Arts & Culture: Syrian Painters Fight a 'Culture of Emptying'

PHOTO: The Alley aims to become a hub for Syrian artists in Lebanon.
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The day Raghad Mardini first saw a crumbling Ottoman-era horse stable in the mountains above Beirut, she saw artistic potential. Trained as a civil engineer in her native Syria, Mardini moved from Damascus to Beirut in 2008 and promptly bought and restored the stable, transforming it into Alley, an artists' studio and residency hosting two Syrian artists on a month-to-month basis. It provides them with the space and freedom to express themselves through their art.

Little did she know at the time that it would become one of few such spaces for Syrian artists fleeing the country's conflict. At the end of their stay at Mardini's collective, each artist leaves behind a piece of his or her work, which she hopes to grow into a vast collection: a "cultural safety net," capturing and preserving the country's history and beauty. For many Syrian artists, the key to economic survival now lies in their ability to establish themselves in Lebanon's fledgling art scene. Here, she discusses how she and others are helping to facilitate the process while encouraging a creativity kept stifled in the war zone.

PHOTO: Syrians Return Home
Syrians Return to Battle-Scarred Homes

I lived in Syria all my life. I moved to Lebanon in 2008 with my children. When I came to Lebanon I was looking for a house to restore, and found an Ottoman-style stable for horses that was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war. It was under dust and rubble, but it was not hard for me to see the beauty behind it.

There was a beautiful walnut tree outside. For me the tree was symbolic. The tree wasn’t dead; it just needed care and love, just like my country: there is a lot of ugliness and violence on the outside, but there is still love and beauty on the inside. There is a culture of emptying in Syria, especially among artists and intellectuals who are witnesses but not able to express themselves. In the beginning, we thought the situation in Syria was temporary and that people would go back. We now know this is not the case, and that people have to consider other options to survive.

PHOTO: An Aley resident artist at work in Beirut.
Courtesy Raghad Mardini
PHOTO: An Aley resident artist at work in Beirut.

The idea of Alley came from my belief in the importance of art and protecting artists during conflict, as a way of communicating with the world. In Alley, for a period of one month, two artists share a working space. The artists are refugees from all parts of Syria, from different social, religious and sectarian backgrounds, and they all live together. We started in May 2012 and have since hosted 33 artists.

We look for artists aged between 20 and 30. This is usually a promising age, with lots of possibilities on the horizon, but this Syrian generation is lost, full of nostalgia and fears for their future.

Alley is in the mountains. It is quiet, warm and there is solidarity in the collective community. There is an atmosphere of friendship. We make events, music, dance, and cook together. We play together. We all need to play together, especially during this time. We unite under this pain we are enduring. I give the artists all the art supplies they need, so the people feel supported and safe, and then the ideas come from within them, and they create.

One Syrian artist called Iman came to us exhausted, and rarely smiled. She chose art performance as a way to express herself, something she had never done before Alley. She had a 45-minute interactive performance outside in the garden. She found herself, her freedom in this performance, and she said Alley gave her the courage.

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