There are now an estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees scattered across neighbouring countries, including many artists.
Rabee Kiwan is one of them,. Now living in Beirut, he originally came from Sweida, near Daraa where the protests against the Assad regime began in 2011.
Kiwan says the conflict has profoundly changed his painting style: “What changed in my work before and after the events is that I used to work on general issues, societal problems, psychological or personal issues. Now it’s more specific, sometimes relating to the events themselves and sometimes to the consequences of these events on me, people, our surroundings and the whole situation we are living in.”
Fadi al-Hamwi is originally from Damascus and also now lives in Beirut. The memory of working in the Syrian capital during the uprising has had a major impact on his art: “Now, sitting in a safe place, doing what you love, you paint, you read, write or work while you hear this sound which is simply the sound of people dying somewhere. You’re in a situation where you hear sounds from a place so close to you, but still, you can’t do anything.”
Raghad Mardini, is a Syrian art lover now living in Beirut. In 2012 she founded the artists’ residence ARA, which aims to help young Syrian contemporary artists and gave them a safe place to work.
She explained why it was needed: “When they arrive from Syria, they are very tired, they are exhausted, they are pessimistic, depressed and they hardly see anything on the horizon. It’s only the fragmentation, fear, despair and pain which connects us all.”
Syrian art critic and an art gallery director Sami Daoud has been forced to move to Kurdistan in Iraq, but has visited Beirut to lecture in Lebanese universities about war and expression.
Daoud says Syrian artists play an essential role for the future of the country: “The policies that are creating the situation in Syria, the reverence of violence, they have turned violence into something sacred. Violence has become a god. When violence becomes a god, it makes human beings primitive, barbarism re-emerges in society. What protects society against this barbarism is art in all its forms; photography, sculpture, music, poetry, everything. They preserve the human spirit in society, preserve the human seed so that in the future we can build a civil society again.”
The paradox for many refugee artists is that the violence and destruction in their home country means that art galleries all over the wold are increasingly interested in Syrian art.