North Africa, West Asia

Syria and the emergence of grassroots artistic production

An introduction to the colourful depth and diversity of the uprising's cultural production; a confirmation of multiple and overlapping local narratives that defy geopolitical interest and progaganda. Giving expression to such creativity is one of our motives for, 'Looking inside the uprising'.

Leila Nachawati
22 September 2014
Looking inside the uprising

This article is part of Looking inside the uprising; a joint project between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy.


Courtesy of Syrian artist Wissam Al Jazairy. All rights reserved.Of all the changes crystallizing around the ideals of the Arab uprisings, the ones that are unquestionably positive are those in the creative and expressive arenas. While the entire region is witnessing an artistic renaissance that can be linked to the emergence of Arab theatre during the uprisings of the 50s, the Syrian case is particularly extreme and prolific. To understand the complexity of the Syrian scenario, it is more important than ever today to follow the stories told by local citizen-made cultural and artistic production, which differs from the international geopolitically-dominated accounts of the country.

For decades, artistic and cultural production was deeply connected to the Assad regime. From the art exhibitions in public spaces such as the Arab Cultural Center and the Assad National Library to the soap operas that gained national and regional recognition, replacing Egypt as the number one exporter of televised drama, official production was supervised by the regime, if not directly managed by it. Although we should not overlook the value of a generation of artists and intellectuals such as playwright Saadallah Wannous, film director Omar Amiralay or artist Monif Ajaj, who pushed the limits of censorship long before the advent of the Arab Spring, the Syrian uprising gave birth to grassroots artistic and creative manifestations that transcend the scope of traditional art and culture.

Over the past years, Syrian need for self-expression, repressed for decades, has not only translated into powerful canvases and designs by artists such as Monif Ajaj's, Yara al-Najm, Yasser Abu Hamed, and innumerable others, but also into less formal and traditional forms of artistic expression, or, as The Syrian People Know their Way group calls it, “art out of the salons”. This is reflected in the countless works of graffiti covering the half-demolished walls throughout the country, in songs of resistance that range from the classical notes of Malek Jandaly to the combative hip-hop of the Syrian-Palestinian Refugees of Rap and the heavy metal beats of Anarchadia. It can be seen through documentaries such as those by the latest Bassel Shahade and in the new soap-operas made for Youtube that aim to replace the official state-controlled production.

Creativity also permeates the demonstrations that continue to take Syrians to the streets, and the banners of Kafranbel, a town that has became famous for its sharp reflections on the country through its witty cartoons. It can be seen in the work of traditional artists such as Abu Ali al-Bitar and Akram Abu al-Fawz, who transform rockets and mortar shells into domestic objects and beautiful ornaments.

Such production, often soaked in dark humor, provides a storytelling for the country that defies mainstream media's geopolitical and military-dominated approaches. While the latter highlighted the announcement of possible US intervention in the summer of 2013, the attacks with chemical weapons on the suburb of Ghouta, and the spread of ISIS as the conflict's milestones, local artistic production has focused on aspects such as the drama of the detainees and the legitimacy of the struggle of a population fighting on multiple fronts.

Within these narratives, citizen responses to the mounting challenges – whether the Assad regime, al-Qaeda or its splinter group ISIS – are deemed as relevant as the challenges themselves. It is as important to recount the suffering of women at the hands of extremists groups as it is to highlight voices such as Souad Nofal's, a teacher from Raqqa who faced both the regime and ISIS with her hand-made banners. It is as necessary to be aware of the threats against ethnic and religious diversity as it is to highlight citizen campaigns embracing the diversity of Syria, and reconstruction efforts by groups such as Kesh Malek, which recently launched an initiative to fund fifteen schools in areas of Aleppo free of regime control.

All these voices, campaigns and civil society-building initiatives, soaked in art and creativity, reveal the extent of Syrian resilience in the face of repression and destruction. Together these multiple local narratives -- sometimes competing, and even contradictory -- go beyond geopolitical interests and propaganda. To collect these diverse forms of expression and put them in context is one of SyriaUntold’s goals, and reflecting on them will be one of the high points of our collaboration with openDemocracy in 'Looking inside the uprising'.

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