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Art exhibit showcases Syrian history, culture

An exhibition at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is changing how its Western audience — and Syrians living in Canada — conceptualize Syria.

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is exhibiting more than 40 works of Syrian art in an attempt to raise awareness of the rich cultural and artistic histories of Syria. The exhibition, entitled “Syria: A Living History,” will be on display at the museum through late February.

The exhibition was curated by Filiz Cakir Phillip, Aga Khan’s museum curator, and Nasser Rabbat, professor and director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ross Burns, an Australian historian who was the Australian ambassador to Syria and Lebanon from 1984 to 1987, worked with Phillip and Rabbat and contributed photography to the exhibition.

According to Rabbat, the exhibition was largely aimed to convey the belief that Syria has, throughout its history, been a place where multiculturalism has been both culturally and artistically productive. Rabbat told Al-Monitor that his focus for this particular exhibition was a “Western audience that has started losing faith in the notion that Syria is a cultured country and started thinking of Syria as a place that exports destitute refugees and terrorists. I wanted to go back and say, ‘Remember that this is — literally — the cradle of civilization.’”

Artwork in the exhibition represents over 5,000 years of Syrian history. The exhibition collects pieces interspersed over those millennia: A vase produced in the third millennium B.C. (on loan from the Louvre Museum) and an eye idol from 3200 B.C. (on loan from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto) are on display, as is influential Syrian modern artist Fateh al-Moudarres’ “The Last Supper,” which was painted in 1964, and Tammam Azzam’s “Storeys Series,” a large, acrylic, black-and-white painting from 2015 depicting a fractured, hollowed-out urban neighborhood in Syria. The latter two works are on loan from the Atassi Foundation.

As visitors make their way through the exhibition, they see works that the curators organized into a series of categories. Rabbat said, “The overriding theme was the idea that this is a show about culture, and I wanted to divide the exhibit into sections that are neither chronological nor geographic nor, if you want, even stylistic. But I wanted to divide them into what I think of as categories of what makes a culture.” First, visitors see sections labeled “Divinities,” “Humans & Beasts,” “Religion & State,” “The Home,” “Affinities” and “Vagaries of the Time.” “Vagaries of the Time” was the curators’ way, according to Rabbat, of “relating to what's happening today by actually first of all showing what's happening today, but also showing what happens to objects because of human conflicts.”


“Syria: A Living History” features over 40 works of Syrian art spanning over 5,000 years. It is organized into categories that include “Religion & State.” (photo by Nasser Rabbat)

A projection of another work by Azzam, “Freedom Graffiti,” which received widespread attention in 2013, is on display toward the end of the exhibition. For that work, Azzam superimposed Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” — one of the painter’s most recognizable works — upon a damaged Syrian building. It is in the exhibition’s final section, which Rabbat described as “Hope.” There, visitors can see the projection as well as another work, which Rabbat described as “an abstract painting by Mahmoud Hammad, who was one of the earliest Syrian modern artists … and it is basically a deconstructed calligraphy of [Quran verse] ‘Bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim’ [in the name of God the most merciful, the most compassionate].” According to Rabbat, it is there “to show both the artistry but also the fact that religion can play a role in … inducing hope.”

In his visits to the exhibition, Rabbat noticed reactions by the Syrian immigrant community that he had not expected prior to the exhibition’s opening. He said, “The show has worked extremely well as a memory anchor for the Syrians who are now all the way out and missing their country. And so one would say that the second beneficiaries … are the Syrian immigrants. This is what I saw in my two visits to the show … that it's the Syrian immigrants who are coming there and sort of like clinging to the notion that 'wow, our country is a beautiful country' or 'our country is a cultured country' because they, too, have lost hope and have lost faith in the notion that we are not all [a] bunch of bloodthirsty fighters."

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