Syrian artist’s Freedom Graffiti in London
Amelia Smith - 18/01/2014
Azzam’s exhibition “I, the Syrian” in London runs until January 30.
In January a picture of a war-torn building in Syria with Gustav Klimt'sThe Kisspainted on the outside went viral. But it was not real graffiti on a real wall in Damascus; it was an image of one of the most iconic kisses in art superimposed onto a photograph of a building devastated from more than two years of destruction since the start of the revolution.
The image shot Syrian artist Tammam Azzam to worldwide acclaim when it made headlines across the world. He says he is keen to go one step further and actually paint The Kiss onto a wall in his country, but not right now: "It's not the time to make art when people are dying in such places" he explains.
Freedom Graffitiis just one part of the series Syrian Museum. Using the same concept other works feature Mona Lisa, Picasso or Matisse photoshopped onto burnt out or bullet ridden buildings. The juxtaposition of the two images highlights both the creative and the destructive potential of humans.
Tammam Azzam's exhibition 'I, The Syrian' is at Ayyam Galleryin London and Ayyam Gallery in Beirut until the 30 January 2014. Much of the work employs digital media and is a reference to street art, which hugely flourished across the Middle East since the start of the Arab Spring.
At one end of the room is Syrian Olympic, the background of which is grey and has the appearance of concrete. At the bottom of the image, what looks black stencilled graffiti forms the shape of three snipers in three different positions, as though they are preparing to race. On the left are athletes running away from them and along the top are the interlinked Olympic rings.
The picture appears to be a pointed reference to the inaction of the international community and what they have done to help, or not help the deteriorating situation Syria.
"After three years every Syrian knows now that the whole world doesn't want to intervene in the Syrian situation" says Azzam. "Syrians are making their own revolution against the regime and now against the jihadi groups and against Russia, against Iran, against Hezbollah against everybody."
So can making art about it help change an apathetic community? "Well after three years, are there any changes in Syria? No. It's getting worse and worse" says Azzam. Art cannot stop people dying, he believes, referring to the deadly chemical attack in August which killed over 1000 in the Damascus suburb Adra. Even then people didn't make a stand. "So how can art or media do anything to change this?" he asks.
Along a similar theme is the work United Colours, three rectangular, neon light-boxes in red, black and green in the same design as the Saudi Arabian flag. White calligraphy spells out United Nations, United States and United Russia on each box, with the image of a gun or a sword below.
"The three colours are the freedom colours for Syria, the new one" says Azzam, explaining that they combine to create a new flag for a free Syria. "They just struggle on Syrian land for their own benefits, not for Syrian freedom" he adds on the ‘United' countries represented.
Though Azzam's work seems to have strong political undertones, he insists that he is not a political artist and that he works for ten hours a day to try and establish the difference between this and revolutionary art. "I'm an artist that's doing artwork with a political background because of the situation, because I'm Syrian so I have to be involved in what's happening in my country" he explains.
He describes a picture of flowers he saw one of his friends paint ten months ago. "He has to do that because he needs money" Azzam explains. "But how can you stand away, as many artists stand away, from what's happening in your country?"
"My duty is not to make political posters; it is to make art, for art's sake. And maybe we will find a political background" he adds later to point out what it is that makes his work differ from political art. "I don't care about the regime, I'm not fighting against the regime, I'm not soldier. I'm fighting to support people so this is the difference for me."
Before the revolution Azzam was a painter, a medium he has returned to more recently. He explains that he was working on a series called the laundry series, about the memory of laundry after people left their houses. "It was about departure and how people leave their own memories behind them."
He believes that political topics were never addressed in art before the revolution: "Never. Because there was fifty years of that regime, so nobody could talk about politics. It was an impossible thing to do or talk about if you were inside Syria." But it wasn't just the art scene that underwent such a radical transformation. "Everything changed after that, not just art - music, writing, opinion about anything in Syria, history, modern history. I think I'm like a new person."
Azzam is clear that what message the viewer takes away from his work is up to them. "When you make art it's more complicated to send a clear message and you don't have to do that" he says. "I make the work and send it to the gallery, then it's not mine, it's between people now. When you decide to send your painting or artwork out of the studio then you can't add anything. I can't add anything to the artwork."
"Sometimes I think it's easier to destroy a painting in your studio or get it back from the gallery" he continues. "But the problem here is when you post something on social media, you can't delete it. Ever. I tried to do that, I deleted three of my artworks but still it's somewhere so you can't. This is the problem here, you are in another sphere, not the real one. So you can't decide anything after posting."