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Evade, Elude or Evolve? The challenges to displaced (Syrian) artists

from Ettijahat- Independent Culture

Oct 2017

As part of Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. These articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, as well as various cultural actors.

Mary Ann DeVlieg

It’s a great pleasure to contribute some reflections to Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s ongoing series of articles. My perspective is obviously that of someone with a Western European background, but who has worked with colleagues from the MENA countries continuously since 1994. I aimed to address some themes in the previous article by my respected colleague, Fatin Farhat. But in the end, I seem to have more questions than answers.

One of my first experiences with issues that arise when territorial conflict in the Middle East forces human displacement was around 1995.  It was a discussion held during the Carthage Theatre Festival in Tunis.  Elder theatre professionals from Lebanon were continuously and angrily berating younger theatre directors and playwrights,  ‘You weren’t there… You cannot speak about that time….You have no business writing about the war…What do you know? You know nothing!’’ and so on. 

It’s true, a generation of children were sent abroad by parents anxious to spare them the experience of the civil war. But does that mean they had nothing to say about their own constant worry, the distance from their families, their perceptions of the situation both while in exile and subsequently when they finally came back to the place was and was not their home? As artists, could they not make work reflecting this reality?

When I think of Syrian artists today, both within and displaced outside of Syria, I hope against hope that this intergenerational and territorial dichotomy won’t be repeated.  I hope that there will be sufficient ongoing dialogue between ‘those who stayed’ and those couldn’t or didn’t, and such a strong desire for mutual understandings that this won’t be just one more wedge between Syrians.

Displacement is distressing, (it can also be exciting…for a while); it’s relative; it’s fluid. To leave: to desert, to retreat, to flee, to break, to elude, to evade… Curator and cultural advisor Alma Salem says it is, “…living in a double reality; its not like traveling youre in exile. Schizophrenia on a daily basis.”

And, as the writer Khalid Khalifa describes, displacement and its discomfort can also be felt by those who stay.     “…in Oslo in 2013, a refugee friend of mine came to where I was taking part in a seminar. It was too much for her, and she cried throughout the seminar; seeing her in tears was too much for me.”   To ‘stay behind’: to continue, to endure, to be left, to hang out…

And although social media has made enormous changes, expats (i.e. migrants) famously risk developing an image of their homeland that is frozen in time, no longer accurately reflecting the inevitable and constant changes on the ground. “…being an expat is such a lengthy and deep international experience it brings about great professional and personal changes. Old norms and values from your home country are viewed from a fresh perspective, something like Dorothy going from black and white to Technicolor.  It is normal human behaviour to reflect a new context and surroundings. People change and are changed by their surroundings when they move.

Syrian artists face a number of other challenges.  

As they are linked to a conflict, are they fetishised; do they become forevermore the official spokespersons of conflict, or are they allowed (by their own feelings of guilt, engagement or conscience as well as others’ perceptions of them) to be ‘just’ artists experimenting with whatever form, concepts and contents interest them at a given time? Does this change over time?   Should it? Freedom of artistic expression also must include the freedom to explore, critique and analyse issues that are unrelated to displacement and conflict.

Are displaced artists relegated to seasons, exhibitions or festivals that focus on migrants and refugees?  While these are important showcases they can also become ghettos parallel to but unable to enter mainstream arts provision.  Should we aim towards making these promotional ‘hooks’ eventually become unnecessary? Or are they valid in their own right?

Can displaced artists continue in the direction of the aesthetic they left home with or are they obliged to match that of the host country’s critics and curators in order to be programmed? Can audiences relate to and understand the nuances in the work they bring?  What can Syrian artists and other arts professionals do to enlarge and deepen comprehension of these nuances, rather than facing shallow reactions? 

Successive arrivals of migrants from different places in the world create trends in priorities of funders and arts presenters. This is highlighted when funders prioritise grants for commissions and presentations from the ‘latest wave’. Are Syrian artists (as I’ve recently overheard at a conference) currently ‘privileged’ over other, previously-arrived migrant artists in terms of public funding and supportive programmes? If this is true (and I don’t know at all if it is), is there some sort of responsibility here?  Is there a need for solidarity actions amongst all displaced artists?  Is this their responsibility?

Perhaps equally important is the influence Syrian artists are having or will have, on global tendencies in the arts. As Fatin Farhat confirmed, “Syria possesses some of the most important training establishments in the Arab world… and enjoy extraordinary high technical and artistic skills”.  Has the trend for ‘socially and politically engaged art practice’ (that, let’s face it, can sometimes be self-serving, propagandist or naive) influenced Syrian artists, or are their works influencing upcoming artists and curators in other parts of the world?  Who is tracing this?

Some possible actions (and we know that several are already underway)

A lively and constant dialogue between Syrian artists and the arts sectors at home and  in the host countries is imperative : debates, exhibitions, digital or virtual collaboration, and even webinars and training.  Communication should be a priority and not a second thought.

In the host countries, practical and effective ‘insertion’ and integration programmes are crucial for migrant/displaced artists (as well as host curators and programmers!) to enter the mainstream arts scene and not only in ‘migrant weeks’. Support is now taking the form of mentorships, for example in New York and several other US cities, as organised by the New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Mentorship Program.

This type of learning should also be available to curators/programmers/producers so they can investigate deeper issues and not just fetishize migration and conflict.  Even better when Syrian arts professionals are in the curator’s role.  And more foundations, cultural institutes and funders supporting  Syrian arts and artists need also to understand that the situation is instantly evolving and covers several complex facets.

 More questions?

In closing, I would like to highlight even more questions that have arisen over the last few years.  Although individualism has had very positive effects, we all now know that it is only one side of the coin and can breed nationalisms, tribalisms, a type of inward-looking selfishness that breeds fear of losing social ‘gains’ and leads to intolerance and increasing violence.  What, as society(ies),  are we going to aim for, as the future unfolds? And obviously, what is arts role in this?  Three snapshots:

1.  A few years after the Berlin Wall had fallen and ‘freedom and democracy’ was still arriving in Central and Eastern Europe, I heard theatre professionals recalling when audiences had flocked to  the theatre  –      a time when performance texts always included hidden anti-government messages. Yet when society’s task changed and positive development needed support, both artists and audiences had problems being excited by art that would produce positive messages – positive art? Is it possible to be a positive force without making propaganda, and continue to be a critical, analytic eye?  Can or will Syrian artists be able to do this when the time comes?

2.  As a resident of Venice, I attend both the art biennales and the architecture biennales.  Mostly,  architects are pretty much obliged by their craft to be optimists and develop utopic ideas (if not solutions).  What architect would want to design failure?   And in this moment, artists tend to be pessimists – reflecting the world as it is – producing dystopic images and visions.  Yet as a recent review of African-American artist Kara Walker’s recent exhibition asks, “Why do we wake to violence and then willingly sleep with it nestled under our pillows?”; “.. Who is excited to celebrate [this work] …and who is made to grieve?”

3.  The third snapshot is from research I have been doing for Counterpoint Arts UK into ‘art + refugees, migrants, integration’.  Interviewing arts professionals including displaced artists, there was a noticeable desire towards what I would call ‘building new solidarities’.  Younger people especially (but not only) wish to collaborate, to engage positively, to (again!) make a difference and (even) change the world.

Is it too much to hope, especially given the quality and intelligence of Syrian arts professionals, that some of the traps that hindered or obstructed previous displacements can be addressed by Syrians to create newer, fresher models and experimentation?

Can initiatives such as Ettijahat-Independent Culture (but not only and not alone) support the emergence of new solidarities, deeper shared understandings, constructive visions and ultimately lead to Syrian artists having a major influence on global arts?