Challenges facing Syrian cultural work in diaspora

By Milena Dragićević Šešić

Director of UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy and Management

University of Arts, Belgrade


In a war times cultural organizations are facing numerous challenges: heavy censorship, new obligations and demands related to national security and propaganda tasks imposed by government, willing to use cultural infrastructure as a propaganda machine and, on the other side, internal and external exodus of artists and critical intelligentsia. In the case of Syria, exile, that is not yet clear if it would be permanent or temporary, is of crucial importance for reconsideration of programmes that might help establishing Syrian cultural space. Scattered around the world, Syrian artists are isolated, deprived of their basic human rights, not even thinking about their cultural and professional rights. This is reinforced by the rise of numerous inner country borders that prevent artists and cultural organizations from collaboration and even mutual communication.

That poses more problems to the work of academic art institutions that have to fight for survival, ensuring only the minimum of their activities. It is hardly possible for remaining professors and students to devote any time for the development of their curricula, helping in raising basic professional skills of young artists. Issues linked to modern transversal skills are not on the agenda. Thus, Syrian cultural work today has to be “organized” and modelled in an innovative way, trying to cross all visible and invisible borders that are imposed by national government, other parts in conflict (sectarian militia) and international community (visa, or even ban to enter US).

Dissolution of Yugoslavia through wars had similar effects on the Balkan’s cultural scene and it was mostly through efforts of international organizations and foundations (Kulturkontakt Austria, Open Society Foundation, European Cultural Foundation) that first contacts, even during war times, projects and collaborative processes have been established. Most of them were for those who have stayed in the country while those who have been forced or have chosen exile were forgotten. However, there was one programme, Supplementary Grants for Students from the Former Yugoslavia (1993-2000), that gave grants to students displaced by Balkan wars but did not help much in connecting them with those who stayed in the country or in between themselves.

Regional Balkan programmes, especially those aiming to build capacities of independent artistic organizations, have to be studied so that their achievements or failures could be taken in account when and if developing similar programmes for Syria and Syrian artists in the country and abroad. Humanitarian assistance without programmes that would help in keeping human dignity would not have deep impact. On the other side, we have to be aware that arts seen only as part of psycho-social action might leave deep impact on future generations - like in Cambodia where young generations of post conflict do not want to study arts seeing them only as a profession for people with handicap.

Most of the Syrian artists in exile do not accept separations that are now dividing Syrian territories
 and that is one more reason why they feel excluded from their country but even more they are in situation in which they cannot establish encounters and dialogues among themselves, exilers, due to the financial and visa problems. Art projects such as Extraterritorial Ministry of Arab Culture (Kinokultura, Skopje 2017) do not help much as they stay within closed art circles, “operating everywhere but Middle East” and focus their activity towards Western world even when they think it is Global South (Johannesburg, Rio, Sidney). But they can be inspiration for new programme actions focusing on Syrian cultural operators.

Uses and misuses of Syrian artists in the West are already well documented. Liwaa Yazji in her text (GCLF, 2017) points out that curation of Syrian arts are mostly happening in Western world as charity events where it is not clear if they are about arts or about raising awareness on terrible situation of Syrians today. She is questioning: is this really what refugees need, what artists in exile need, and what about “sustainability” of those projects? And the major question she’s asking is what are the narratives of those projects as they seem to play on victimization, spectacularization, culpabilization, etc. in order to ease organizers' conscience, leaving art as such insignificant.

What was for us, Yugoslavs in inner exile, the most important, have been different platforms that gathered us together, at the beginning in neutral territories (CEU Budapest, Amsterdam summer schools, etc.) and later in our countries. First, symbolically the most important gathering of artists happened in Sarajevo in December 1999 and from that moment numerous networks and collaborative projects had been created. The biggest impact was achieved through long term capacity building projects such as Kultura Nova (Dietachmair, 2015). Unfortunately, Syrian artists' participation in such existing programmes in MENA (Abbara, Tandem Shaml) has become difficult.

Several alternatives should be explored in order to define new programmes that might help not only Syrian artists in exile but also those that decided to stay in the country. Besides production or mobility grants as the most used instruments, new one have to be created to enable achievement of multiple impacts: helping in creation of a sense of community, capacity building, information exchange, etc. Thus, the concept of temporary art residence (colony) for Syrian artists should include those dispersed around the world and those living in Syria, having important capacity building elements oriented to both, new professional, artistic skills (such as use of multimedia, etc.) and skills that are of crucial importance for their future engagement in creating organizations or collectives that would be more stable and effective in their work.

Networks of different cultural sectors and artistic professions should be established and become functional through ICTs, enabling through annual or biannual meetings, temporary incubators for common projects development and peer knowledge exchange. Use of MOOC should be introduced to connect such dispersed community of young artists and intellectuals who are in need for further training.

Existing capacity building programmes open for candidates from MENA countries, such as European Diploma in Cultural Project Management (Deru et. Al, 2014) or EUROMED Programme, have to introduce specific grant schemes for Syrian cultural operators. Today, such programmes, even in their research parts, are excluding Syria (Mapping the Training Experiences in Cultural Management in MENA region, Dragićević Šešić, Mihaljinac, 2016) or Syrians cannot use them due to severe travel constraints. Instead of art project Extraterritorial Ministry of Arab Culture, a cultural project such as Extraterritorial Ministry of Syrian Culture should be developed, creating coherent policies based on data collected around the world.

All these ideas need further conceptualization and fundraising. However, I would suggest that none of them excludes colleagues from other countries such as Palestine, Lebanon or Turkey on one side, or those from Paris and Berlin on the other. In all those countries, cultural community is crucially important for making possible to Syrian artists to keep their professional status and dignity. It is only with the help of civil society in communities where Syrian artists live that their work might have importance and that they should have also there chance for professional development.



o   Dietachmair Ph., Ilić M., 2015, Another Europe, Capacity Building Programmes with the EU Neighborhood, ECF, Amsterdam

o   Open Society Foundations, 2011, Building Open Society in the Western Balkans, New York

o   Dragićević Šešić M., 2013, „The role of culture in democratic transition: Southeast European experience of civic cultural organisations“, Proceedings of the Faculty of Drama Arts, no. 23, Belgrade

o   Dragićević Šešić M., 2015, „Arabic Spring and the work of Cultural Policy Groups – a bottom-up cultural policy“, Proceedings of the Faculty of Drama Arts, no. 28, Beograde

o   Deru J. P. et. al (eds.), 2014, CULTURE AT THE EDGES, Celebrating 25 years of Trans-European Training from Barcelona to Delphi, Marcel Hicter, Brussels

o   Dragićević Šešić M., 2015, „Evaluation report about the work of national Cultural Policy Groups“, 5th Conference of the Arab Group for Cultural Policy, Beirut

o   Dragićević Šešić M., Mihaljinac N., 2016, “Art Management Training and Technical Assistance Mission in the Third World: Political, Humanitarian and Cultural Diplomacy Agendas (MENA Region)”, paper in the ICCPR conference session presenting research results of the project ENI/2013/335-088 Med Culture, Seoul

o   Global Cultural Leadership Programme, Forum in Athens, 2017, European Cultural Foundation, accessed on October 10th 2017

o   Kinokultura: Book of Abstracts “Modelling Public Spaces in Culture”, Skopje 2017

o   Good Practice Database of culture-related projects serving the integration of migrants / refugees,

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