In early 2013, Syrian artist Tammam Azzam made headlines worldwide when his work, Freedom Graffiti, went viral on social media. He used one of the most iconic kisses in art ‒ Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss - to highlight his country's suffering, superimposing this powerful image of love over the walls of a bullet-ridden building in Damascus.

Although initially a painter, Azzam, who was born in Damascus in 1980, gradually incorporated elements of graphic design into his work. He moved to Dubai in 2011 following the outbreak of violence in Syria, and it’s there that he began to work on his most recent exhibit under the patronage of Ayyam Gallery called, "I, the Syrian," which tackles broad social issues rooted in the Syrian crisis and, more broadly, human suffering and tragedy.

Beirut.com sat down with the artist amid to talk about his work.

Beirut.com: Tell us about your latest exhibit.

Azzam: The exhibition is my second show in the past two years to revolve around the same broad theme; that is, the circumstances we [as Syrians] are living in. However, it differs from my previous show because this time I don't bluntly tackle the Syrian crisis. Rather, this show aims to diversify the subject matter of struggle [so that] any individual experiencing hardship such as the Syrians right now, can relate to the work... my art could be understood by any victim of violence and injustice... The title is replaceable; it could be "I, the Lebanese," for example.

Beirut.com: What message are you trying to send through your work?

Azzam: I believe that art isn't responsible for sending messages because it should remain authentic to art. It should stay independent to the form, and the message itself shouldn’t be relayed to the viewer. Rather, the viewer should infer it for himself from the art, and interpret it in the way they see fit. You are free to get the message you want out of it, and that's the beauty of this medium.

Beirut.com: In some of your works you chose to incorporate elements of other artists' works, such as Andy Warhol, Gustav Klimt, and Paul Gauguin. Why? And Why do you choose these artists in particular?

Azzam: It's an artistic game on more than one level. It's taking a risk to create something with both elements of comedy and tragedy. The addition of, for example, Warhol's Elvis, could be considered humorous and correlated to comedic reinterpretation, such as Duchamp's re-imagination of the Mona Lisa. However, in my reinterpretation of the Mona Lisa with the destruction behind it, it doesn't necessarily look funny, yet it doesn't look tragic either. It’s the balance between the two, and the risk, that embodies my work.

I internationally used a lot of renowned artists' works because I want the work to be more public and universal; it allows for the work to be understood without much translation. On the psychological level, these infamous icons garner more attention and spike the interest of many more people. Not just because it's [for the Elvis print] a Warhol, but because it is Elvis, too.

I also picked icons that were controversial and highly criticized. In the example of my Goya print, why was Goya's piece honored for 200 years because of its representation of the revolution in Spain in a scenario that saw the death of 80 people? We Syrians see this number daily.

Beirut.com: Tell us more about the photograph of the house attached to balloons.

Azzam: The house is from the village of Douma. It's very absorbing because this destroyed house holds with it destroyed memories; memories of fatherhood, motherhood, love and brotherhood. The home is a sacred institution of safety and happiness and to see it destroyed, to see it just vanish is shattering. The fact that the house has disappeared means that its inhabitants are now displaced and the house simply "flew away" and disappeared into the alleyways of political decision.

Beirut.com: What do you believe is an artist's role in society?

Azzam: Art can't stop death and it can't contribute to alleviating it; the Syrian conflict has been going on for two and a half years, and the writing, the painting and everything that the other artists and I have done has contributed to nothing. Politics manages to move everything around, including us. When soldiers get in the middle of everything, people just leave. Art can't do much, but it can rebel against this force at least, and give people some comfort. That is the most it can do.

The exhibit, Tammam Azzam I, The Syrian" will continue at the Ayyam Gallery until January 30. For more information, click here.

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