Conscientious artistic creation is a dangerous act in Syria. When, in 2011, a group of school children were arrested and tortured for writing “Ash-sha’b yurid isqat an-nizam” (“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. 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.
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.
Graffiti and stencilling has continued to form a vital act of creative expression and defiance throughout Syria’s war-torn towns and cities.
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 phones 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 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 in 1982.
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.
As the regime of Bashar al-Assad moves to regain power following the fall of Aleppo, the conflict in Syria changes daily – front lines are redrawn and the roles of external forces such as Russia and Iran are revealed. This exhibition reflects on the personal impact of the political, and the power of citizens to document war while the media narrative simplifies outcomes and events, dangerously skewing reality and warping genuine attempts at truthful reportage.
Parallel Republic: The Art of Civil Disobedience, curated by Sarah Faraday and Ibrahim Fakhri, is developed from an exhibition which took place at Fuse Art Space (Bradford) in 2014, and also 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.