The numbers, numbing in their enormity, are not enough to describe the nightmare Syria has become.
So, as it has been in every war, every shift in history, it is left to art to absorb the horror and turn it into something beautiful, to allow those affected and the rest of us to process what has happened and move forward.
How else are we to fathom the blur of statistics, to zoom in on the hundreds of thousands dead and the millions driven from their homes and resolve the humanity of a single town, one family, an individual?
In this way art can serve as voice and translator, as it does through a new exhibition at the Penticton Art Gallery. Behind the Lines opened July 8 and features more than 100 original works by 19 Syrian artists, 13 still living there and six that have relocated to Turkey, France, Germany and Austria.
The exhibit features paintings, photography, video, digital art and sculpture and according to the gallery’s director, Paul Crawford, is the largest known exhibition of contemporary Syrian art to take place in North America “and possibly anywhere” since the start of the recent conflict, which began on March 15, 2011.
It’s the second in a series exploring the culture, people and art of those countries the government of Canada has engaged in militarily over the past few years. Last year, the gallery featured the work of 19 young Afghani artists. During that exhibit, Crawford made contact with a 24-year-old artist and architecture student in the capital, Damascus, named Humam Alsalim.
Alsalim co-founded the online gallery Syria Art – Syrian Artists, and curated the exhibit in Penticton from afar. He told the View earlier this week just getting the art out of the country was a “hard mission.
“Shipping companies aren’t working as before the war,” he wrote in an email. “The airport has only flights to Dubai and few countries around, no more flights to Europe and North America with the embargo the European Union and America have put on Syria.”
He said the works were shipped first to United Arab Emirates on the south shore of the Persian Gulf, then Lebanon, Germany, the United States and Canada.
“Inside Damascus with all these checkpoints it wasn’t an easy mission at all to move with such an amount of artworks,” Alsalim explained. “A lot of questions had to be answered before the shipping.”
Within the war-ravaged country, there are varying levels of danger and destruction. Alsalim said in Damascus life is still “a bit chaotic” but has calmed down compared to recent years. Aleppo, one of the largest cities in the region at more than two million, is a different story.
“In other big cities such as Aleppo the situation is catastrophic,” he said. “Missiles falling on civilians all around Aleppo; most of the time there is no electricity or water, and lack of food materials. Some of the cities are still safe, while the others are suffering from the clashes between the different sides of this war.”
Alsalim hopes the exhibit will provide the outside world with a closer and decidedly more human perspective on the Syrian people.
“What was important for me is that they see who we are,” he said. “More than 90 artworks should transfer an image, or some feelings, from this place to the other side of the globe. Being aware of what’s happening here in Syria, recognizing our suffering is an important thing people should do around the globe.”
He said he has yet to see “any fair enough report/article/documentary” about what’s really happening.
“I guess the whole image is missing, and is completely different,” he said. “There is nothing certain about us anymore.
The death toll is in hundreds of thousands, and refugees in millions. These numbers are enough to have an idea how bad is the situation.”
Crawford included the contact information of each artist in the exhibition, hoping members of the public would reach out.
“We hope that these exhibitions will help add a direct human element to the conflicts that are gripping these countries, giving us a rare and intimate view into their world,” he told the View. “I am encouraging the public to reach out and connect with them on Facebook and engage in a direct dialogue with the artists whose work interests them. My hope is that by doing this, the participating artists are able to directly experience how their work has impacted someone on the other side of the globe and at the same time let them know we are paying attention.”
Participating artists include:
Humam Alsalim & Rami Bakhos