Fleeing conflict, Syrian artists curtail creativity to survive

This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Flashing images of corpses under rubble, the pungent stench of cadavers and nagging sounds of gunfire were enough to push Syrian artist Abdel Satar to join a fleet of refugees as they escaped the mayhem of war.

Before the revolution twisted his fate, the young painter was among the rising talent in Al-Qusayr, in the Homs region of Syria.

No longer could he bear to watch his hometown plunge into the abyss of lawlessness and destruction. His paintbrush — his own fingers — would not obey his restless mind.

Satar became an activist at the start of the 2011 revolution, painting to defy the Syrian army.

“I used to write banners and posters against the government, and later, as the war started, I painted to encourage people to fight,” he said.

But when Syrian authorities realized the power of artists to polarize society, people like Satar became prime targets for regime marksmen.

“Despite having snipers shooting at us, I was determined to remain in my town no matter what,” the refugee explained. “But when I saw the army was hell-bent on destroying our city, I had to join my family in Jordan to help them make a living.”

In the frequent blank gazes and twitching, and the heaviness of his voice when describing what he’s witnessed, the emotional toll of the unrest is clear.

Now, the 41-year-old artist works in an art shop in Amman, Jordan’s capital, occasionally painting commercial items and portraits in order to make a living.

At his store, several young Syrian artists peddle their work, while well-known painters use pseudonyms to hawk copies of famous paintings and original portraits, a line of work deemed shameful.

Satar explained the pen names and portraiture: “So they can sell their art cheap and make quick money.”

Two-years into the conflict, more than 110,000 people have been killed; 2 million are registered as refugees; and close to 6 million are displaced within and outside of Syria, with half a million Syrians now living in Jordan.

From doctors and engineers to authors and artists, the exodus of refugees from Syria has brought waves of talent to the Kingdom of Jordan.

Many fleeing professionals see the country as a convenient stopover where they can assess their options before moving on to a third country like Australia, Canada or somewhere in Europe. However, many have found themselves trapped after failed attempts to emigrate further.

Ali Kais, a famous Syrian artist, said Jordan provides the creatively-gifted newcomers with everything they need: security, hospitality and an inspiring atmosphere.

“Yes, I am no longer in my country, but the suffering I have [endured] will live with me forever. I want to show the world what happened to us and how most nations failed to help us,” he explained.

An increasing number of Syrian artists have surfaced in Amman’s art houses and galleries, the majority young, talented men and women eager to show-off their skills. The situation is reminiscent of the flight of creative talent from Iraq during the American-led war that began in 2003.

Salem Lababidi, an independent curator, believes the arrival of Syrian artists to Jordan and other countries is healthy for the art movement.

“The strong emotions brought by artists from war-stricken countries have distinct and specific flavor. Their emotions are raw and their messages are blunt,” Lababidi told The Media Line.

Yet, with dozens of artists now living in Jordan, the young talents say they are forced to work in the shadows.

“We sell our paintings to art galleries at very low prices in order to provide for our families. Some galleries even change names of painters to make bigger profits,” said Ali Refai, an artist from Damascus.

Creative expression, once tied to protest, has become practical.

“I used to draw to make people feel defiant against a tyrant ruler,” Satar said. “Now, I draw to make a living.”