'There is too much myrtle in this small room. The scent is hard to bear.'
Elizabeth White, British Council Country Director Syria, finds that art flourishes in even the harshest conditions.
Earlier this year, the Syrian Foreign Minister made the dramatic announcement that – following European criticism of the crackdown on opposition protests – Syria would remove Europe from their maps of the world. Within hours, enterprising traders in the souq were carrying brand new stock of T-shirts – a map of the world, with a great big gap between Russia and the Atlantic.
But this very Syrian, very entrepreneurial joke covers a colder reality. As the unrest continues into its tenth month, Syria finds itself increasingly isolated from all but a handful of other countries. The international contacts, dialogues, exchanges, which had begun to flourish in the arts as in other fields in the last few years, are now withering away.
Artists are not greatly affected by the international economic sanctions raised in protest at the violence of the crackdown – but they are suffering from a closing of doors, from locally-imposed limits to their travel, from the lack of free interaction with the wider world – all of which result from what everyone calls ‘the situation’.
Creative changes, waves of new ideas and practice in the arts, may once in a blue moon come about through the God-given inspiration of an artist working in isolation. But far more usually, of course, artists develop their practice by using and moving on from ideas in the air around them, from the work of other artists, from currents of change. Cut off from these sources, the process of artistic life of a generation, or of a country, loses some momentum, loses scope, loses some of its potential.
A group of young visual artists in Damascus today are working with determination to make sure that their own creative development is not damaged by the way that doors are closing now for Syria. With a grant from the British Council, they have set up a contemporary art school in a small disused office on a busy commercial street in Damascus.
Every evening, from four to nine, the seven of them meet, read, discuss, research work on the Internet, and – when the frequent power cuts allow – they talk on Skype to professors from Edinburgh School of Art. Their aim is to see for themselves what the world is doing today, to collect up ideas, to keep alive their thirst for the new, to continue to develop as artists.
As one of the tasks of the school, they have put together a first exhibition of installation pieces in the ramshackle courtyard gallery All Art Now. One of the artists told me: “I’m glad I’ve been able to make this new work, because in these times it’s really not easy to create anything. What makes a difference is the school, meeting and talking and learning and planning the exhibition – so we have to make the work, we can’t let each other down. And what surprises me is that what we’ve come up with here is strong work, considered work, work that might have taken months to plan and make, but here, you can see, after just a few weeks of the school. We are already taking long steps.”
Another artist from the group agrees: “I worked in the past in video, a little, not well, but I think now my work is becoming interesting. The school gives us the theory and the space to discuss it and think about it – and once you have the theory, you can really begin to build. It makes a difference.”
One of the installations in the gallery is full of grief. A black curtain shrouds the entrance to a room lit by three green lights glaring down on a floor covered, a foot deep, with green myrtle, the plant which people here lay on graves, or on coffins carried in procession, one branch at a time. There are too many branches of myrtle in this small room. The scent is hard to bear.
Back at the school, the power is cut for a third time today, taking with it the Internet connection, the light on a dark evening, the heating, in these early days of the Arab Winter. But the seven young artists light the two tiny candles on the table, move their chairs in a little closer, and continue their debate on installation work. Even in the hardest of times, one thing you can always do is learn.
This blog was first published in The Huffington Post