Fortunes of war: Syrian art en vogue
BEIRUT - A dead body lying in the street, a bloodied child carried in the arms of his father, the portrait of a woman whose wrinkled face expressed daunting sufferings are some of the paintings by Tarek Butayhi depicting the horrors of the raging war in Syria.
Like other Syrian artists, Butayhi is deeply affected by the war in his homeland. “My paintings reflect the reality of the war. They are inspired by all the tragedies I have witnessed in Syria,” he said during an interview with The Arab Weekly in Beirut.
The 34-year-old artist, originally from Damascus, fled Syria two and a half years ago, after his workshop was destroyed by a bomb, and settled in Beirut.
“When you go through so much suffering and witness big tragedies, you cannot but express yourself and, for artists… art is a means of expression,” Butayhi said.
For him, the artists have a mission to fulfil by “documenting” in a way a period in the life of their people and the history of their country. “It is frustrating because we feel that we cannot change things but we definitely have a duty to reflect reality,” he said.
“Our creations, which are drawn from the facts of war, could become archives or testimonies of that period… so when you look at a painting or a sculpture you will remember that there was a war and that many people had suffered and were victimised.”
The war in Syria forced him to leave, as it did millions of Syrians who sought refuge in neighbouring countries and other parts of the world.
However, this forced exile opened new doors for young, promising Syrian talents like Butayhi, who started to have exhibitions in art centres in Beirut and gain wider exposure of their art.
“Coming to Beirut made a big difference,” said the fine arts graduate from Damascus University. Butayhi was referring to the first exhibition he had at Beirut’s “Art on 56th” Gallery in 2013. It turned out to be a big success as it introduced his art to the public as well as to Lebanese expatriates who helped build his regional and international reputation.
“It definitely constituted a major leap forward in my career as I got to be known by a larger public, including art experts and collectors,” Butayhi said. “This gave me a greater boost and I was convinced that I could do much better here.”
However absurd it may be, the war in Syria — with all the destruction and tragedies it inflicted — has spurred interest in Syrian art.
“Syrian art is definitely en vogue now because of the war there. The trend at present is to buy Syrian art, especially the work of young talents with potential like Tarek,” Noha Moharram, founder and director of “Art on 56th” Gallery, told The Arab Weekly.
Moharram, whose gallery helped promote the work of at least five exiled Syrian artists, noted that, prior to the war, Syrian art was mainly popular locally and in the region. “But after the conflict, European and international art collectors started showing bigger interest in Syrian art,” she said.
She also underlined the impact of displacement on the artists’ work, explaining that Butayhi’s “recent paintings diffused more serenity, and less strain, compared to the ones he did when he first arrived here and that shows in the light pastel colours he is using now.”
Although many of Butayhi’s paintings reflect the war, the young artist chose a totally different subject for his second exhibition, displayed at “Art on 56th” in April. His exhibition “Women on Canvas” depicted the Arab woman, which is a topic very dear to his heart. The abstract paintings, each featuring a single woman, portrayed the oriental woman’s personality, states of mind, feelings and body.
War and exile have, in many ways, helped young Syrian artists improve their work and open new horizons, according to Moharram. She said: “If you look at their art before and after Beirut, you can see the difference. After coming here they inevitably acquired a different experience and new exposure.”
Syrian artists are experiencing what their Iraqi counterparts went through more than a decade ago, according to Rula Alami, an art consultant and collector. Iraqi artists, like all other professionals, fled Iraq before and after President Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003.
“They went to Europe and the US and everywhere in the world at a time of growing interest in Arab art. The fact that they were uprooted forced them to display their work in the West, which increased their exposure at the international level,” Alami noted during an interview with The Arab Weekly.
Each, within his style, was bitterly affected by war and displacement and the strain of having to live in a new culture. “They had to adapt their art to the Western taste. But, in parallel of being compatible with the trend in contemporary and Western art, one can still feel the umbilical cord with their homeland and culture,” Alami noted.
Many Iraqi artists, who had to sell their artwork at ridiculously low prices to make a living and support their families when they first fled Iraq, have since gained international reputations. “Their art became a survival tool, a shield and a link to their roots, and an assertion of their identity,” she explained.
The evolution of “exiled” Iraqi art manifested itself over several years, Alami contended. “In the beginning of their exile, Iraqi artists would depict all the pain and despair of having to leave their homeland but, after moving to new countries, they went through an evolution in order to have their art more compatible with modern artistic trends.”
Moharram also underlined the importance for the young Syrian talents to evolve in their art. “They have a responsibility towards their audience, clientele and the art collectors, not to depict war all the time, especially that they are still confused about it and they need time to absorb and then project it on canvas,” she said.
Butayhi, in the meantime, has decided to stay in Beirut and work on diversifying his paintings. “I am concentrating more on my work and feel more stable, secure and relaxed now,” he said.
The art business also proved to be more rewarding for Butayhi in Lebanon, as his paintings sold at an average of $7,000. Back at home, he was sponsored like other young artists by an art gallery in Damascus, which gave them flat rates and a small percentage of the sale of their paintings, which it exposed and sold abroad.