At ArtServe, Artists Explore Syrian War With Beauty and Horror

Tony Khawam's "Entangle"

When war starts, art is often one of its earliest casualties. Antiquities are destroyed, museums are bombed, sculptures and monuments are toppled. “Emerging Art From War-Torn Syria: War & Hope” is nothing if not a reminder that despite these losses, art can never actually be vanquished—that the inherent human drive to create, document, mourn and transcend through brush, pencil, camera and chisel will always survive, even if one’s home and family members do not.

The exhibition, on display virtually and through appointment only at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale, features the work of 12 artists—some current residents of Syria and surrounding parts, and some Syrian-American artists. It is the result of a yearlong collaboration between the nonprofit art gallery and Syrian-American artist Tony Khawam, who served as guest curator. It is a powerful achievement, far too impactful a show to “open” in a mostly closed space during a pandemic, but it is our reality. At least we’re not in Syria.

At least a dozen documentaries and seven feature films, not to mention countless books and articles, have explored facets of the Syrian Civil War, which has inflamed the Asian country the spring of 2011. It is the bloodiest global conflict in a generation, but most Americans have not engaged with its particulars. While “Emerging Art From War-Torn Syria” is by nature not the history lesson we need to understand the roots and factions and turning points of the war, it accomplishes much in conveying its physical, emotional and historical devastation. It finds poetry in the turmoil, and channels the collective sorrow of a country limping into an uncertain future.

Khawam himself offers one of the most direct depictions of the country’s carnage. If you travel the gallery in order (right to left), you’ll witness, through Khawam’s own work, Syria’s transition from peace to war, first discovering paintings like “The Forgotten City”—quiet, stable neighborhood portraits given a tremulous air through the artist’s rough impasto style. Those small paintings lead into the larger-scale works such as “Entangle,” “Rods and Concrete” and “Debris in Aleppo,” smeared and dripping evocations of cities in rubble, the skeletons of once-great buildings quivering on their last legs. Dyed yarn and resin are placed strategically onto the canvas, creating a three-dimensional sense of urgency, and at least the suggestion that actual detritus from pummeled cities is intermingling with the artist’s vision of them.

Several of Khawam’s fellow-artists offer their own interpretations of cities in dust, often favoring abstract forms to depict scenes beyond most of our imaginations. I was particularly fond of Manhal Issa’s paintings, which depict vague cityscapes disrupted by indiscriminate tire tracks—invasive forces that, in one instance, function like police tape, cordoning off a countrywide crime scene from the rest of the world.

In paintings like “Maaloula No. 13,” Nizar Sabour employs a central abstract form—resembling a volcano of ash—inside a fading gilded frame, conveying through the contrast a sense of tradition destroyed. The striking mixed-media works of brothers Nimat and Bachir Badawi also offer visions of the country’s liberal and regal past crushed under wartime oppression. In one of Nimat’s pieces, rusty nails puncture a likeness of Jesus painted on a shard of charred wood, his eyes closed, the cracks in the wood suggestive of tears streaming down his face.

The most visceral response to the savagery of war may come from Omran Younis, a Damascus-based collage artist transforming stained and bloodied clothing into likenesses of war victims, both human and animal. Whether or not these materials were recovered from war zones, the effect is one of an artist literally embedding the horrors of the war into the very medium.

I found the “Hope” part of the exhibition’s subtitle more elusive than the pervasive “War” imagery. Perhaps it’s there in Chady Elias’ rhyming “Majestic Harmony” works, which play with iconic images of hearts, eyes, horses, dollar signs and emojis. Mostly, though, it is a showcase of a country wrecked and of a population scarred, probably for life. The few figural artists in the exhibition show people blurred, muzzled, twisted, damaged, dismembered.

At least we have Nimat Badawi works such as “Street in Old Aleppo, No. 3,” in which golden dapples of sunlight shower upon a fully intact staircase leading into a home. Perhaps such a place still exists, in one glorious piece, in this great city. And if it doesn’t, Badawi’s painting is a reminder that we can, and will, get there again.

“Emerging Art From War-Torn Syria” runs through Oct. 23 at ArtServe, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Gallery tours are available by appointment only, which can be made here. Visit the virtual gallery here.

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