Syria is a country rising up against oppression and imposed silence. The massacre of tens of thousands of people – the exact figure still unknown today – in Hama in 1982 could only be referred to as “the events of 82”; the trauma and grief of war met with a tyranny of silence, and freedom of expression with torture and death. As the war rages on and under the weight of this oppression, countless artists, musicians and activists are standing up to be seen and heard, dealing with the chaos of war through painting, illustration, photography, film, graffiti and music. This show presents work by some of the most active and acclaimed of these artists and collectives, including Khalil Younes, Sulafa Hijazi, Lens Young, Comic4Syria, Art & Freedom, Kartoneh, Masasit Mati, Alshaab Alsori Aref Tarekh, Bissane Al-Sharif and many more.
Conscientious artistic creation is a dangerous act in Syria. When, in 2011, a group of school children were arrested and tortured for writing “Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām” (“The people want to overthrow the regime”) on the walls of Dera’a, the act sparked renewed Syrian protest and uprising at the time of the Arab spring. Graffiti and stencilling has continued to form a vital act of creative expression and defiance throughout Syria’s war-torn towns and cities.
However, the suppression of information-sharing under Assad’s regime has led to collectives, anonymous at first but increasingly identified, sharing artwork, photography, posters and newspapers for print and distribution via social media – an act of rebellion in itself, in the face of Assad’s controlled media, and a constant struggle given limited internet access. These artist-activists have created a parallel republic where artists and activists share information and express themselves virtually, as well as on the streets.
Satire, as in conflicts throughout history, forms an important tool in communicating events, as shown in the posters, comics and the incisive puppetry of Top Goon. Artists and illustrators, many of whom have left Syria, are using their talents to process the chaos and trauma of war, highlighting the effects of conflict on their personal lives and homeland.
Mobile telephones have quickly become the main recording device for testaments to the Syrian conflict, providing footage of horrific events and contributing to more reflective and developed documentaries. These documents are also fast becoming an effective record of war crimes, a significant development in the Syrian fight against tyranny and an important preventative measure against the oppressive silence which enshrouded the Hama massacre.
The recording and processing of atrocities by citizen journalists, and the myriad instances of creative activism by courageous and talented artists and musicians are hopeful acts. This evidence of beauty, humour and creativity emerging from such horrors reminds us of the personal daily reality of human beings at a time when the war rhetoric of a distanced Western media aims to simplify a crisis into casualty statistics.
Parallel Republic: The Art of Civil Disobedience contains painting, illustration, photography, film, animation, graffiti and music born of the Syrian uprising and the bravery of these citizen journalists and artist-activists. The exhibition is fluid – such a rapidly evolving situation cannot be frozen into a snapshot and captured on gallery walls without remaining flexible.
Parallel Republic: The Art of Civil Disobedience, curated by Ibrahim Fakhri and Sarah Faraday, gratefully acknowledges and builds upon the work carried out through the exhibition “Culture in Defiance”, held at Rich Mix in London and the Prince Claus Fund Gallery in Amsterdam with thanks to Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen.