Brooklyn Museum dedicates exhibit to Syrian refugees

In addition to the work of the contemporary artists, the Brooklyn Museum displayed 13th-century ceramics unearthed in Raqqa.
Sunday 04/11/2018
Valuable artefacts. Ceramics on display at Brooklyn Museum.                                               (Jonathan Dorado)
Valuable artefacts. Ceramics on display at Brooklyn Museum. (Jonathan Dorado)

NEW YORK - “S yria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart,” an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, features 13th-century ceramics from the museum collection juxtaposed with works of contemporary Syrian and Lebanese artists.

Artists Ginane Makki Bacho, Issam Kourbaj and Mohamad Hafez gathered October 18 at the museum to discuss their work concerning the plight of Syrian refugees.

Bacho, who is Lebanese, fled her homeland during the 1975-90 civil war. This experience, as well as her attention to the Syrian conflict, compelled her to produce art depicting searing images of refugee struggles.

“I couldn’t do something else,” she said at a talk at the museum. “This spectacle, this image obsessed me day and night.”

Bacho’s contribution to the exhibition — scrap metal sculptures of Syrian refugees on and waiting to board boats — documented with greater solidity images in international media.

“In my work, I use scrap metal to emphasise the degradation of civilisation we currently live in,” Bacho said in her artist’s statement. “The use of rough metal conveys the misery of the people with their clothes and luggage.”

Kourbaj, from Syria, said he felt compelled to engage with the civil war through his art, particularly after seeing a February 2013 article in the Economist titled “The country formerly known as Syria.”

Since then, Kourbaj has mounted installations throughout the world called “Another Day Lost” featuring books and burned matches arranged in small-scale refugee tents to represent the human lives and time lost during the Syrian civil war.

At the Brooklyn Museum, he exhibited “Dark Water, Burning World,” which depicted Syrian refugees on ships on the Mediterranean. Keeping with the materials used in “Another Day Lost,” Kourbaj utilised burned matches clustered together to represent huddled masses of Syrian refugees on dinghies constructed from discarded steel.

Hafez, a Syrian architect and self-trained artist living in New Haven, Connecticut, also began to make art about Syria to process the turmoil in his home country, from which some of his family members were forced to flee as refugees.

“Until you see your own family member in a refugee camp you really haven’t experienced conflict fully,” said Hafez.

He exhibited two works inspired by his training in architectural modelling. His “Baggage Series #4″ used an antique suitcase acquired from ancestors of European immigrants to the United States as the base for a plaster model of a destroyed apartment building,

“My juxtaposition of contemporary art and historical artefact physically joins the stories of Syrian refugees to America’s long heritage as a nation of immigrants,” Hafez said in his artist’s statement.

After travelling to the United States as a student in 2003, Hafez was unable to visit Syria due to the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which was implemented after the September 11, 2001 attacks, requiring men from many Middle Eastern countries to register with the US government.

When Hafez returned to Syria in 2011 — after the Obama administration suspended the NSEERS programme — he said he was so delighted that he made field recordings to capture daily life throughout his trip.

“I was so homesick I recorded everything I saw,” Hafez said during the Brooklyn Museum talk, “and I came back and I started infusing this into my work. I realised I captured a moment of peace that no longer exists in the Syrian sky.”

Portions of the audio recordings play above “Damascene Athan,” which depicts the facade of a building in Damascus on the cusp of civil war, a foreboding government jeep parked in front foreshadowing conflict.

In addition to the work of the contemporary artists, the Brooklyn Museum displayed 13th-century ceramics unearthed in Raqqa, Syria, by Circassian refugees in 1906 and soon after acquired by the museum via Arab-American art dealer Azeez Khayat. The ceramics and their story of discovery spoke to Syria’s history as a destination for refugees, while highlighting the contributions that refugees can have in their new societies.

The exhibit, curated by Aysin Yoltar-Yildirim, is part of a year-long Arab Art & Education Initiative in New York.

Founded in the 19th century, the Brooklyn Museum is one of the largest art museums in the United States and one of New York’s premier cultural institutions. “Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart” will be on view through January 13.