The first time I saw one of Kaya Mar’s paintings was at the March for Europe a week after the Brexit vote. I took a picture of him, as did many of the people he walked past: a small man with a neat moustache carrying a peculiar painting, apparently original, of a cart being pulled by a blindfolded donkey towards the edge of the white cliffs of Dover, driven by caricatures of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, with tiny naked bodies and beatific faces.
I saw him again at the anti-Trump rally on Whitehall at the end of January, holding aloft a similarly distinctive canvas of the shrunken president wrapped in a soiled American flag, his scowling expression rendered with a precision that made him a much more sympathetic figure than the florid face on everybody else’s placards.
A few weeks ago I went to see him at his house in Ealing. A professional portraitist, Mar was encouraged to ‘try political painting’ by Tony Benn, who sat for him in 2010. His first attempt depicts David Cameron on the toilet, wearing a crown, while Nick Clegg, dressed as a jester, attends on him as Groom of the Stool. Since then Mar has created almost 200 paintings in his spare time – he regards this work as a hobby, and makes no money from it. Half, he told me, are in ‘official buildings’. The rest are stacked up in his garden shed, where I flicked through a surreal highlights reel of the last decade of British politics – George Osborne’s budgets, the Leveson Inquiry, Scottish independence – interspersed with a few international subjects: Putin, Netanyahu, Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe, Recep Erdoğan as ‘the Turkish Sun King’ and ‘the Ottoman Sultan’ (Mar was born in Turkey).
He paints quickly: a widely circulated picture of Theresa May drowning in a Brexit mire took just an hour and a half to paint. On easels in his living room studio, the works in progress included Angela Merkel losing a climbing contest to Martin Schulz, because of the weight of her refugee policy; Farage, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski goose-stepping in a beer hall beneath a portrait of Trump; Philip Hammond waving his budget box and sinking into a sea full of underwater mines. When I asked him, last week, if he’d be going to Saturday’s Unite for Europe march, he said yes, and then a couple of days later sent me a scan of his picture for the occasion: of a long-legged Theresa May striding towards the familiar cliff (Mar enthusiastically recycles tropes), her right thigh culminating in the face of Boris Johnson, his hair the hem of her lemon-yellow dress.
The trick, he explained, is to ‘get your disappointment, anger, rage onto the canvas’ with a quick and simple story. ‘Everybody has to recognise what I’m trying to say, not just in England, all over the world … When you try to force meaning, you lose the plot. When you are tribal you censor yourself, and you won’t produce something good.’
Mar sees himself as a ‘cable between public feeling and the canvas’. Less in step with popular opinion is his work’s sympathy for politicians as people – even Trump – evident in the humane, luminous way he paints their faces. He aims to be ‘brutal but not nasty, to attack power not the person’, so strips them of their clothes, leaving them ridiculed but not ‘injured’.
‘As I get older,’ he said, ‘I’m neither left nor right because the more you know, the more you’re disappointed by both.’ While his background and worldview are clearly rooted in the social democratic left, his style has more in common with the satirical traditions of the Spectator or Private Eye. His Tory subjects are, apparently, more gracious than their Labour counterparts in getting the joke. Diane Abbot once called a painting of Merkel in her underwear sexist, so Mar painted Abbott naked in bed with Jeremy Corbyn and his cat, which is reading Das Kapital. Another picture shows a woman who has just given birth recoiling in horror as she’s presented with ‘Labour’s unwanted child’, which has Corbyn’s face, a hammer-and-sickle on its forehead, and a halo.
Mar finds out that rallies are taking place because photo agencies call to ask if they can stage some shots with him and his paintings: ‘Normally they give me two days’ notice, because they like to have me there. I have every one of my pictures on Getty.’ This isn’t a sham; it’s a strategy. Protests ‘haven’t changed anything in all the time I’ve lived here’, Mar said. ‘Politicians love them because they are a valve. But to have your voice heard, you need television and print media.’ And Mar has infiltrated those more effectively than any other satirist I can think of, by feeding the agencies that fuel so much of the media’s output. He can paint whatever he likes, however weird or angry, and Alamy and Shutterstock, the PA and the AP, will guarantee it gets the national platform denied to the protesters he stands alongside.
“The Butcher” by CiCi Segura Gonzalez | Courtesy of the artist
As the election results started pouring in on Nov. 8, 2016, Chicano artist Eric Almanza sat in “utter disbelief,” pondering his next move. He wondered what Donald Trump’s win would mean to a Mexican-American community demonized during the presidential campaign as criminals and rapists. And he worried about how he would break the news to his four-year-old daughter, so excited about the prospect of a female president.
“I thought to myself, ‘What can I do? As an artist here in Los Angeles, father of two, educator, what can I do to bring about some sort of change or awareness?” Almanza said.
That New Year’s Eve, instead of a regular resolution, the artist decided to make a “pledge of resistance,” vowing to “resist Donald Trump and everything his administration stood for.” “My voice is best expressed through a paintbrush and pigment,” said Almanza, who teaches fine art at Humanities and Arts Academy of Los Angeles. “So I feel as an artist that it is my responsibility, that I have to use that gift that I have to express myself.”
“In Search of a New Home” by Eric Almanza is featured in the exhibitions “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles, and “Art as Resistance: Paintings in Protest of a Trump Presidency” at Avenue 50 Studio in Los Angeles. | Courtesy of the artist
Two recent group shows in Southern California – both showcasing Latino artists – explore the idea of art as a form of political protest, some 50 years after the start of the Chicano art movement.
Los Angeles artist Sergio Teran, who has works in both shows, said he’s reached the point where he cannot remain silent about Trump and his policies. “I can’t be quiet about (it). … It feels so much more vital that I act,” he said. “I have to say something. I have to make work about this (subject). I have to post about it. I have to be verbal about it.”
As a Mexican-American man with a Thai wife and a multiracial son, Teran describes himself as “a person who has sat between cultures.” “My most immediate voice would be that of my environment, which is Los Angeles,” he explained, meaning both the physical space of the city — “nature and pavement colliding together” under blue skies — and the people who inhabit it.
“Saul as Canek” by Sergio Teran is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
His multi-layered portraits often depict friends, family members and fellow artists, including those he’s encountered as a fine arts instructor at Cerritos College in Norwalk.
Teran’s painting “Saul as Canek” depicts a former student taking a break on a bench. Covered in colorful tattoos — like the espresso maker beside him, they represent cross-cultural pollination — Saul wears a red-and-gold mask associated with Mexican luchador Felipe Estrada, known in professional wrestling circles as El Canek.
Mexican wrestling masks are a motif rooted in Teran’s family history. One uncle was known as Jack the Ripper on the Los Angeles circuit, while another wrestled as the Blue Scorpion in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Masks are “all about identity for me,” Teran explained, representing “a heightening, a strengthening … an empowerment …”
“Los Olvidados” by Sergio Teran is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
Teran’s painting “Along the Wall” also features a masked man – his face draped in a red bandana reminiscent of those worn by field workers and protest marchers. Instead of a harvest knife, he holds a can of spray paint.
Teran said the piece highlights the importance of speaking out. Although he doesn’t consider himself a “political artist,” “Being an artist of color and … representing people of color as a narrative within the work, I think, is inherently political,” Teran acknowledged.
As an Oxnard-based photographer, Antonio Arredondo Juarez similarly seeks to give voice to the voiceless. His “Cajas de Cartón” series, part of “E Pluribus Unum,” features black-and-white portraits of migrant farm workers mounted on the same waxed cardboard boxes they use to transport produce. (“I wanted to pay homage to the farm workers … to bring them closer to the things they touch and interact with on a daily basis,” he explained.)
“I’ve always had a strong connection with people that are on the outskirts of society,” Juarez said. “Although I’ve never worked in the fields, I know what it’s like to come into this country and be marginalized … I know the struggle of not belonging somewhere of not being wanted.”
“The Strength of Resilience” by Antonio Arredondo Juarez is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Juarez was 1 ½ when he immigrated to the United States with his parents. He spent the first years of his life undocumented — living in constant fear of being captured by “la migra” in an immigration raid — before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2003.
Now he uses photography to educate art lovers about the immigrant experience. “Personally, my obligation is to share these photographs as much as possible in order to create a dialog (and) also to make a statement” about our shared humanity, Juarez said, a mission that’s taken on a fresh sense of urgency in a charged political climate.
With “Cajas de Cartón,” “My goal is to put viewers face-to-face, in a sense” with people they might never encounter in real life, he explained, namely the field workers who pick and package their fruits and vegetables. “If they can make that connection, it’s one step closer for them (to realize) ‘Hey … They’re not so different from me.’”
“All they want is to be treated fairly,” Juarez said of the workers. “All they want is a chance.”
“Borderline” by Maria Adela Diaz is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
“Connecting with people on an emotional level” is also the goal of Guatemalan-born performance artist Maria Adela Diaz, whose video projects appear in “E Pluribus Unum.”
Diaz moved to the United States in 2001 with her daughter, then 3. “Coming here for me was starting over again,” said Diaz, who lives in Los Angeles. “Even though I was already a designer in my own country, even though I was already a creative director in my own country, I … really (had) to start from scratch.”
Diaz speaks directly to the immigrant experience in her performance piece “La Carga,” which finds the artist walking down a dirt road with her daughter, naked, in her arms. “It talks about the solitude that you experience when you are in a different country with a lot of responsibilities in your hands,” including motherhood, Diaz explained.
As her work’s primary protagonist, Diaz often uses her own body “as a canvas to express all these issues in the world” — whether that means bobbing in the ocean in a wooden box, as she does in “Borderline,” or floating down the Drava River in Croatia in a boat, as in “In Transit.” “It’s like doing therapy for a traumatic situation,” she explained.
“Caution” by Maria Adela Diaz is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
Diaz’s piece “Caution” is one of two works in “E Pluribus Unum” inspired by the yellow road signs — featuring the stark silhouettes of a fleeing family – seen on the sides of San Diego freeways near the border between the United States and Mexico. The other belongs to Almanza, who remembers seeing those signs as a kid and wondering why people would risk their lives by running onto the road.
“As a child, you can’t comprehend” such a desperate bid for freedom, said Almanza, who was born in the United States. “As you get older, you realize the will to live and to better yourself is stronger than (your) fear.” In his painting “In Search of a New Home,” a man, woman and boy approach the border with a helicopter hovering overhead — although it’s unclear whether they’re entering the United States or leaving it.
Although Almanza has explored the border wall in his art since 2012, “The issue got thrown to the forefront of the consciousness of this country when Donald Trump decided to run,” he said. “I told myself, ‘My work needs to be focused solely on the border and these immigration issues because … I feel that my voice and my message can be impactful more now than ever.’”
“With This Fire, A Rebellion Will Rise” by Eric Almanza is featured in the exhibition “Art as Resistance: Paintings in Protest of a Trump Presidency” at Avenue 50 Studio in Los Angeles. | Courtesy of the artist
Although some of Almanza’s paintings are bold in their condemnation of the border wall — witness the message (“F— Your Wall”) scrawled across a burning fence in his painting “With This Fire, A Rebellion Will Rise” – others send a more subtle message.
“Those Things That Divide Us” portrays a seemingly pastoral scene: a family frolics on the beach in the glow of a gorgeous sunset. “And then you have this ugly wall protruding that kind of ruins the whole thing,” he said.
“The Great Wall of USA” highlights the same stark division, contrasting the bustling highway on one side of the border wall with the wilderness on the other. “It always struck me as odd. … There (are) two worlds placed right next to each other that don’t quite fit with each other,” Almanza said. “What led them to being so different? Because the land is the same. The plants that grow from the dirt are the same. Why has mankind grown so different depending on what side of that wall you’re on?”
“The Great Wall of USA” by Eric Almanza is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
Almanza worries that Trump’s policies will continue to alienate Americans from the rest of the world. “We’re metaphorically isolating ourselves and now he wants to physically isolate (us) by building a wall,” the artist said.
That’s why it’s so vital that creators embrace “the raw power of art to convey dissent and resistance,” he said.
Diaz, for one, feels energized. “I don’t like Trump, obviously, but I’m excited about the years to come,” she said. “For me, all of this is like material for work. Even if (the inspiration) comes from the negative, you can still twist it around and leave positive messages through art.”
“Ignacia” by Antonio Arredondo Juarez is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
“Those Things That Divide Us” by Eric Almanza is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
“Dos Hermanas” by Sergio Teran is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
“In Transit” by Maria Adela Diaz is featured in the exhibition “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. | Courtesy of the artist
Håkon Berge “bare en stillhet som kaster meg ut i universet av ensomhet (WP)” Oslo Sinfonietta & Oslo Domkor
Performed on 16 September 2017
Vivianne Sydnes – conductor
Isa Katharina Gericke – soloist
Kai Remlov – actor
The title of Håkon Berge’s 2006 work translates as just a silence that casts me out into the universe of solitude. Designated as a Requiem by its creator, the piece is a moving paean to the life of 13 years old Palestinian Iman Darweesh al Hams, who was shot multiple times in cold bood by an Israeli army officer in 2004. The controversial damages and libel case went on to be a major sensation in Israel, with the officer eventually acquitted of any wrongdoing. Berge’s moving piece focuses on the human tragedy at the heart of it all – the unjust and senseless death of an innocent child unlucky enough to be caught in the thick of military action on the Gaza Strip. Using tape recordings of her father’s testimony about his daughter, it is an emotional commemoration of one ordinary life – and the lives around her – transformed by the unending Arab-Israeli conflict.
In collaboration with Oslo Sinfonietta and Oslo Domkor.
This concert forms part of the 100 year celebration of the NKF (the Norwegian Society of Composers).
African-American artists are hot right now, with more and more of them exhibiting in big Chelsea galleries, as well as in major museums like MoMA, the Whitney and The Met. Of course, in an ideal universe, this wouldn’t have to be singled out, and African-American artists would simply be artists, undifferentiated from their peers. But in America, everything is entangled in race, even in a liberal art world that remains overwhelmingly white, so something like the ever-rising profile of African-American artists was going to get noticed. Add the fact that current events—ranging from the rise of the Black Live Matter movement (which has attracted the attention of African-American hip-hop artists like A$AP Rocky as well as visual artists) to the election of Donald Trump—are raising the stakes for artists of color, even those whose work doesn’t seem especially political. For much of the past decade or so, the assumption has been that African-American artist have been working in “post-black” cultural environment. Whether that remains the case is unclear, but some clues to what the future holds might be found in work of these six young African-American artists worth watching right now.
Having already made a splash at venues like the Whitney and Art Basel, Chicago artist Nina Chanel Abney’s figurative paintings are big on size, impact and ambition. Each of her canvases is a veritable seven-layer dip of colors, symbols, abstract imagery, narratives, ideas, stylistic borrowings and art-historical references. They offer piquant commentaries on race, sex, pop culture, religion and politics delivered with potent visual nods to Matisse, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
Nina Chanel Abney, Who, 2015
Courtesy the artist
For a 2013 show at the Brooklyn Museum, Chicago-native-turned-Brooklyn-artist Caitlin Cherry went medieval on everyone’s asses with a mixed media installation featuring paintings tied to catapults, as if they were about to be hurled over a castle wall. Similarly, another work—a large triptych depicting the U.S. Capitol Building—is paired with a sculpture of a cannon made with PVC pipe. Cherry’s canvases are painted in a figurative Expressionist style and are often populated by cartoonish characters, but she also works in other mediums: One project involves the artist’s version of the Blackwater-style military contracting firm—a “painting security system” complete with slick, promotional video. Cherry’s work is essentially a 21st-century version the history paintings that extolled the high and mighty; in Cherry’s hands they become critical commentaries on the connection between power and art.
Caitlin Cherry, United States Capitol Building, 2016
Photograph: Courtesy Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
Mack, a New York artist who hails from Maryland, “paints” with pieces of found fabric that often take on three dimensional form. Whether they’re hung on the wall, suspended from the ceiling or left freestanding, Mack’s works have an architectural presence and provisional aspect that sometimes suggest rag-tag tents in a homeless encampment. In many respects Mack evokes marginalized people in today society, though with a hint, perhaps, of better things to come. “I empathize with the fragment,” he says. “Its potentiality is so great, so very urgent.”
Eric Mack, In Definitely Felt, 2016
Photograph: Courtesy the artist
Born in Philadelphia, this New York artist paints portraits, interiors and still lives with a loose style limned in a subdued palette that gives her work an introspective air. Packer portrait subjects are often friends, though the artist eschews the usual trope of trying to reveal the sitter’s personality or psychology; instead, they’re pictured with their gaze averted, as if they were disinterested in connecting with the viewer. That sense of distance, combined with the fact that Packer’s results seem more like sketches than completed canvases, creates the impression that each of her subjects is a work-in-progress—as all of us bound to that unfinished bit of business known as the human condition inevitably are. Packer finds this situation sad, but also sees a sublime transitional beauty in it.
Jennifer Packer, Eric (II), 2013
Courtesy the artist
Adam Pendleton works in a diverse range of mediums, including performance, film, painting, ceramics and silkscreen. But what unites his efforts is his fascination with texts, especially those written in conjunction with such historical 20th-century developments as the prewar avant-garde, the Civil Rights Movement, Minimalism and Conceptualism. He describes his efforts as “black Dada,” ascribing subversive motives to works that are refined if brooding. A good example is a recent painting series called Untitled (A Victim of American Democracy) that uses collage-like techniques to create abstractions out of the titular phrase, which is borrowed from Malcolm X’s 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”
Adam Pendleton, installation view of “Midnight in America,” 2016
Courtesy the artist
Tschabalala Self combines collage (using patterned fabrics) and paint to explore the intersection of feminine beauty, sexual fantasy and evolving concepts of blackness. In the process, she creates vivid narrative canvases imbued with a Surreal panache and a folk-art charm.
Tschabalala Self, untitled, 2016
Dan Bradica; courtesy the artist
Activism has become an increasingly potent form of protest against oppression in Southeast Asia. The onset of globalization in the 1990s brought about a new social landscape that saw the rise of the middle class and urbanization, while simultaneously creating a new population of deprived urban poor. This disparity between the well-off and the dispossessed gave impetus to artists like Agus Suwage from Indonesia to challenge the existing conditions. Alongside fellow artists such as FX Harsono and Henri Dono, Suwage’s practice has become what the historian Iola Lenzi refers to as the “vehicle of popular empowerment.”
Suwage’s third solo exhibition, Room of Mine at the Tyler Rollins Gallery, is comprised of watercolor paintings and papier-mâché sculptures, and it continues the artist’s role as an agent of social change. Yet his protest against the status quo is accompanied by his own personal investigation of identity and self. Ever since a democratic government replaced Suharto’s military dictatorship in 1998, the tenuous condition of plurality in Indonesia’s vast territory of multiple ethnicities and the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism has resulted in work that, for Suwage, is as introspective as it is a commentary on the social conditions of his country. For instance, in “Room of Mine” (2016), a series of portraits explore Suwage’s relationship with animals. Here a number of watercolor paintings of animal heads mounted on human bodies surround a large papier-mâché sculpture of a buck with dentures. Referencing the artist’s reverence for animals and the raw, untainted purity of their actions, the images project his longing for a world in which some sense of social order and peace prevails.
However, Suwage’s use of humor through the inclusion of masks injects an element of levity in his works that undercuts the actions of fanaticism. In “No Evil and Co. II – After Soedjojono” (2016), three self-portraits with monkey masks imitate the three Chinese monkeys that neither see, hear, nor speak evil. In the far background, the rugged landscape painted with different shades of beige tobacco juice recreates the style of the Indonesian modernist Soedjojono, while a bomb appears to explode behind the monkey man covering his eyes. Helplessness, fear, ridicule, and strength are intertwined through this humorous but unnerving painting that both showcases and undermines the severity of terrorism in Indonesia. Similarly, “Icono Fascismo II – After Wakidi” (2016), three masked self-portraits that resemble members of the Ku Klux Klan hold an accordion, a microphone, and a human skull while bombs detonate in the background. Appearing like puppets on a stage, these figures representing fundamentalists can be seen as buffoons as well as prototypes of demagogues who manipulate and control.
While Suwage’s papier-mâché sculpture “Dogma Bertumpuk” (2016) references the dogmatic misrepresentation of Indonesian history, paintings like “Fragmen Tempat Tidur” (2016), which is set in the intimacy of Suwage’s bedroom, alludes to his inner conflicts regarding sexual expression through words like “lust,” “decadent,” and “Roman Picisan” — a movie about star-crossed lovers in Indonesia. Complex issues of sexuality might also have inspired the papier-mâché sculpture “Kama Sutra II” (2016), which is ostensibly based on an image of Bill and Hillary Clinton, fitted here with traditional Hindu-Javanese masks.
Suwage’s conversion to Islam and his interfaith marriage make him an ideal proponent for plurality. His appeal for mutual respect and tolerance is expressed through his installation “Song without Sound” (2016), which is made of numerous recycled glass bottles containing inkjet prints of multicolored human ears that are arranged in the form of the musical score for the Indonesian national anthem. The song’s motto, “unity in diversity,” conveys the artist’s advocacy for a society that runs counter to the current far-right politics that have come to the fore the world over. Unlike FX Harsono’s more strident form of activism, Suwage’s deeply personal self-portraits, combining personal conflicts with larger concerns, never stop questioning and working to upend oppression.
Room of Mine continues at the Tyler Rollins Gallery (529 West 20th Street, 10W, Chelsea) through April 1.
Collage by Lori Menna. All images provided by the creators
As the events at the Standing Rock pipeline protest unfold, artists are banding together under the hashtag #NoDAPLartmovement to share messages of solidarity, support, and resistance.
The Dakota Access Pipeline protest, and in turn the Water Is Life movement (click to keep up with the #standwithStandingRock and #waterislife hashtags), are being fought by a diaspora. Water is everywhere, and so are the people affected by it. Though the Standing Rock encampment is growing, most of us aren’t there—but many people see this as a personal battle, regardless of where you’re located.
The conflict is currently centered around the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, where protesters are in direct and increasingly violent confrontations with militarized police, resulting in widespread injuries to protesters.
Digital drawing by Kenzie Townsend
But before #NoDAPL, there was Flint’s water crisis; and pipeline leaks and explosions throughout the United States; and droughts; and oil spills in the ocean; and the acidification of the seas; and the Great Pacific garbage patch; and even before that, massive dams changing the courses of most of the world’s waterways. Marshall McLuhan once wrote: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” The emergence of the #NoDAPL art movement is a message. So what are the artists trying to tell us?
Lori Menna created her collage to support the movement’s environmental message, but also to express solidarity with the Lakota people. “I know that American Indians know our Mother Earth more than anyone. I have been sitting in Lakota Temezcal ceremonies for years. Their beliefs, their chants, their connectedness is powerful and meaningful and I respect their culture immensely.”
“Because I’m Native I looked hard at this #NoDAPL,” says digital artist Kenzie Townsend. “I think, people see what they want. I try to stick to the truth of the moment. See what that looks like until the world reveals itself.” He captioned the above drawing: “A one gallon a day oil leak on the Dakota pipeline would contaminate a million gallons of drinkable water.”
I Will Fight No More Forever, acrylic on canvas by Hailey Gaiser
Hailey Gaiser takes a darker and more symbolic view. Her piece features Chief Joseph, a reference to the trails of the Nez Perce. “Their home was stripped from them violently by a power with more greed and more guns,” she says. “It is horrifying to me that this story is re-playing out at Standing Rock, especially when the country is turning in on itself and the pot is boiling over.”
Much of the #NoDAPL art takes on the aesthetics of propaganda: strong visual themes, aggressive imagery, bold designs and slogans. It’s all but unavoidable for work that surrounds a massive cultural protest—it’s art that revolves around themes of power.
Ultimately, though, these powerful works are created by people who feel largely powerless. “I can’t comprehend how this can even be happening,” says artist Aubree S. “How is money more valuable than life? I wish I could be there to stand with them but as a single mom I can’t afford to fly out to North Dakota from California. Instead I support the people of Standing Rock the only way I know how, through art.” In this battle, many of us feel alone or disconnected from the action. Movements like this create strength through collaboration.
“Little warrior” sketch by Aubree S.
Share your own work using the #NoDAPLartmovement tag, and click here to learn more about how you can support Standing Rock right now.
Since Syria has been plagued by conflict and violence, many of the country’s artists have embraced exile and moved to safer shores. Nonetheless, this artistic diaspora remains focused on exploring their native country’s culture and history, examining the destruction caused by war. Whether referencing personal or collective memories, cultural and religious traditions or other psychological and personal experiences, the artists in this list are some of the foremost Syrian practitioners today.
Khaled Takreti (b. 1964, Beirut) studied Architecture and Design at Damascus University and worked at the National Museum in Damascus before moving to New York for two years (1995-1997) and then to Paris in 2006. His work is part of important private and institutional collections, such as those of MATHAF, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Doha, the Syrian National Museum and the Jordan National Gallery of Fine Art. He has exhibited extensively with Ayyam Gallery in Dubai (2012 and 2010), Beirut (2010) and Damascus (2009). His work has also been shown at Mathaf and the Alexandria Biennale, among other institutions.
A range of themes, deeply rooted in his cultural and historical Syrian heritage, provide the source of inspiration for Takreti’s canvases. Concepts he tackles include the recent conflicts that have plagued Syria and their repercussions on the population, the lives of women in Syria, questions of identity, memory and displacement, and memories from his childhood days in Damascus. The artist also combines references to both Western and Middle Eastern cultural views, a reflection of his multicultural upbringing and life. He advocates freedom of expression and creativity, which is paramount in his artistic practice: ‘Freedom is when someone can express their ideas and choices without fear and embarrassment.’
During his time in New York, Takreti was influenced by Pop Art, and works such as ‘La Vie en Rose’ (2008) and ‘La Chasse au Dinosaure’ (2009), shown at Ayyam Gallery Dubai (2010) clearly show such inspiration. An important turn in his practice comes with his most recent and first solo exhibition at Ayyam in London, Complete Freedom. The artist abandons his vibrantly colourful compositions in favour of subtle yet poignantly strong black outlines and silhouettes on raw canvas that use a heightened graphic style.
Ammar Al-Beik (b. 1972, Damascus) is a self-taught artist, filmmaker and photographer. His work has been exhibited and screened internationally, including at Sao Paulo International Film Festival, Edinburgh Documentary Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival. Al-Beik was the recipient of awards such as Jury Prize Winner at the Busan International Short Film Festival, Korea (2012) and Golden Award at the Rotterdam 7th Arab Film Festival, Holland (2007), among others. In 2006, he was the first Syrian filmmaker to win the award for best documentary at the Venice International Film Festival, with his work I Am the One Who Brings Flowers to her Grave. The film is a poetic and intimate account of the lives and memories of two people who considered art to be a way of life. Al-Beik’s work is renowned for his experimental nature, while at the same time it captures the essence of life in a cinematic, unconventional style often charged with political references. According to the artist, art must not only imitate, but capture life. His 2011 The Sun’s Incubator, presented at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, explored the events of the Arab Spring.
His photographic artworks also feature a cinematic quality and function as visual storytelling, presented in large-format Ultra-chrome prints with contrasting plays of light and shadow, traditional and modern themes. For example, in ‘La Strada’ from The Lost Images 2 series, he presents a grainy aged-looking portrait of a mother with a child, their faces barely recognisable, surrounded by colourful negatives of ancient sculptural relics.
In his 2012 solo show at Ayyam’s Al Quoz gallery in Dubai, entitled Boya Boya Boya, Al Beik’s deep reverence for the everyday resilience of human beings in times of suffering is expleted through an exhibition centred around the life of one single individual: Abou Hani, a Syrian shoe shiner living in Lebanon. The exhibition takes a significant turn for the artist, focusing on a more conceptual practice, through what he calls ‘an urgent need to express existence through objects, ideas, images, sounds and space.’
Tammam Azzam (b. 1980, Damascus, Syria) is from the younger generation of Syrian artists and lives in exile in Dubai. He has had various exhibitions with Ayyam Gallery at its different locations, including London (2013), Al Quoz – Dubai (2012, 2009), DIFC Dubai (2011), Beirut and Damascus (2010).
Azzam has come to prominence for his art that address the destruction and suffering of the Syrian populace in the face of the tragedies and devastations caused by conflict, as well as the apathy of the international community. In an interview, Azzam says about his work: ‘I’m an artist that’s doing artwork with a political background because of the situation, because I’m Syrian so I have to be involved in what’s happening in my country.’ He adds that he is not a soldier, he doesn’t care about the regime, nor is he fighting against the regime. ‘I’m fighting to support people so this is the difference for me.’
With digital technology, he has created the series The Syrian Museum, which juxtaposes Western masterpieces by the likes of Goya, Picasso, Da Vinci, with images of contemporary Syria and its desolate, defaced cityscapes. By combining images of some of the greatest achievements of mankind with humanity’s self-inflicted suffering and capacity for destruction, the artist highlights the absurdity of this dualism and the atrocity of war. Early in 2013, one of his works from the series went viral on the internet. Entitled ‘Freedom Graffiti’, the image features Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ overlaid as a mural on a bombed, bullet-torn building in Syria. With this work, the artist tried to send a message hoping for universal love for humanity to prevail and make peace come back to his homeland.
Hrair Sarkissian (b. 1973, Damascus, Syria) is a photographer and has been based in London since 2010. His formative training took place at his father’s photography studio, where he learned to master the art of photography and developed his unique style. Sarkissian has participated in a number of international events, and shown in institutions worldwide, including the Tate Modern in London and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. His work is part of the collections of Tate Modern, Sharjah Art Foundation and the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Modena, Italy. In 2013, he was the first Syrian artist to ever win the Abraaj Group Art Prize in Dubai, for his series of work entitled Background.
Sarkissian’s practice is characterised by an element of search, as well as the dichotomy of visible/invisible. The search relates to answers about his personal memories and history, while the engagement with what is visible and what is not comes as a re-evaluation of larger historical, religious and social narratives. The invisibility versus visibility is evident in his often deserted landscapes and locations, devoid of human presence yet filled with human existence. Mankind’s intervention is, although invisible, tangible through the buildings undergoing construction or the ruined cityscapes, remnants of conflict.
A ghostly element is a constant presence that populates these liminal spaces, where time seems to exist in both a specific frame (that of its historical context) and an indefinite, eternal void, such as in ‘Execution Squares’ and ‘Istory’. In an interview with Paddle8, Sarkissian says: ‘These abandoned sites represent spaces deprived of time, where the time is stopped and we quest for its existence, since its visibility does not reach perception.’ The emptiness portrayed by the artist references this loss of time, which can be related to the consequences of the Syrian conflict, the loss of memories and lives and the processes of diaspora.
Nihad Al Turk (b. 1972, Aleppo, Syria) is a seminal Syrian painter, who currently lives and works in Beirut. He is a self-taught artist and began drawing when he was a child, switching to painting in his teens. In the 1990s, he launched his career in Syria and with the turn of the new millennium he started exhibiting extensively with Ayyam Gallery in Beirut and Damascus, the Armory Show andMark Hachem Gallery in New York and the Latakia Biennale in Syria (2003), where he was awarded the Golden Prize for his work, and the Damascus Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (2009).
Al Turk’s practice is informed by his extensive readings across the fields of literature, philosophy and theory. His works are complex multi-layered compositions that explore the psychology of man. Taking into examination existentialist questions, myths, power struggles, his paintings are rich in symbols woven into intricate narratives. His rich visual imagery ranges from monstrous creatures and mythical demons to still lives and botanical elements that stand for anti-heroes, outcasts and rebels.
Often, his paintings adopt what Ayyam Gallery has called an ‘aesthetic of distortion’, depicting a deformed character, sorrowful and disappointed, or other deformed elements within the composition. Al Turk believes that every man is deformed from the inside and that life is about improving our deformed selves through living by love. The artist also believes that part of this improvement comes from the ability to observe and understand evil: ‘I believe that my task is to observe evil in life. Evil seduces me more. The mythical creature is the result of the contemporary human being. Since human being is viewed as ‘a distorted mass working hard to seek the best’, this is the meaning of finding a clear spark of hope in this creature, which is broken and deformed, but loves life at the end of the day. For example, I love the shape of the hunch, which points to a struggling and a repressed human being.’
Ammar Abd Rabbo (b. 1966, Damascus, Syria) moved with his family to Tripoli, Libya and then to Beirut, Lebanon, at a young age. At the age of 12, he fled Lebanon during the Civil War and settled in France in 1978. A photojournalist by profession, Rabbo worked for media agencies and has published in the Time Magazine, Paris Match, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and Asharq Al Awsat, where he signed more than 60 magazine covers. With a career spanning over 20 years, he has photographed a wide range of subjects, from the war in Iraq, Lebanon and Libya, various heads of state and political leaders, celebrities like Michael Jackson and renowned actors, to events such as the Cannes Film Festival and Paris Fashion Week.
In 2012, Ayyam Gallery Beirut held his first solo exhibition as an artist, entitled Coming Soon and featuring a new series of work that veered away from his photojournalistic objectivity to focus on a more personal and intimate experience. The series portrayed nude pregnant women through artistically captured silhouettes bathed in shadows. The images are charged with references to the woman as a symbol of femininity and sexuality, and the association with ancient goddesses of fertility. By depicting women at their most vulnerable and yet empowered state, Rabbo aimed to ‘encourage the audience to think differently about pregnancy.’
Follow the Leader, his second solo exhibition at Ayyam in Dubai, is a series of 15 portraits of world leaders in their most spontaneous and personal moments. Including shots of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, Syrian President Bashar El Assad and his wife or Lybian leader Muammar Gaddafi, among others, the portraits come as a reminder that political icons are simply human beings like all of us.
Safwan Dahoul (b. 1961, Hama, Syria) is one of the many Syrian artists who left their country and relocated to Dubai. Dahoul attended the Suheil Al Ahdab Center of Plastic Arts and the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus and in 1987 he went to study Mons,Belgium, on a scholarship from the Ministry of Higher Education, where he completed his PhD at the Higher Institute of Plastic Arts in in 1997. Dahoul has exhibited extensively, including at Ayyam Gallery’s various locations, Edge of Arabia, London, the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, and the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris.
Dahoul’s canvases are informed by his personal emotions and life, and particularly by his experience of displacement and diaspora and the conflict in Syria. His evocative paintings all share the title ‘Dream’, as a reference to the dreamlike mental state that characterises his present situation. Partly a tribute to his late wife, who becomes the storyteller in his latest series of work shown in London in 2013, Repetitive Dreams, his compositions feature muted and subtle gradations of black, white and grey. The colour palette symbolises the bleak outlook on Syria’s situation, as well as the plight and pain of the diasporic experience. The compositions examine some of the most intimate moments of the human experience, such as slumber, companionship, solitude and death. The artist weaves a variety of art historical and culturally significant references, from Egyptian perspective to Roman gestures and Arabic calligraphy represented in the geometric forms and the curvatures of the lines.
Diana El Jeiroudi (b. 1977, Damascus, Syria) is an independent filmmaker, documentarist, artist and producer, raised in Syria andIraq. She received a BA in English Literature from Damascus University and worked in marketing and communication until 2002. She co-founded the only independent film production company in Syria today, ProAction Film, for the production of documentaries. She is also co-founder of the DOX BOX International Documentary Film Festival in Syria, which operates in collaboration with the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and the European Documentary Network.
El Jeiroudi came to international prominence with her short film work The Pot (2005), which explores the issues surrounding pregnancy and re-examines pregnancy as a social phenomenon. With a series of conversations and interviews, the short film features young Syrian women sharing their experiences of how pregnancy affected their own and society’s perception of them as individuals. The artist tries to illustrate how the female identity in the Arab region revolves around bringing children to life.
In her first feature documentary Dolls – A woman from Damascus (2007-2008), El Jeiroudi explores the phenomenon of the Fulla Doll, which represents every Arab girl’s dream and is the veiled version of the American Barbie doll. The latter lost its popularity as soon as Fulla entered the market, as its marketing manager says in the documentary: ‘She is Arabic, loving, caring and part of the community that she has been addressed to.’ The motherly figure of Manal is presented in parallel with Fulla. Manal is a young Syrian mother and wife who lives in a traditional social environment with conservative rules for women. El Jeiroudi juxtaposes Manal and the doll as two entities with a lot of common elements: they are wrapped in a scarf, trapped in a plastic box and have to follow others’ expectations. El Jeiroudi attempts to reveal a trend that utilises the commercial appropriation of a female model in order to limit freedom and control the mind of a young generation into accepting a set of officially approved social and religious rules.
Houmam Al Sayed (b. 1981, Mesyaf, Syria) currently lives and works in Beirut. Al Sayed participated in his first painting exhibition in 1998 at Teshrin University in Latakia and has exhibited extensively ever since throughout the Arab world. His works have successfully sold at auction at Sotheby’s Doha and Christie’s Dubai.
Al Sayed works across various media, including painting, drawing and sculpture. He is particularly renowned for his unique painting style and his playful, almost childish portraiture of everyday people inspired by his sculptural background. As critic Edward Shalda says on the artist’s website, ‘Houmam paints unknown people belonging to a known reality.’ Al Sayed’s portraits are an exploration and representation of their personal and psychological state. The unreal characters come to create a parallel reality that carries the ‘weight’ of the present. The figures and faces are charged with symbolic meaning, deeply tied to the current situation in Syria.
The portraits, squashed and compressed as if under a heavy burden, reference a loss of hope, while their upward lifting facial features point to the confidence in the possibility for a new beginning. Often, his subjects only show one eye looking straight ahead, while the other is covered by a hat or hair. This element is a subtle criticism on the way people confront the current situation in Syria: they choose one side and one opinion and stick to it, but without taking the time to consider, reflect and create a dialogue for change. In his first solo show From Damascus to Beirut, Al Sayed references his memories of childhood in his hometown and his family life in Syria.
Mixing references to both of her western and eastern social and cultural backgrounds, Brooklyn-based Diana Al-Hadid (b. 1981, Aleppo, Syria) explores her fascination with Renaissance painters and the formative aspects of their practice. In an interview with Barbara Pollack for ArtNews, she said: ‘I am not so interested in decoding the mythology, but I am interested in decoding the structure of the painting. Maybe I am a little jealous of what painting can do with space.’
Using polymer, waxes, fibreglass, steel, plaster and other industrial materials, Al-Hadidcreates sculptures and installations that appear in ruins or in the process of melting. A great number of her works centre around the image, shape and concept of ‘tower’ and its various associations: power, wealth, technological and urban development, ideas of progress and globalism. The tower, at the same time, symbolises the problems of cultural differences. The mixed social and cultural background of Al-Hadid is apparent in ‘Self-Melt’ (2008), inspired by the 1563 painting ‘The Tower of Babel’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Two melting towers, one upside down, join at the top as if trying to bridge their differences and point to a mythological point of origin, where diversity and its consequences have already been decided.
Al-Hadid says: ‘I am a builder more than I am an ‘architect’,’ and this aspect is evident in what she calls her ‘impossible architecture’, as exemplified in ‘All the Stops’ (2007), a tower in ruins that features an eclectic mix of architecture from various eras, from Medieval to futuristic.