Good evening. I hope you are doing well. It seems strange that an absent person is speaking to you in the first person, you whom he does not know. Using the first person in all languages presupposes the presence of at least two people, two parties or two groups in a single space, single time and single conversation.
It is a luxury some can’t afford; those are the numerous citizens who don’t have the choice to be in a place they want to be in. The problem here is not some disability, for their feet allow them to move and their feelings and desires indicate that they long to do so. The problem here has to do with identity, and identity both in English and Arabic implies two meanings – first in relation to belonging, when the term is used to describe a person and their expression of individuality as well as relation with others; and second the term refers to a piece of card or plastic with their personal information indicated.
The question of identity for those I am speaking of is one of the larger problems behind my opening this paper by talking to the absent ones in the first person. Here identity contains several components I will limit to Syrian, this word is enough to know the reason for absence. And a second word, artist.
Whoever carries that double identity is an individual incapable of movement or transport, as well as incapable of staying in his or her country or temporary place they have got to. They are searching for a suitable place to live and work. Neither are possible. They cannot settle down, their unbearable lightness upsets those around them.
These are practicing artists and they know that part of what remains from wonder in this world reveals itself in a dance performance, a theatrical text, a painting hanging in a museum for a hundred years to come. These colleagues have presented the world with art they are proud of and wish to expand.
The problem of identity is present in these artists’ work itself, since most of the world has agreed to transform them into a part of display, whether consciously or unconsciously. The work presented doesn’t matter – the important thing is who stands behind it. Accordingly the artist gains his or her legitimacy his or her nationality. The artist or their work is not important as much as discussing their identity. It takes some time for everybody to realize that. Self exposure becomes a necessity for the artist instead of showing their work. His personal life and an adventurous story become the requirement, the story about one of the most brutal places in the world we need to hear which puts art and reality in crisis, is not politics the most important thing.
Am I generalizing? Yes and no. What I am saying is not a generalization of the platforms that have honestly and truthfully supported some Syrian projects, dedicating a lot of time, support and love for artists and initiatives. But these have been placed in a quickly disappearing context and effect. Some art platforms have dealt with Syrian art from a place of guilt and atonement so they put on an exhibition of Syrian art. Or exhibitions of Syrian art are framed in terms of what is trendy and contemporary and won’t be what it is any longer, what with the continuous disasters around the world.
Many platforms have created a space for such practices. Many an artist found themselves in these spaces thinking that their art is cared for. They have presented the most truthful of their feelings, shared what they believed were their generation’s hopes, and their dreams of a stolen revolution. But these little opportunities nevertheless became accessible and the support given came to define Syrian art and cultural practice as confrontational, stereotypical and repetitive by those who have created such opportunities. Who is wrong here? The artist or the platform that attempted to exhibit his work?
This is the trap which art in this region is stuck in, and requires years and years for its effects to be dealt with. The problem lies in the fact that many of the above mentioned platforms today are talking about the failure of Syrian art in producing a powerful artistic approach to the tragedy, reducing the artwork without detailed thinking of frameworks to support Syrian art – support that has nearly completely reached a halt inside Syria and has shrunk in the Arab region, after being placed in a box to be compared with other identities. The thinking behind this reduction is why support Syrian artists and not artists of other nationalities? As for Europe, Syrian art has been imbued with all the meanings of the continent’s conflicted relationship with the Arab region and limited to small individual initiatives.
The result? A generation of established artists who have surprised the world for decades now sit at home next to their paintings because they don’t know how to fill grant applications and don’t have the capacity to upload samples of their previous work to DropBox in case file size is larger than 10 MB.
And another generation of young artists who will have to delete quite a few words and conceptions from their dictionaries, because as Syrians they are expected to write, draw and design in a specific way that ticks the boxes on a list of criteria both known and secret.
And a third generation of graduates from art academies who have never had the chance to see a single exhibition, film or play.
As for the generation of a public thrown in places of misery, dreaming of the other side of the sea. This member of the audience will try his best to conceal his name, voice, photo and personal information from the greed of cameras and pens around the world waiting to objectify him.
I don’t think I strayed very far from my introduction. I am still here, present among you. I won’t stay why I am not physically present at this gathering, all the trivial and complicated excuses may be reason enough for me and tens of other individuals who are allowed to be but a passing shadow. Baudrillard’s Conspiracy of Art comes to mind here, for the past five years an idea that comes to mind every time I see an announcement for an art exhibition in this beautiful and terrifying part of the world.
I share these thoughts because you know how to listen to the voices of those absent ones, their whispers even. And you remember well the missing and the disappeared.
That day when humanity ends and only its few ruins remain, scattered among cherry trees and olive trees, you and I we will hear the voices carried from the sea, laughter of thousands drowned singing a hymn of happiness. But the ears of those who, for one reason or another, are left alive will feel the shame of what had happened to the souls of the drowned and I will remember once again our conversation consoling my heart and the hearts of those I know.
Written for Parallel Crossings: Art, Culture and the Refugee Crisis at Toynbee Studios, London on 26 Nov, 2015 and delivered by Judith Knight.