What support do Syrian artists have?
A critical review of the support that Syrian artists receive from European structures was the subject of a report published in 2014 on the website "Preparatory Action, Culture in EU External Relations"', an initiative funded by the European Union.
Syrian artists were among the first to respond to the tragic events that are destroying their country. Many of them protested along with the demonstrators, and a great number faced imprisonment, torture and even death.
To support these artists, international organisations immediately set up subsidies and grants, and invited those who can go out to perform in group exhibitions, seminars or festivals.
A critical review of the impact of EU support to Syrian artists is the subject of a report entitled Syria Context Note written by Greta Galeazzi and published in 2014 on the website Preparatory Action, Culture in EU External Relations, an initiative funded by the European Union.
In her report, Greta Galeazzi gives a general description of the orientation of the support provided to artists in the form of an invitation to participate in international exchanges, festivals and exhibitions; or in the form of production grants. Subsidies are also awarded to emerging structures in the field of digital journalism, research on human rights and cultural policy.
Greta Galeazzi observes the change in the role that art and culture play, which have become tools for opposition and political protest, and notes that the emergence of new creative activists who use digital photography, street art and graffiti to denounce and report the conflict has profoundly changed the Syrian art scene.
Inside Syria, the artists working for democratic change have benefitted from the support of foreign cultural centres before. But the closing down of these centres and the censorship of the regime eventually put an end to these initiatives. Similarly, the exchange between artists in Syria and those who already left the country is becoming increasingly scarce following the mobility restrictions imposed on Syrians.
The extent of the misery in refugee camps engendered a sense of guilt amongst the Syrian intellectuals who started organising workshops in creative writing, artistic expression and drama for refugee children and women in Lebanon and Jordan.
In the conclusion of her report, Greta Galeazzi focuses on the difficult life of Syrian artists. Those who remained in the country are unable to work and those who left live in poverty and have no official documents.
She also shows that the support of international structures has always been on a temporary basis and with small contributions, and often it depended on the individual ability of the artists to create relationships with other countries. She therefore suggests the setting up of a more structured support on a long-term basis, and funding that is known in advance, which is more relevant to help Syrian artists. She also proposes that support programmes are created on the basis of an analysis of the necessities and with the aim of strengthening capacity.
This very fair conclusion of the report reflects the opinion of many Syrian artists, even those who have benefitted from European funding. Khaled Dawa, a Syrian sculptor had to leave Syria after having endured imprisonment and torture. His sculptures are inspired by his personal experience: mutilated bodies eroded inside, or lethargic characters that represent power. Khaled complains of lack of support. It is true that he received a small grant from the British Council, but it was not enough to cast his bronze statues. He also says that the complicated application file for the calls for projects deters many artists who are not familiar with the mechanisms, and deprives them of these opportunities.
Liwaa Yazgi filmed a documentary about abandoned houses in Syria. "Haunted" was screened at several international festivals and received a special mention from the jury at the festival Fid Marseille. Yazgi was supported by the Heinrich Böll foundation for the making of her film. She also received a mobility grant from the Roberto Cimetta Fund and funding from the British Council for the translation of a play by Edward Bond from English to Arabic.
Despite her privileged position Liwaa regrets that many Syrian artists are forced, under pressure, to waste their energies in obtaining subsidies instead of concentrating on their purely aesthetic issues and priorities. Syrian art will eventually become exclusively an art of the crisis, she says. She also finds that the support granted by the European institutions is generally given to individual artists, but it would be better to help create permanent institutions. She would like to see the involvement of new intermediate structures on a regional level, because those that exist tend to favour the same entities and the same artists.
Alma Salem, MENA Regional Arts Programmes Manager at the British Council does not agree with this idea since she believes that in almost all support structures, either direct or intermediary, there are several assessors from different countries; and that calls for projects are launched via social media that are open to everyone. Today, there is a change in the orientation of the support that favours independent emerging organisations rather than individuals. It was the contrary at the beginning of the conflict because the donors were confused. In the upheaval and under pressure, they did not know what mechanism to adopt after the closing down of the foreign cultural centres in Syria. Alma Salem also stresses that the discontinuation of operation of these centres has deprived artists in Syria of any support, which is unfortunate.
Hanan Kassab Hassan
Content produced in collaboration with Babelmed