AMUDA, Syria — Living in Syria is not only about survival. For many Syrian artists, it means keeping creativity alive despite hardships and exploiting unprecedented freedom of expression. According to some artists, the revolution should not be limited to the removal of censorship, but by raising awareness on the most rooted social habits and taboos. Nevertheless, for the time being, most artists who wish to remain in Syria lack any form of institutional and economic support.
Walking around the streets of Amuda — 80 km (50 miles) from the front line between jihadists and Kurdish militias in Ras al-Ain — what goes hardly unnoticed is the large proportion of polyhedral artists, devoting their free time to a wide range of activities. It is common to meet a shopkeeper who is eager to read one of his poems or invite you to listen to him play the tambur (a Kurdish string instrument). This is partly because of the lack of specialization, but it is also the symptom of a thriving cultural scene. "Pablo Picasso used to say, 'We are all born artists, but what's important is how we preserve this art,'" Rishan Ali Yusef, a sculptor, told Al-Monitor. His day job is cutting marble plates in a factory.
About a year has passed since the withdrawal of the regime's troops from the regions with a Syrian Kurdish majority, and most artists still clearly recall the Baathist restrictions. "In 2006, when I finished my baccalaureate, I was denied the diploma from the Ministry of Education in Hassakeh on the grounds that I'm not considered a Syrian citizen. I'm a clandestine, a maktum (one of the thousands of Syrian Kurds who remained stateless after a census conducted in 1962), and so I couldn't enrol in university and achieve my dream of studying fine arts," Ali Yusef said. "After I lost everything, I decided to find my last haven by working on a reproduction of the Roman Colosseum, which took me three years," Ali Yusef continued. His copy of the Colosseum towers over him in all its majesty; it is an impressive work built stone by stone, portraying the theater in its original appearance including the removable pieces conceived to show the underground sector (hypogeum) used for gladiators and animals.
Under the watchful eye of the security forces, even depoliticized comedy aroused suspicions. "In 2007, I took a friend with me to film my interviews in the market during Eid al-Fitr. We put a light bulb on a stick instead of a microphone and asked chickens how they felt before being slaughtered. Security forces interrogated us and yelled, 'Tell us what TV channel you work for!" a popular comedian known by the name of Sherazan told Al-Monitor. Sherazan, sporting a horseshoe moustache and dressed up in a black suit, is always surrounded by the laughs of children, as he makes his way across Amuda telling jokes in the unique manner he acquired when he was a child.
It is undeniable that the revolution brought some fresh air to the work of artists, who now dare to touch previously banned topics. "I didn't have enough space to realize my voluminous paintings at home, so I had to work on the street. This wouldn't have been possible under the regime, as my subject is the empire of the Medes — who are considered the ancestors of the Kurds — and the geography of Kurdistan," Amr Ferso, a painter and playwright, told Al-Monitor. Ferso developed a distinguished style, relying on sand, oil derivates, wood and silicon for his boards portraying the Median lands and garments.
"Art has surfaced even during the demonstrations, if you think about the slogans turned into subjects of paintings," Ferso continued.
Some stress the need to stretch the borders of revolutionary art and raise awareness on a wider range of issues including animal rights and sexual behavior. "The opposition has often compared President Bashar al-Assad to a donkey. Why? It's unfair, donkeys have never killed anyone!" noted Sherazan. "Here, they cut a 25-year-old tree to get heat for only two hours. Before the revolution, people would often leave leftovers from lunch outside, but now they eat what's leftover for dinner. Consequently, one can see hungry cats moving about lethargically," Sherazan told Al-Monitor.
Over the last two and a half years, the price of heating fuel and basic goods have dramatically increased. "As a result of the revolution, parental surveillance on intercourse has decreased, so that now it's more common for the youths to have sex. However, even at ARTA FM — a new independent radio station — we still have to respect the boundaries of official art, which means that I'm not allowed to touch on political and sexual issues in my programs. So, I do it that outside the studio," added Sherazan.
Even before crossing into the realms of social taboos, Syrian artists have to cope with the war, which has resulted from the revolution and has directly affected their work. "Power cuts are constant, and because I work as an employee in an agricultural institution during the day, I wake up during the few hours of electricity at night to work on my paintings. Some of the materials such as oil derivates I use have become particularly expensive, others such as silicon have only been available in low quantities. I have been forced to place orders in Damascus," Ferso said.
Emigration has thus become the easiest way out to find better opportunities. "Artists need economic stability and security, but the artist who looks from a distance at the grievances of reality cannot be the one immersed in them. I think we should remain here, while hold exhibitions abroad," Ferso explained.
On the contrary, Sherazan sees the struggle against migration as a tool used by those profiting from the current crisis. "Politicians exploit people and tell them to remain in their land. But we should all migrate and leave them alone to resist! Let's all leave the country to fighters, charlatans and politicians!"
Andrea Glioti is a freelance journalist who covered the first five months of the Syrian uprising from inside the country. His work has been published by the Associated Press, IRIN News, openDemocracy, The Daily Star (Lebanon), New Internationalist and numerous Italian and German newspapers.