London, UK – In times of war, it can be hard to see the worth of art. But Syrian Raghad Mardini is steadfast.
“It’s not going to stop the war. The brush is not going to stand in front of the gun.
“But I have seen films and the moment the filmmaker had his camera in the face of the sniper, and he chose to take the picture and die. This footage has really documented the face of the killer. And that’s very important.”
As director of an art residency programme to support emerging Syrian artists in Lebanon, Mardini is among those prioritising artistic expression when she feels it is most important – amid conflict and a refugee crisis. Her non-governmental organisation, Art Residence Aley, curates exhibitions and performances worldwide.
Mardini says, by 2012, all the artists she knew from back home were, like her, living in Beirut. They were working in low-paid jobs. She recognised that they needed the means to speak about their experiences, so created the residency, where freedom of expression is the most important rule.
Mardini says the space has helped young artists, in particular, to feel like individuals again, after a journey of pain, fragmentation and despair.
“We really need to protect artists during times of war because they are the ones who will protect the society,” she says.
Mardini has compiled a book called Syrian Art in Hard Times, showing the work of 52 Syrian artists. In it some of the horror of war is turned into art, she says, allowing a different, relatable way of understanding the conflict.
“The world sees us as only numbers of refugees in tents or dead. We want to show the other side, the strength of life over death, the resilience of the artists,” she says.
A ‘platform for people’s stories’
Mardini is a participant at Arab Women Artists Now – AWAN or “now” in Arabic – in London, a festival promoting creative artists from the diaspora. The event is showcasing musicians, poets, filmmakers, performance and installation artists, calligraphers and dancers.
As diaspora artists, they travel between different worlds, often confronting the issues facing the Arab world in their work.
Hala Yamlika, a Syrian from Aleppo who is now based in London, is exhibiting her piece The Forgotten at AWAN. In it Yamlika takes a refugee tent and turns it from a 3D to a 2D-shaped hanging on a wall, to reflect the migrant crisis morphing into material for viewers’ television screens. The crossover between art and activism is central for Yamlika, and others argue that it is unavoidable.
Documentary filmmaker Yasmin Fedda has taught first-time Syrian filmmakers in Turkey. And with her organisation Highlight Arts, Fedda gives Syrians platforms to share their work and network. She says these activities have a psychological value if nothing else.
“As a filmmaker I’ve realised that that’s my strongest skill, the best I can do is use my skills as a platform to show people’s stories,” she says.
Fedda believes that the people caught up in these humanitarian crises need their messages transmitted, whether or not they have artistic merit.
“Even though they’re living under barrel bombs [that] doesn’t mean they don’t have something they want to say and share,” Fedda, who has Palestinian roots, says.
Elsewhere at the festival activism is worn. Belgian fashion designer Fadila Aalouchi’s The Newspaper Dress is a garment made from newspapers, flyers and documents about Palestine. Through the exhibit Aalouchi bemoans the “sheets of lies” of mass media information.
Lebanese documentary filmmaker Dana Trometer aims to spread ideas of peace and reconciliation that don’t have to be political. One of her current projects involves the 3D printing of replicas of antiquities destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). She wants people and places that have disappeared to be remembered.
The personal challenges diaspora female artists face are equivocal – pressures of family, gender roles and ethnic stereotyping. These pressures rebound between their nationhoods and ethnicities, but while this generates tension, it also brings inspiration.
There is mixing of musical styles, with Sudanese Italian Amira Kheir performing Sudani-Jazz, bringing together Nubian and Nilotic rhythms, Sufi melodies, and jazz and afro-Latin influences. Belgian-born Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali mixes Arabic folk and jazz.
French Algerian performance artist Sarah El Hamad says she takes part of her inspiration from Berber and Islamic traditions. She has words painted on to parts of her body, but has not so far showcased her work in Algeria, although she hopes to perform in a private space there soon. El Hamad believes that, intentionally or not, works from Arab, and particularly female, artists are inherently political.
“As a performer my body is my medium,” El Hamad says. But this seems to jar with the cultures she draws inspiration from.
Others have found the public space to be as restrictive as the physical space. In her video work, Embargo, Kuwaiti Aseel al Yaqoub, who now lives in London, documents the difficulty of filming in public in her home country. As she shoots footage of yachts in a marina and historical landmarks, the voices of security guards are heard off screen telling her to stop. This provokes her to question the notion of “public” space and the social hierarchy that decides what is permissible in it.
Working between varied worlds proves both prodigal and restrictive for the artistic expression of these diaspora artists. Theirs is a long road to self-definition – whether artistic or political. But with such upheaval in their home countries, making even the smallest impact with their work feels like an important achievement.
In her documentaries, Trometer uses the visual language of editing to speak to people, crafting messages she believes are not interpreted by the Syrian regime.
“If one guy in Syria smiles,” she says, “we got what we want, we reached them.”