Contemporary Art Response: Syria

By Simurgh Staff

Constant turmoil from ISIS occupation and the Syrian Refugee Crisis sparked artists within Syria, and from across the world, to comment on these issues. The loss of culture transcends medium and geographical/ political borders, appearing as a significant theme throughout works of art. Syria has become a focal example of cultural destruction as one of the nations considered to be the “cradle of civilization.”1 Acts of cultural heritage destruction in Syria cause individual trauma and the attack on the collective memory of Syrians. 

“I don’t think of my images as ghosts,

I think of them as a testament

to the resilience of culture”

Kevin Bubriski

Beginning just a few years before the civil war in Syria, Kevin Bubriski photographed Syrians and their monuments in what is now considered a preservation act—even if Bubriski did not initially intend preservation to be the outcome of his work.2 Compiled into a book titled Legacy In Stone: Syria Before The WarBrubiski published his collection of over 100 black and white photos depicting monuments that no longer exist or were severely damaged by the ISIS regime.3 However, Bubriski does not consider these images to be totems of a lost culture. Rather, he views these photos as symbols of Syria’s ability to continue.4 Bubriski stated in an interview, “‘I don’t think of my images as ghosts, I think of them as a testament to the resilience of culture.’”5 For archaeologists and other scholars, Bubriski’s photos hold more significance as art that contributes to the preservation of Syrian’s culture before ISIS.6 

“Mustafa Ali Gallery” 
Photo by Wisal Ahdab. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Some Syrian artists who continue to live in Syria and comment on these issues. The artists themselves are testaments to the “resilience of culture.”7 One such artist is sculptor Mustafa Ali, who pulls his inspiration from Palmyra.8 Ali was personally affected when ISIS took control of Damascus and Palmyra. ISIS soldiers destroyed many of his artworks and threatened his life.9 Ali responded to this experience with a sculpture of a human face was divided down the middle, “‘Like the Syrian face, because, you know, we kill—brother kills his brother.’”10 Many of Ali’s works reflect Syrian aesthetics (both contemporary and historical), while incorporating his personal response to the loss of culture. 

 Syrian-born contemporary artist Issam Kourbaj has gained international fame working out of England. Kourbaj watches and responds to the onslaught on Syria and its people from afar. This is emphasized in his work, which Kourbaj describes as “‘a quiet gesture, an archive to remember those who have been forgotten, and an invitation to ponder what the future might bring to what’s left of my people and of my country.’”11 

His work Unearthed shows the fragmentation of both his own identity as a Syrian living abroad and of the Syrians who continue to live in a nation that is under constant change.12 

“Issam Kourbaj ‘The Artist’s Voice’” (2014)
Produced by Diana Scarborough. CC BY 3.0.

Kourbaj also uses the concept of the match to emphasize just how these contemporary events effect the culture of the Syrian people on a daily basis.13 When the conflict within the nation ultimately settles down, Syria will not be the same.

The shifting nature of Syria has influenced these artists who invoke their Syrian aesthetic roots while considering the impact of the loss of Syrian culture. However, the damage to the collective memory of Syria truly what makes the loss of culture so significant: cultural destruction is a trauma that transforms the culture itself.

  1. Cultures in the Crossfire: Stories from Syria and Iraq 
  2. ‘Legacy In Stone’ Captures Images Of Syria Before War 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Ibid. 
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Ibid 
  8. Syria’s Leading Sculptor Keeps Creating In A Time Of Destruction 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Ibid. 
  11. Unearthed: Syrian Artist Responds to War in His Homeland 
  12. Ibid. 
  13. Ibid.