Can beauty be found in revolution? Tyler Russell, curator of Centre A, Vancouver International Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, says yes, it can.
Centre A hosted an afternoon discussion on Dec. 5 in response to Abounaddara. The Right to the Image, an exhibition and conference put on by the Vera List Centre for Art and Politics. The Vera List Centre is an organization that works to shed light on, and encourage awareness of, current social and political issues around the world through art.
In the mid-90s, Tyler Russell spent two summers in the former Yugoslavia, where he facilitated art camps for traumatized children. He says that even amidst the ruins of a despotic JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army), he still found flowers to photograph. Russell says the post-ethnic cleansing work gave him insight on the Syrian situation. He feels the Abounaddara film The Kid, revealing an indoctrinated, Syrian child soldier, is an example of the way art can communicate and question hegemony, civil or cultural.
“I worked with kids who had seen their parents killed in front of their eyes – dealing with that and helping them finding their path. To see a situation where a kid can become a child soldier, it just brings it right home,” says Russell.
Abounaddara, a production company located in Damascus, is a collaborative group of anonymous volunteer Syrian artists; each Friday at noon the group posts a film online.
“It’s a horrendous, horrendous, situation. This limp gesture of what we’re doing as a gallery to present the films to people and show what everyday life on the ground is like, when the international community is not engaged, is the best we can do,” says Russell.
But Russell also feels this gesture is gaining momentum in the online community, and inspiring other anonymous collectives under opprobrium to share their work.
“We’ll see more of the collective approach, such as what’s happening in Hong Kong (anonymized protest art) and in Taiwan. It’s interesting because you come through the 20th century and the hero in art emerges on stage. A branded commodity. A Damien Hirst. Now, it’s we’re all cultural makers, mass collaborations, that can anonymize identity.”
Through a Southeast Asian lens
Russell notes similarities in Japan, where Tadasu Takamine, a controversial Japanese artist, has responded artistically to the Syrian crisis. Russell says Takamine called on the public to describe various torture methods., to imagine a torture method that isn’t in use, but could one day be operational. Eventually, they had a competition for the top method. Russell says not only is Takamine’s exhibition a response to the Syrian circumstances, but also to the rising authoritarian presence in Japan and the changes to Japanese law, which undermine whistleblowers and the freedom of speech.
“Seeing what happened in Syria and what happened to the pro-democracy protesters, and thinking about the shift from democracy that’s currently happening in Japan, and the anxiety that causes in artists, is where we’re coming from,” says Russell.
Anonymous art, international awareness
Russell draws a visual metaphor from experience: Croatian teenagers in Osijek at midnight, shuffling Serbian friends across a bridge to safety while the city was fire-bombed. He witnessed “enemy” youth helping each other, traumatized by the genocide.
“We’ll have people looking at Abounaddara films and saying it’s too bad they had to hide their identity, but look at the amazing stuff they’ve produced in horrible, horrible circumstances, and could only do so collaboratively.”
Abounaddara’s cinematic short film The Russian Plane records footage of a Russian jet, allied with the minority Alawite sect as it drops explosives on pristine Syrian landscape.
“There’s a lot of beauty in those violent circumstances. In that type of conflict the emotions are heightened, but it doesn’t make it okay.”
In regards to finding a mutual understanding on a deeper, global, non-verbal level, Russell says:
“Art, art, at the end of the day is key.”
To view the films, please visit www.veralistcenter.org.