Art imitates life and death in war-ravaged Afrin

Two Syrian artists, a sculptor and a photographer, agree that the tragedies of war have given them rich fodder for art and opportunities to speak out for life and human dignity.

al-monitor Sculptor Nashaat Ammi's statue of a Kurdish fighter stands at Okeid Martyr Square in Kobani in this image taken Aug. 13, 2019. Photo by Lamar Erkendi.

Aug 28, 2019

Kobani native Nashaat Ammi came back to his hometown after 13 years in the spring of 2015. It was just a few months after its liberation on Jan. 26, 2015 and the city was a dump of destroyed vehicles and rocket shells. To the 34-year-old artist who had worked for years in Lebanon making metal decorations, the metal bits in the rubble were waiting to become works of art.

Ammi was born in the eastern Kobani village of Sharran. He dropped out of school when he was in the ninth grade and traveled to Damascus in 2002 to become a blacksmith before moving on to Lebanon. In his first weeks back in Kobani, he walked down the streets of the destroyed city, picking up the remnants of the weapons the Islamic State used in 2014.

“When I hold a damaged rocket in my hands, I forget it is the product of war and destruction. Its message of death becomes a message of peace,” Ammi said as he showed Al-Monitor around his small workshop in Kobani.

He melted and molded the weapons and parts of destroyed cars, sculpting them into figures of immigrants leaving with their luggage. He made a musician playing his violin with a nostalgic expression and the animals and birds who had also fled the area during the fighting. One piece, called “Shout,” is shaped like the cannons that IS militants used to launch missiles on Kobani.

“I wanted to carve them into beautiful shapes that would reflect the Syrians’ pain, hopes and aspirations to rebuild their cities and villages and seek a prosperous life,” Ammi said.

Ammi wanted to honor the Kurdish fighters who liberated Kobani from IS, so in 2016, he worked for eight months on a three-meter (10-foot) iron monument. Standing tall in the Okeid Martyr square, the statue of of Kurdish fighter carrying a rifle weighs more than 2.5 tons.

The self-taught artist furthered his skills in symposia and competitions. “I participated in the first symposium held in northern Syria May 20, 2017, and I presented an iron relief painting for the Kurdish fighter Amara Joudi, who died in the battles [between the Kurdish Women’s Protection Units and IS in Kobani]."

“Art has become my passion — even beyond basketball, which was my main interest in youth,” he said. Ammi was once known as the tallest basketball player in Syria, with a height of 2.1 meters (almost six feet 7 inches) at 15.

In May, he participated in the Rojava II Forum for Plastic Art, the theme of which was “The will of this country of olives is stronger than terrorism,” with 30 of his works. He has also held several art exhibitions in Qamishli, Hasakah, Manbij and Kobani.

“My art pieces are intended to send a message to these people who love war and kill the innocent,” he told Al-Monitor. “I want to tell them that we love life, and that art is the key to love and peace, and we will defeat war.”

“The war in Syria gave a new voice to the artists,” said Amara Afrin, a painter who has been taking photographs since her city Afrin in northwest Syria was occupied in 2018. She told Al-Monitor, "The war has created a new form of art.”

Artist Amara Afrin (L) is seen with some of her work (Lamar Erkendi, Aug. 12, 2019)

When the Turkish army and Syrian opposition factions attacked her city Jan. 20, 2018, she thought about documenting people’s daily lives under the war. Armed with her camera, she visited one shelled village after another in the Afrin countryside, documenting the destruction and death, especially of children.

Afrin, 30, who settled in Hasakah after being displaced from Afrin, said that she documented the history of the occupied city and the daily lives of Afrin's citizens. She photographed people at the hospitals, those who had narrowly escaped death. She captured people’s displacement, their flight in cars or on foot and their arrival to displacement camps in Al-Shahbaa, east of Aleppo. She depicted their tough lives in the camps that became their homes while they hoped to return home one day.

“I have a huge collection of photos, which I want to turn into a documentary depicting the crisis in Afrin. They reflect the ugliness of the war and the fear that citizens felt,” she said. “People have told me their stories. Some had amputated legs and others lost their loved ones.”

Citizens remaining in Afrin face violence from the armed Syrian opposition factions, which abduct civilians and threaten to kill them if their families don’t pay ransoms reaching thousands of dollars, she said.

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