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Syria in sight
by Muhammad Yusuf August 20, 2015
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If globalisation is the name of the game when it comes to modern economics, “globalartisation” is the take when it comes to the contemporary art field. “Building bridges between civilisations”, “opening communication channels between cultures”, “increasing understanding between peoples”, are some of the frequent flier sentences that one comes across in many reports on global art or culture.

One of the more well-known art organisations – there are many in this list –  is Imago Mundi (IM), the collection of works commissioned and collected by Luciano Benetton, Italian billionaire businessman and one of the co-founders of Benetton Group, the Italian fashion brand.

His collection – there we go – “aims to unite the diversities of our world in the name of common artistic experience. The goal is to catalogue works, inspirations and ideas, in order to pass down to future generations the widest possible mapping of the situation of human cultures at the start of the third millennium”.

Inspired by IM, and partly the consequence of her own background, Italian curator Donatella Della Ratta is holding an exhibition of art works in Venice, under the title ‘Syria Off Frame’ (SOF, Aug. 31 – Nov. 1). The show will open at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, presenting art works from several countries including Syria, all of them within the 10x12cm format that also characterises the Imago Mundi project.

SOF showcases 140 Syrian artists from a wide range of generations which spans from the 50s to the 90s, from several cities and villages of Syria, from multiple religious and ethnic backgrounds.

It features painters, illustrators, cartoonists, photographers, poets, calligraphers, theatre performers and directors, graffiti makers, filmmakers. It includes both established artists whose works are showcased and sold worldwide and promising students of Fine Arts, including youth who have just begun their art life.

It embraces artists still living inside Syria, creating their art works amidst the shortage of electricity, water and food; some of them living under siege, and others living under the daily threat of being killed just for going out, without any reason.

It presents the works of Syrian artists living all around the world; from those who have been recently forced to flee the country, to those who are born in the diaspora. Within the minuscule frame 10x12cm, SOF gives a platform to very diverse forms of art, that includes two group projects.

The first one titled ‘From Amman to Homs, art as resistance’, is born from the collaboration between Syrian actor Nawar Bulbul, Syrian refugee kids in Amman and their peers living under siege in Homs and French painter Jean Yves Bizien.

Eleven kids who performed together on Skype an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play ‘Romeo and Juliet’, have been engaged by Bulbul, Bizien and Abou Ameen, the trainer of the group in Homs, in creating 10x12 canvases.

Bizien, in order to visualise their thoughts on canvases, asked the children two questions: When you look at the sky, what colour do you see or you would like to see? Which word would you use for it?

“We still see the blue of the sky in these canvases (therefore in the kids’ answers), even if stripes of red appear”, says Ratta. “It is as if we could hear these kids speaking, from Homs to Amman: hope, life, return, peace, justice, freedom, they shout to us”.

Bulbul is a Syrian theatre director, actor, playwright and founder of Al-Khareef Theatre Troupe in Damascus. In 2011, as a result of his work and because of his participation in protests against the Al-Assad government, he was forced to relocate to Jordan. In 2014 he began working with children in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.

The other group project hosted within the 140 artworks of SOF is called ‘Syria Pixels’. This is an installation of 35 “mobile video” canvases created and designed by Zaher Omareen. Each canvas has a mobile device embedded in it that hides a gem: a one-minute video filmed with a mobile camera by a Syrian film maker.

Each video features a short visual story, a mood which Omareen has interpreted and reflected through his artwork on the canvas. The videos can be enjoyed both as standalone works and as a collective video voice of Syria.

Mobile video devices have been the quintessential form of artistic expression coming out of Syria in the past years; they stand for hundred thousands of eyes and hands of Syrians who have endlessly filmed and documented what is happening in the country.

Each frame of ‘Syria Pixels’ is a living tribute to a generation which has found freedom in the panoptic gaze of their mobile devices, if not in their daily lives. “SOF would never have seen the light without the incredible human network which has supported it globally”, Ratta says.

“There are human beings behind the 140 canvases who have crossed checkpoints from several sides and parties to bring these artworks back”, she adds. “They have gone through the most difficult circumstances to offer these precious miniatures; more precious than the most precious treasure, because they bring life”.

But sometimes this has not been successful, she notes. For example, the ‘Cancelled’ canvas featured in the exhibition is a reminder of those who could not make it or who could not even send their art because of the dire circumstances they are live in.

Overall, SOF’s 140 canvases document the search for further space at the edge of the frame through which Syria has been depicted in the past four years. “This “off frame” Syria is a Syria that we are not used to seeing”, Ratta concludes. “Yet it is out there, waiting to be explored, heard, seen, spoken about”.

She is an Italian academic who has specialised in Arab media and has lived in Syria (2007-2011). She obtained her PhD from the University of Copenhagen with research work on Syrian TV drama industry.

She has been affiliated with the Annenberg School for Communication, Pennsylvania University and with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University.

She has a background in journalism, television production, and Internet community management. Between 2008-2013 she managed the Arabic speaking community for the international organisation Creative Commons.

She is co-founder and board member of the web portal on Syria’s creative resistance Syria Untold ( which obtained the Ars Electronica Honorary Mention for Digital Communities in 2014.

She has curated and co-curated several international art exhibitions and events on Arab media (among them, ‘Occidente desde Oriente’, Centre de Cultura Contemporania de Barcelona, 2005) and has held shows on Syria’s creative resistance (Amsterdam 2012; Copenhagen 2013; Milan 2013).

The Fondazione Giorgio Cini or just Cini Foundation, is a cultural foundation founded April 20, 1951. It was established by Count Vittorio Cini in memory of his son who died in an airplane accident in 1949.

It now houses a historical library of about 15,000 volumes, an archive of manuscripts and a collection concerning documents about history, music, theatre and art. It is also a venue for exhibitions, concerts and meetings.

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