Interviews & Dialogues

Syrian art flourishes in exile

Civil war has ravaged not only Syria’s ancient cultural treasures, but also dampened the current arts scene. Nevertheless, Syrian artist Diala Brisly says her country’s art scene is flourishing more than ever – in exile.
The current situation in Syria is worse than it has been in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali, according to UNESCO: Many of the country’s cultural treasures have been destroyed during the recent fighting. There are very few artists active in Syria today, Diala Brisly tells DW. She left the country about a year ago and now lives and works in Istanbul.
DW: Presidential elections have been held in Syria this week in the middle of a civil war. What do you think about the elections?
Diala Brisly: Who is supposed to vote? People are dying every day; they live in destroyed houses, in camps. And then the government wants their votes. They tell the people who live as refugees in Lebanon that they have to vote for Assad because otherwise they can’t get back to Syria. That’s not something you can say to citizens in a democracy. Besides, nothing will change; every time it’s the same. They aren’t real elections. It’s really more like a game, because it’s not real at all.
Are there still artists working in Syria?
Yes, but only a few. There is no community there. Those who say their opinion or express it in songs or art only do so under a nickname. Otherwise it’s too dangerous. There are also a few exhibitions, but you can’t compare it with how it used to be. For most people in Syria, art is simply not a priority, it’s a luxury.
Only in the small town of Kafranbel, do they still have a theater and a cultural center. The artists there use art to send messages to people outside. Outside of Syria, it’s a different situation and the Syrian art scene is even doing better than before.
Why is that?
Before the revolution, I didn’t know that there were so many artists in our country. We never heard from each other and didn’t have any kind of network. Now we meet up and we can work freely and make our revolution art. Before, we couldn’t do anything. If you wanted to publish a magazine or a book, you had to know an official or use a nickname. Now we no longer fear saying something.
But in Syria you also published under you own name.
Yes. A few friends and I decided to stop using nicknames. Before that, I signed my works with “Elvis Presley.” But it was very dangerous to use my real name and I was very lucky.
How has the Syrian art scene developed in exile?
In the past, many artists were influenced by the West – now the art is more oriental. The people are more emotional; they miss Syria. Musicians write songs, for example, that are influenced by traditional Syrian music, but they mix it with rock – especially Pink Floyd. We’re in love Pink Floyd! They wrote revolution songs.
In general, very little Syrian music was made in the past, but that’s different now. In Lebanon in particular, in Beirut, there are many bands, concerts, festivals, and lots of activities.
So Syrian art is more diverse than it used to be?
Yes. And it will be better than it used to be when everything is over. Many people have lost hope and have stopped being politically active. It’s not easy to be politically active, but I think that people shouldn’t give up. It will take time, maybe 10 years. But someday the day of peace will come. I believe in the Syrian children. They are the future of the country and they will build up Syria. That’s why I work with them in the camps.
What exactly do you do there with the children?
They need a good education. Many of them haven’t been to school in a long time. I’m working on an illustrated book and I think it’s fun for them and helps them learn. In Beirut there will also be an art workshop for children in the camps, to help them to express what they’re feeling about their situation. I’m thinking about moving to Beirut and me and my friends, we are thinking about establishing a library for children. I feel like I would be more useful there than here in Istanbul.

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