Dis-organ-ised: the body as a conflict zone in Syrian contemporary art. By Delphine Leccas

Mar 2018

As part of Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. These articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, as well as various cultural actors.


Having, for the past years, organised Syrian artists’ collective exhibitions and film programmes, I’ve been particularly concerned by the representation of the body and more specifically the naked body.

It is common, for modern and contemporary artists and activists, to display their naked body to the face of the world to shock, provoke, create reaction in order to spread a message and highlight social and political battles*. This movement also has spread to Arab countries such as Tunisia and Egypt. What about Syria? What impact has social and political reassessment had on the representation of the body in artists’ work, seven years after the uprising that ended in war? How and what did the artists unveil in their work?

It is worth to come back to the 80s, a period where the secularism of the socialist authoritarian government was confronting religious movements. This takes the progression of art in general a step back and leads, among other responses, to the ban of naked models at the Faculty of Fine Arts of Damascus University. Ironically, the topic of the “martyr”, was a classical subject proposed by fine arts teachers, arousing a peculiar talent for the representation of suffering and dead bodies in the work of this new generation. While the limit of the permissible and the reach of censorship were not well defined, the artists were conscious that nobody would exhibit and buy an artwork representing a naked body and they hence had to change their vision in order to satisfy the Arabic market (more recently the conservative Gulf market).

Only few artists, did indeed exhibit in Damascus from the late 90s onwards. I could quote Fassih Keisso or Laila Muraywid’s photographs of naked women; Monif Ajaj’s fat males sprawled on the floor, exposing their flesh and gazing at us with arrogance; Sabhan Adam’s large size paintings represented genital organs hidden in the profusion of the details. Also worthwhile mentioning is the avant-gardist performance of Hala Faisal, who recently was granted American citizenship, and who walked in the nude in Washington Square Park in 2005 to protest against the Iraq war. Her backside, legs and breasts were covered by red letters: STOP THE WAR.

With the onset of the revolution in 2011, being in the streets, merging with a large, seemingly homogenous body, the protest was already a symbolic way to bare all, to shed the mask of fear and silence and confront years of restrictions and interdictions, including gathering in the streets and freely expressing oneself. At this period, a few women, probably inspired by other movements on social media, “decided to pit pictures bearing messages of freedom and resistance against those of mutilated corpses or stories of rape and torture”. Thus, according to sociologist Nadia Aïssaoui, the body effectively becomes a flag. She put forward that “the body as a theatre of combat, conquest or liberation, is becoming a pivotal issue in the Arab revolutions.”    

Soon, however, the revolution lead to massacres; images and videos of corpses have since been widely circulated in the media and on social networks. The body has been exhibited, victimised, martyred, sometimes without respect for relatives and loved ones, giving rise to the issue of the right to play with human weakness and the respect for the deceased’s identity. This obscene diffusion opened the debate to what kinds of imagery media should be expected to show. What has been called the War Pornography without a doubt had a certain impact on the artists’ works. The current representation of the nude should be discussed taking into consideration the deep psychological and physical trauma of the Syrian society and the impact it would necessary have on artworks. While the body has been visually “dissected” and humiliated, how could we represent the body “alive” and respect it anew?

After having been arrested and detained and subsequently sentenced to jail and tortured, citizen have reported the humiliation – among many others – of having to spend hours naked. The naked body is henceforth directly connected to politics and violence and it becomes difficult to represent a body without this implication. When appearing alive on an artwork, any human body is a weapon carrying political weight or a “rape machine”.  

Several examples that draw my attention could be mentioned, notably scenes Bahram Hajo painted, which seem to be timed just after a sexual act. Unemotional characters, painted in pale beige hues on white background, are disconnected to any location or perspective of space. The use of red paint on parts of their bodies creates an extreme violence to the scene. Women represented with legs opened, heads down and legs up, are less an invitation to pleasure than traces left by a traumatic act. Similar scenes could be found on Adel Dauood’s work, representing the act of touching, on asexual bodies without faces. For Mohammad Omran, the use of nudity becomes a way to ridicule power. The artist effectively inverses roles and undresses the torturers facing the viewer in a ridiculous position. Whereas Najah Albukai represents scenes of torture and naked bodies in jail*, Gylan Safadi draws women in burlesque orgiastic scenes where the grotesque borders on the nightmare.

In moving images – video and cinema – the absence of naked and alive bodies prevails; the viewer is confronted with corpses, death and atrocity. The best example is Avo Kaprealian who felt the need to use excerpts from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo to introduce a young, naked boy in his autobiographical movie Houses without Doors (2016). An exception, nevertheless, is the attempt of filmmaker Ammar al Beik (The Sun’s Incubator, 2012) who, upon becoming a father, films his wife giving birth. Al Beik juxtaposes pictures of his newborn daughter with purposefully blurred images on the TV screen, of Hamza Al-Khateeb’s tortured dead body, filmed by Al-Khateeb’s father. Not only does this mise en abîme, represent the first time a birth was captured in a Syrian movie, it also interrogates the meaning of giving life in a time when children are arrested and killed. Mohammad Omran comments on this when talking about a sculpture of his pregnant wife: “I tried to represent happiness,” he confesses, “but I couldn’t.” Sulafa Hijazi regularly represents naked, suffering bodies in her drawings; women giving birth to weapons or males masturbating their gun’s barrels, which have replaced their genitals. 

The war and violence occupy all the space of thoughts. This is symptomatic with Youssef Abdelke’s recent works. It’s significant to note a total change of orientation in the focus of the renowned artist, famous for painting still-lives or dead animals, roped and transpierced. A first shift took place in 2012, when the artist created a series of “martyrs”. Given the artist’s decision to stay in Damascus, despite of the situation, we could understand this title “martyr” by looking at its Greek and Arabic etymologies that both mean “a person killed because of religious or other beliefs” and “a witness”.  It took a mere step from martyred body to naked body, which the artist crossed in 2015. His exhibition of charcoal sketch studies, held in Damascus, created a violent wave of criticism from local and international media and cultural actors. Shamelessly, Abdelke’s provocation – that could also be interpreted as a reaction against ISIS’ extremism – was appropriated by the government proclaiming its embracing freedom of thoughts, espousing Western open mindedness and its support for fine arts and culture. 

Since the debate launched after Abdelke’s exhibition has been much written about we should put the situation into a wider perspective. From the non-official ban to representing nudity to the current inability of Syrian artists to represent life, the nude body ultimately reflects the mental state of the artist. More than a testimony, it reflects its pain, desire, violence, it represents the political situation – it mirrors the country.  Lauded, beloved and treasured by artists and poets through the centuries, the country and its capital Damascus have been described as a loved woman. “To all the hotels in the world I entered, I brought along Damascus and slept with her in the same bed,” states the poet Nizar Qabbani (Our Damascene House, 1970). Then should we not understand that it is the country itself that is represented: tortured, broken, lacerated, dismembered, mutilated – ”dis-organ-ised”. 

Delphine Leccas - Independent Curator

Translation Nathalie Rosa Bucher.


Interviews with Monif Ajaj, Ammar al Beik, Mohammad Omran, artists; Rafah Nached, psychoanalyst; Nadia Aïssaoui, sociologist 

Youssef Abdelke (b. 1951), visual artist, lives in Damascus

Sabhan Adam (b. 1973), visual artist, lives in Damascus

Monif Ajaj (b. 1968), visual artist, lives in Corgnac-sur-L'Isle (France)

Ammar Al Beik (b. 1972), photographer and filmmaker, lives in Berlin

Najah Albukai (b. 1970), visual artist, lives in France

Adel Dauood (b. 1980), visual artist, lives in Vienna

Hala Faisal (b. 1957), visual and performing artist, lives in New York

Bahram Hajo (b. 1952), visual artist, lives in Münster

Sulafa Hijazi (b. 1977), visual artist, lives in Berlin

Avo Kaprealian (b. 1985), filmmaker, lives in Beirut

Fassih Keiso (b. 1956), visual artist, lives in Damascus and Melbourne

Laila Muraywid (b. 1956), photographer, lives in Paris

Mohammad Omran (b. 1979), visual artist, lives in Paris

Gylan Safadi (b. 1977), visual artist, lives in Beirut


* http://www.academia.edu/11723250/Nakedness_and_Resistance_Understanding_Naked_Protests_of_Women

* For memory, Human Rights Watch commissioned Syrian artists to produce sketches based on statements received from former detainees and security force defectors.A

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