artist in contemporary Syria. The rolethat contemporary art will playin Syria’s future remains to be seen.

Brian Kennedy is an artist who also curates and writes about art. He sees all these elements as part of one practice. For over 10 years, travel has formed an integral part of his practice. When not travelling he lives in his small cottage outside Belfast

The Visual Artists News Sheet, November - December 2012