Artist in exile uses famous images to frame horror of conflict

Damascus-born Tammam Azzam has named the series Syrian Museum

 

Earlier this year a striking image of Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss superimposed on a building in Syria gouged by mortar shells and bullets went viral.

London’s Saatchi Gallery shared the digital picture on its Facebook page and within hours it had gathered more than 21,000 Facebook “likes” and spread across other social media.

Titled Freedom Graffiti, the Klimt-referencing image was part of a series composed by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam (32) which juxtaposes iconic works by painters including Goya, Matisse, Dalí, Picasso, Gauguin and Andy Warhol against photographs of Syria’s devastated cities and towns.

Damascus-born Azzam, who has been based in Dubai since he and his family fled Syria with the assistance of his gallery seven months after the uprising against President Bashar alAssad began in early 2011, has named the series Syrian Museum.

“I chose that name because the images you see in the background of all these works are, for me, like something from a museum,” he explains. “I feel astonished how much destruction has happened, how this regime has changed our country into what it is now.”


Artistic capturing
The first image Azzam created was based on Goya’s The Third of May 1808, which depicts the execution of Spanish resistance fighters by Napoleon’s forces.

It remains his favourite because, in his view, it comes closest to capturing what is happening in Syria. “I had read about the history of this painting and how it had such an impact. So many people killed that day, but still less than are killed every day now in Syria. I wish this image had gone viral instead of the Klimt one.”

Azzam was surprised by how much traction Freedom Graffiti got internationally. “Perhaps when there is so much hate and war, people want to think about love and peace. They want to believe that it will overcome.

“For me this image is about the building and the stories of the people who had lived there – how many of them have lost loved ones, how many have lost those they once kissed.”


Elvis in Homs
In another image, Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian Women on the Beach appears against the backdrop of a Syrian refugee camp.

Another shows Andy Warhol’s Elvis aiming his gun amid a war-ravaged streetscape in the city of Homs, where opposition-held districts endured a months-long siege by regime forces.

After graduating from an arts school in Damascus, Azzam began to paint landscapes in oils. He only began experimenting with digital art after arriving in Dubai without any of his usual materials or the money to buy them.

Many other fellow Syrian artists are now refugees, scattered between Lebanon, Jordan and the Gulf. Some remain in Syria, where their work has become increasingly political despite the risks. Several Syrian cartoonists, writers, singers and actors have been targeted by the regime for supporting the uprising.

“What is happening in Syria is a real revolution – nobody can imagine what kind of regime we have in Syria,” says Azzam.

“After the revolution began I think everything changed in Syria – art, writing, cinema, photography. Nobody can keep a distance from what is happening around them. Everything has been affected. The revolution changed me, not just my art. I am thinking in a different way now.”

But despite the success of Syrian Museum, Azzam says he and other Syrian artists feel a sense of helplessness in the face of a death toll that has climbed well above 100,000.

There are five remaining works in the Syrian Museum series – including one featuring an image of Marilyn Monroe – but Azzam has chosen not to release them for now. “After the Klimt image, I felt like any extra piece would be just a marketing exercise,” he says.

“I sometimes feel art doesn’t make sense in Syria – after two years of so many people talking about what is happening or trying to convey it through art, nothing has changed.”

Azzam, who refuses to describe what is happening in Syria as a war, insisting it is a revolution, says that once the fighting is over, he plans to return home and paint an acrylic version of The Kiss on the pocked walls of the building that features in the image that made his name.

“When will that be? Who knows,” he says wistfully. “I would go back tomorrow if I could.”

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