In the five years since the start of the Syrian war the news has been dominated with headlines of violence, atrocities and, more often than not, a pervading sense of disappointment in the failure to find a solution to the crisis. Yet this political upheaval has been accompanied by an equally dramatic artistic upheaval, news of which rarely reaches the public sphere. From cartoonists to filmmakers, Syrian artists have utilised their craft to formulate a human response to the crisis.
Whether darkly comic or overtly political these responses often present the conflict in an alternative light and from a perspective that is invaluable to our own understanding.
Across the Arab Spring, social media has frequently been cited as a defining medium, allowing communication of ideas and messages quicker than ever before. It has also allowed for the anonymising of individuals, and it is no surprise that anonymous collectives have become a staple of the artistic output of Syria. Amongst the huge collection of work to be explored online, three examples jump out as significant in scope and influence: Lens Young, a photography collective; Abounaddara, a filmmakers’ collective; and Comic4Syria, a wide ranging Facebook page…
This loose coalition of amateur and professional photographers document, often covertly, various cities in Syria. Initially a Facebook page the group now has an instagram, twitter and tumblr, through which they disperse their photos. What is striking about the photographs they produce is the juxtaposition of the chaos of war against images of everyday life. A small boy sports a Spiderman backpack, observing a destroyed alleyway, whilst images of flag-bearing protesters are juxtaposed with men dancing in the street. In the spin-off group ‘Lens Silly’ this juxtaposition is taken even further, where images are infused with a darkly comic twist. An image of a clothes shop called ‘Big Shot Fashion’ is covered in bullet holes, whilst a collection of abandoned mannequins blocking an alley is titled ‘Human Shields’. It is these contrasts that encourage the viewer to re-imagine the situation on the ground, through the lens of the citizen, rather than the camera crew.
Perhaps one of the most prolific collectives, Abounaddara has been publishing a short-film every week since May 2011 and has over 400 to date. Their determination to document the moments of daily life in the war-torn country means that many of their films refuse to cater to the dominant news narrative. They themselves assert their interest in ‘stories of everyday life [rather] than in grand narratives’, and by doing so their work is not only an act of internal resistance, but an act of resistance against the often dehumanising news reports that reduce the conflict to numbers and statistics. In endeavouring to observe the everyday — the word abounaddara is a nickname for ‘a man with glasses’ — the camera takes in a diverse and wide ranging set of topics, from a shocking interview with a sniper, to a comedic moment in a cloth-sellers day. Taken together these films form a compelling story of Syria told solely through the experiences of its own inhabitants, by its own people.
Another group benefiting from the freedom allowed by the internet, Comic4Syria started as a Facebook page in 2012, and has been a fertile ground for comics covering a range of topics from children’s cartoons, to political satire, to English language cartoons criticising the lack of international support. Often inspired by real events, the depictions in the cartoons are an important reminder of the events that have unfolded over the past half-decade. Comic4Syria does not shy away from mocking political figures and pointing figures at parties that they see agitating violence and war, being inside or outside the country.
There are endless forms and endless examples of work from all corners of Syrian society, and whilst these three are an introduction to the work out there, there are many others worthy of attention, Facebook groups such as Freedom Days or Mortar Memoirs to name just two. What is evident from even a brief browse of the internet, is the volume and quality of alternative forms of expression coming from this crisis. And though these voices often become side-lined during the reporting of the conflict, it is these voices that provide outsiders a more holistic understanding of a country that deserves to be defined by more than its civil war.