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"Seen for Syria": Art in Service of a Moral Imagination

In Damascus
Damascus, 2012 | Soulaf Abas, used by permission of the artist
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The painter/printmaker Soulaf Abas and the photographer Muzafarr Salman are Syrian artists in exile. Their powerful, troubling work is on view at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in downtown Santa Ana until January 30.

The exhibition, called "Seen for Syria" includes prints, paintings, collages and photographs. There are drawings made by children in a refugee camp to which Abas has brought art in response to their trauma. The gallery has a garden where visitors are invited to fill an outline map of Syria with soil and to plant a seed.

Seen For Syria
Photo by the author |  Creative Commons License

In time, something may grow.

Syria is where the residents of the besieged town of Madaya are starving, despite relief efforts that began in the past week. The people there have boiled grass and leaves for soup, according to the New York Times. They have butchered cats and donkeys out of hunger.

They've died in all the timeless ways that citizens of a town have died when the reasonably well-fed and well-armed are encamped around them.

Madaya has about 42,000 residents, based on United Nations estimates. Perhaps another 200,000 townspeople elsewhere in Syria are similarly trapped in places like Madaya, according to a recent NPR report. In other places, the people of Syria, although not besieged as in Madaya, are confined by explosive barrels dropped from helicopters, snipers with rifles, fighters with cheap Kalashnikovs, and fields sown with even cheaper plastic landmines.

Aid groups estimate that as many as 500,000 Syrians behind the battle lines are beyond the reach of their assistance.

The design of the exhibition at the OCCCA, co-curated by Abas and Alyssa Arney, is restrained, given all the suffering it memorializes. But none of the images in the exhibition is.

The photographs and paintings in "Seen For Syria" are both compelling art and, taken together, an instigator of moral consciousness, just as Abas and Salman intended. But these works also evoke the contentious situation of art in a time and place of war.

Abas told an OC Register reporter, "Usually, when you see anything about Syria on the news you start to get numb to it. But there's something about seeing the canvas and texture of the oil paint that makes a Syrian person's pain more real."

Can that be true? Does art realize the pain of others?

Through A Bullet Hole, 2013
Through A Bullet Hole, 2013 |  Soulaf Abas, used by permission of the artist

The situation of war photography is perhaps less complicated. From the Crimean War (1853-1856) --the first war to be photographed-- to Salman's tragic images from Aleppo and Idlib from 2013 to the front pages of the Los Angeles Times, the photographic image of war has been refined into a perverse aesthetic.
We are practiced --too practiced-- at reading wartime photography.
His photographs, Salman says in the exhibition's wall text, tell the truth to those who do not wish to know. It is, of course, a conditional truth (the case with every photograph, not just those of war). One of the conditions is Salman's anger --fury, really-- at the inhuman callousness of the factions in the Syrian civil war that oppose those who, although badly equipped, fight to free Syria of the Assad regime.
We are less certain about the situation of painting in wartime. After a hundred years of increasing abstraction, only Picasso's Guernica (1937) successfully mediates in real time between blood and paint. Abas crosses and re-crosses that divide with genuine intensity to make, she says, "a visual memoir of what my beloved home is going through with all the passion, love and sadness I feel inside."

In Syria I
In Syria I |  Soulaf Abas, used by permission of the artist

The town of Guernica, before its bombing, was, like Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs, someone's beloved home. Picasso in 1937 caught the moment when the bombs erupted through the ordinariness of that kind of place. Abas in her recent paintings meditates on the fate of that kind of place after the bombs.

An encounter with suffering, although highly mediated as in Salman's photographs and Abas' paintings and prints, should enlarge (if there is any art in the image) one's moral imagination. Fundamentally, that is the truth in an image, to which facts are ultimately peripheral.

Jeanette Winterson, writing in the Guardian in the weeks after 9/11, said "Actors, writers and artists work at the interface between the real and the imagined. They coax us out of the numbness of the everyday --where life passes in a blur-- and into a heightened space where we can inhabit other lives and find ourselves in other circumstances. The mind opens, stretches, takes in more than it knows, and returns again to the ordinary world, richer. This is not just relief -- it is revelation. If art has not that purpose -- it is not art."

There is considerable art of this kind in Salman's photographs, along with his anger. In Abas' paintings, the encounter with suffering operates on a different level. In her paintings and prints, at least for me, Abas provides the visual space in which two humanizing responses critical to the comprehension of war are found. She asks, as Aristotle asks of tragic narratives, for pity and terror.

Explosion, 2012
Explosion, 2012 |  Soulaf Abas, used by permission of the artist


 Coming Home to Find Your Two Sons Killed By A Missile, Aleppo 2013
Coming Home to Find Your Two Sons Killed By A Missile, Aleppo 2013 |  Muzaffar Salman, used by permission of the artist

And if those classical instruments aren't already difficult enough today to apply to one's moral imagination, Abas asks for another and even older sympathy that is evident throughout her work and in her discussion of its worth as art.

She asks us to feel the destruction of a city.

Homer made that sympathy the funeral music behind the grotesque violence in the Iliad. Gaudy heroes and savage deities contend for fame in the last days of Troy, but it is the fate of Troy --a city that was someone's beloved home-- that also commands attention.

So does the fate of Damascus, as do all the other cities --in Syria and elsewhere-- that fostered lives and now are besieged and dying. A myriad of lives end --heroically, badly, tragically, brutally, nobly, squalidly-- in the fall of a city. And the city's intimate web of connections --visible and invisible-- dies too. That is an equally permanent loss and a disaster for civilization.

 Look! Can You Help This Bird? Idlib 2013
Look! Can You Help This Bird? Idlib 2013 |  Muzaffar Salman, used by permission of the artist

"Seen For Syria" reminded me why I write these pieces for KCET. I write so that those willing to call themselves citizens might come to regret the destruction --materially or morally-- of the place in which they live.

Seen For Syria
Orange County Center for Contemporary Art
117 Sycamore Street, Santa Ana
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday to January 30

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