Tammam Azzam doesn't claim to be a representative of the Syrian people, but neither does he want to be treated as an individual. He wants to be one his fellow countrymen. And yet, as an artist, individuality is a necessity if one is to make a living. Perhaps that is why his first solo exhibition in London, I, the Syrian, a collection of surreal digital collages, bristles with defiance, paradox and tragedy.
Azzam's art has taken the world by storm. He is used to working on canvas, but being away from his studio in Damascus led him to look to other mediums for artistic expression. The result of this was entitled piece he called "Freedom Graffiti" (2012). Barring the Syrian regime, which derided that work as "Gulf-sponsored art," the world was moved by his digital transposition of Gustav Klimt's iconic painting of The Kiss onto a bullet-ridden wall in Syria. In early 2013, the image went viral on social media, but few people realized it was only one work in a series entitled Syrian Museum. Of all the pieces in the series, the one that resonated most of all with Azzam was his play on Francisco Goya's The Third of May 1808, which depicts a group of captives about to be shot by soldiers in the Peninsular War against Napoleon, which he transposed on a destroyed Syrian city scape.
The escalation in the bloodshed in Syria has inescapably had an effect on Azzam's art. It is becoming more experimental, uncertain and disturbed, and has greatly diverged from the days of "Freedom Graffiti." The truth is, he says, that so many people have died in Syria he is not sure that "art makes any sense anymore." He is scathing in his criticism of a world that stands idly by, watching the daily horrors occurring in his home country. "The world can come out demonstrating against foreign intervention, and yet it does absolutely nothing to stop the slaughter," he says indignantly. "How many gassed bodies of children do you need? Why is Syria a plaything? Why is it simply entertainment?" But then he turns the blame on himself, for his own cowardice, and for making a living out of the situation. Those two sides of his identity--the artist and the Syrian--both struggle with the conflicting roles. One can understand why he called his latest exhibition I, the Syrian: it is Syrian anguish epitomized.
Azzam has suffered directly as a result of the Syrian conflict. Several months into the uprising, he left Damascus for Dubai with his wife and two children to escape conscription. He did not want to kill his own people on behalf of the regime, he says. The artist, who is a member of the Druze minority, explains that Sweida, a predominately Druze city located in south western Syria, is the "safest part of Syria currently." Yet he still felt that he had to speak out.
He insists that he was always an opponent of the regime, ever since the day he left what he calls his "sleepy village" for the School of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus. It was there that he realized that the Syrian regime cared little for its citizens. He believes institutions like the Syrian Army are tools of domination and control. "You don't serve your country," he says, "you serve your superiors, who humiliate and beat you." And so Azzam went into exile, but he always longs to see Damascus again. He is fearful of returning to his studio, as he is aware of what happens to people who openly criticize the regime in Syria. Most of his wife's family lives in exile; they have scattered around the world because of their anti-regime stances. He believes that if the hands of cartoonists like Ali Ferzat are smashed by regime thugs, those thugs would not hesitate to do the same to him.
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In spite of the fractured Syrian opposition and the rise of extremists, he is still with the revolution. "Assad," he declares, "is more violent than the extremist Islamists. I believe in the revolution and I believe in the goodness of the ordinary Syrian." This is why he refuses to accept the argument that this is a sectarian conflict; he accuses the regime of playing up the sectarian aspects of the fighting. And even though there is a sense among many that Assad might just survive this war, Azzam dismisses the proposition as impossibility.
Tammam Azzam's first solo UK exhibition, "I, The Syrian," will be showing at the Ayyam Gallery, London, until January 30, 2014.
This article has been cross posted from The Majalla.