By Julia Purdy
RUTLAND—Americans who took ancient history in school probably remember learning about the Valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, or the Fertile Crescent, often called the cradle of civilization. Literature scholars probably have read the Gilgamesh Epic. That is Syria—also the ancient land of Ishtar, the Great Goddess; Zenobia, the legendary warrior queen of Palmyra; and Sufi dervishes. Both Palmyra and Damascus—the oldest capital city in the world—have been held up as marvels of ancient architecture, adorned with rich mosaics. Today, Syria is a modern country that achieved independence from French colonial rule in 1946, setting it on a 20th-century course.
Castleton Gallery Annex in downtown Rutland is displaying the work of 12 contemporary Syrian artists through January. The artists live either in Syria or elsewhere abroad, especially France and Germany, and many were trained either in Damascus or in Italy.
In late spring 2016 Mayor Chris Louras approached retired Castleton art professor Bill Ramage to mount an exhibit of Syrian art as a way to provide a broader perception of Rutland’s new Syrian neighbors.
Ramage made contact with the artists by searching for them online and sending them emails. He was put in contact with Khaled Youssef, a physician by profession but an active member of the farflung Syrian art community. “Every one of the participating artists thanked me profusely for organizing this effort to help Syrians,” Ramage said, and some of them addressed him as “dear William,” “brother Bill,” or “dear friend.” They exchanged hundreds of emails over a three or four month period to organize the show and arranged for Khaled Youssef to visit Rutland.
The intention was to ship the original artworks to Castleton via Fedex, but Ramage could not find a Fedex office in the Northeast that accepts shipments from the Middle East.
An innovative solution was to transmit the images as digital files. Ramage arranged for Awesome Graphics in Rutland to receive electronic submissions from the participating artists. Due to the large sizes and high resolution required, most were sent by digital transfer directly to Awesome’s website, explained Mike Napolitano at Awesome Graphics. They were then produced as giclée prints on large-format printing equipment that reproduces color and detail in high fidelity. Giclée is also archival: it doesn’t fade and is guaranteed for 100 years.
Napolitano said he felt “honored to be involved.” It was also a “big thing” for the artists, who, though being adept in computer graphics, had never had their work handled this way. “When Bill came up with this idea, I loved the idea, we were all over it.” Napolitano added that he believed the project is not only unique in Vermont in the use of digital technology to overcome the special circumstances but also unique in his experience for its use of art “to educate and abate people’s fears.”
The result is an arresting collection of highly personalized views of not only the destruction in Syria and the human plight, but of the Syrians’ love of their culture and a celebration of the human spirit. The intention was not to make overt political statements but to give witness to the emotional impact of the destruction of the Syrian homeland, using literal, symbolic and satirical imagery. Some depictions are conceptual, others are sensual, but each asks the viewer to put him- or herself in the shoes of those managing to live through the catastrophe.
These Syrian artists see artistic expression as “our real chance to remain human,” according to the Facebook page, “Syria Art-Syrian Artists.” Whether the images reflect outrage, grief or a celebration of culture and life, each artist is committed to pushing the boundaries of the permissible after centuries of censorship under Ottoman rule, ending only after the first world war. Moving beyond classical realism borrowed from the European tradition, this generation embraces “the Modern” and sees itself as “painting the soul” with unfettered candor, thought-provoking juxtapositions and avant-garde, often computer-generated, techniques.
What impresses Ramage is the variety of content—he is “fascinated with all the different responses to the tragedy,” he said.
Not all images depict the ravages of war—some offer cheeky social commentary, such as the cartoonish “Cyberbullying” by Julie Nakazi, showing Christ crucified on the cross of a giant Facebook f. Khaled Youssef photographs iridescent giant bubbles in settings with architecture and children all over the world to evoke “the power of reminiscence.” Aykham Jabr uses garish photomontage powerfully to jar the viewer’s complacent expectations and prompt uncomfortable associations, as in showing a mother and two children in Western clothing walking toward the town over which looms a colossal T. rex backed by a military bomber, dropping its payload.
The preoccupation with the future of the children is hauntingly depicted in Amr Fahed’s “Angel from the Refugee Camps,” a little girl standing in a golden halo, looking solemnly but trustingly into the viewer’s eyes.
Architects by training, Humam Alsalim and Rami Bakhos adapted photographs of gutted buildings in scenes familiar from wartime photography but ironically titled “Cultural Beheading.”
No one has expressed any animosity toward the exhibit, said Sarah Karczmarczyk, director of Castleton University galleries. “Rubble is jarring in any format,” she said, adding that the show provides “a good example of Syrian culture that we’re not getting.” People “love the show” but they are also saddened, she commented.
Justin Beaudin, Class of ’17, a work-study student who tends the gallery and is majoring in graphic design, commented that people seem “kind of surprised—it catches them off guard a lot.” He said that people are very quiet as they browse the collection, but each piece prompts a lot of discussion when they come in pairs or groups. He has had brief conversations with viewers about how the images express “inequality” in places like Syria, “some of the ironies of everyday.”
Khaled Youssef was invited to visit Rutland in early September 2016 and was scheduled to give lectures at Castleton University, the Paramount Theatre, and the Rutland library as well as visiting selected public schools. Although he had already visited the U.S. in the past for medical conferences and art exhibitions and has dual French-Syrian citizenship, his visa to enter the U.S. was denied at the last minute. The opening of the exhibit went forward on schedule in August, with Youssef participating via Skype.
Youssef has provided the English text of his lectures, which Castleton has republished as “Syrian Contemporary Art: 70 years of Evolution” and “The Revolution of Roses: Female Syrian Artists.” He also wrote a long letter expressing his disappointment at not being able to make the trip and thanking Castleton and the City of Rutland for arranging the program of Syrian culture.
In the letter he expressed the guiding principle of the contemporary Syrian artist community: that “identity does not lay in birth or blood, but is a continuous evolution built with experiences during the whole life. … Borders exist in the administrative institutions, and sometimes in the head of people as imaginary lines, but Art is like the sun, it has no borders, all horizons are open for it.” The letter is posted on the inside door of the Castleton Gallery Annex.
The Castleton Gallery Annex at 104 Merchants Row in downtown Rutland is open noon-6 p.m., Thursday-Saturday. After the Gallery Annex closes in January, parts of the exhibit will travel to Rutland City Hall, ArtisTree in Pomfret, and the Flynn Dog Gallery in Burlington. Additional pieces are now on display at the Rutland Free Public Library.
Photo by Julia Purdy
Amr Fahed – “Angel of the Refugee Camps”