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VENICE: The Syria pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale stands on the island of San Servolo. Entitled “The Syrian People: A Common Destiny”, it features a mix of prominent contemporary Syrian artists and some Italian names in its portrayal of a country plagued by civil war and economic and social upheaval since 2011.

This year, the pavilion is again commissioned by Emad Kashout, a cultural officer from Damascus, who has been assisting with the selection of works for the Venice Biennale pavilion in Syria since 2015. Among the participants are Syrian artists Sawsan Al- Zoubi, Ismaiel Nasra, Adnan Hamideh, Omran Younis and Aksam Talla. Their work, much of it on canvas, is exhibited alongside works by Italian artists Giuseppe Amadio, Lorenzo Puglisi, Marcello Lo Giudice, Hannu Palosuo and Franco Mazzucchelli. (The pavilion is funded largely by Italian sponsors.)

Omran Younes. (Provided)

Younis’ grim abstract expressionist paintings portray the suffering of the Syrian people with intense and vivid brushwork. As he says in his artist statement: “When art becomes a protest in this human slaughterhouse, a protest against the pain, the invisible, the human moment of fear and death that turns into screams on this fabric white until it becomes painful and black painted lines penetrate the body of the earth like a plow to make the art a clear line of certainty – its price is only life itself. His work contrasts with Saousan Alzubi’s softer, dreamier depictions of cityscapes and daily life, as seen in his 2016 collage ‘Imagination City’.

Some of the works of their Italian peers have, at least, an overt thematic connection to situations and experiences that many Syrians can recognize. Palosuo, for example, contributes two pairs of paintings; a pair a boy and a girl, a pair a man and a woman. All four have their faces covered in bold white brushstrokes as if to distort or erase their identities.

Hannu Palosuo. (Provided)

According to Eshout, the theme “A Common Destiny” reflects how, despite the different artistic approaches and subjects employed by each of the five Syrian artists on display, they are united in their love for their country, a common cultural destiny, and a desire to transcend. violence and chaos.

The pavilion’s press release highlights how Syria’s ancient heritage, with artifacts dating back to the 8th millennium BC, has influenced the artwork on display, inspired as much by the country’s grand past as by its recent horrors.

“Artistic culture has always represented a way to shape society by promoting love and hope,” Eshout told Arab News from Damascus. “Art in this ancient culture has always represented a way to shape society by fostering love and hope and providing an opportunity for rebirth.”

Sawsan Al-Zoubi, “The City of Imagination”. (Provided)

The works of Italian artists are meant to complement those of their Syrian colleagues.

“They carry a message of love and peace for Syria, a land… with a strong and eclectic cultural heritage that is deeply rooted in history,” wrote Loubana Mouchaweh, Syrian Minister of Culture.

But the pavilion has – as in previous years – been widely criticized by prominent members of the Syrian artistic community, both at home and abroad, for its lack of representation and its failure to represent the breadth of artistic creation. which is currently taking place in Syria.

Ismaiel Nasra, “The child and the cloud”. (Provided)

“It’s a small collective effort of a few people who have nothing to do with the government and reflects a desperate situation for a desperate cultural body trying to exist,” said a Dubai-based Syrian arts scholar who has asked to remain anonymous. “I guess we are frustrated because we know we can do more and better. But, to tell the truth, no one has the time and the energy. There is no budget. This is a doomed situation. »

Samer Kozah, who has run his eponymous gallery in Damascus since 1994, also said the pavilion does not offer a comprehensive representation of the Syrian art scene.

“The solution, in my opinion, is to form a special committee for international participation, including the Venice Biennale, the Ministry of Culture and the galleries active in Syria, to choose the type and quality of artists”, a- he declared.

Until then, however, it appears Syria’s representation at the Venice Biennale will struggle to fully and accurately reflect the country’s rich cultural heritage or its contemporary art scene, which continues to thrive despite the country’s current challenges.

Darcy J. Skinner