Modon: Memory of Urban Art and Citizenship in Syria

by Bassel Al Saadi

Concept paper/unrealized

“Knowing is necessary”- this seems to be the only possible cry for the artist. It is a cry denouncing repression and experienced horror, the horror he has shared with his own people. Repression is the mother of war and the daughter of dictatorship. Like a never ending leitmotiv, the wish to talk, to tell his story, to express himself comes back in every single Bassel’s work. Today, while the bombs are still thundering in the Syrian skies, as if they were signs of an Apocalypse that is consumed without the World coming to an end, but still brings his own world to an end, the artist calls upon the need for knowledge through his artistic journey just like Primo Levi did, because
“If understanding is impossible, knowing is necessary.”

AFEF HAGI

President of Pontes
Research and Action Project Presentation

The project MODON: Memory of Urban Art and Citizenship in Syria aims to create a repertoire of urban heritage in modern Syria. Starting with Independence and reaching to today’s war (2018), this project seeks to set up a catalogue of both plastic art and theatrical works. The purpose is to create a digital interactive platform collecting images, descriptions and recordings of works of art from the 1950s until today. In particular, the project intends to build for the first time a memory of art and its urban and social context for the tormented Syrian cities. This memory will show the repressed conditions of Syrian citizenship. One of the main goals is to reconstruct the memory of activism in those social classes which struggled to preserve cultural and urban life against the attempt of militarisation of Syrian society. The intrusion of dictatorship in cultural life goes back to the 1960’s. It became more and more hegemonic with Hafedh Al Assad, who came to power in 1970.

Context

2011 saw the start of the pacific Syrian revolution against Assad’s regime, a dictatorship which has been leading the country for more than forty years.
One month later, due to Bashar al Assad’s brutal repression, the popular uprising turned at first into an armed revolution, and then into a bloody civil war, which is still going on.
The regime tried to use all possible means to crush the movement of resistance. Whole cities and villages were destructed and tens of thousands of opponents, including students, activists, artists and intellectuals were arrested or killed. These conditions forced hundreds of artists and intellectuals to escape Syria. It is believed that the number of victims amounts to more than half a million; exiles and refugees are thought to be 12 millions.
From Syrian Independence in 1946 on, the structure of Syrian cities began to change on a social level. This happened because of three factors:

– The great migrations of job seekers from the country to the cities;
– The increasing influence of the army (mostly made up of rural people) in the cities at the expense of political forces, tradesmen and industrialists;

– A great number of industrialists and landowners leaving Syria after the confiscation and nationalization of their properties, led in 1958 by the army.

Syrian Art and Memory: The Need to Catalogue

Assad’s family achieved a real appropriation of Syria’s cultural heritage and history. Syrian works of art are now either part of private collections or sold off. Ancient monuments, like 1400- year-old mosques, were destroyed by the regime’s tanks and numerous antiques were stolen by rival groups. Ancient and contemporary Syrian memory is in serious danger, due to a lack of interest in archiving human activity (be it artistic, theatrical, cinematographic or journalistic).
Neglect and destruction of the precious history of the Middle East (both ancient and modern history) can be defeated by working for the preservation of the cultural heritage of a million of Syrians against the war and the regime’s mystification.
Most of the Syrian artists who played a key role in the plastic arts the 1960s and 70s are still in Syria and represent the living memory of the history of Syrian art. Their voice and their witness are inestimable sources, essential to the reconstruction of the history of the artistic production and of the movement of resistance during those years of changes. Younger artists instead are mostly expats, or live in exile in other Arabic, European or American countries. Their works and messages will be collected to give voice to a reconstruction of the history of Syrian art to be as close as possible to the truth. After 2011, the actions aimed at preserving the memory of revolutionary Syrian art multiplied. Modon aims to do something different, which is to create a repertoire of all the Syrian art from Independence on and to underline the social dynamics behind urban activism.

Project Goals

– The project aims to create a digital interactive platform dedicated to the history of Syrian art, a virtual place where the memory of Syrians and of their cities and art will be reconstructed and contrasted with the censored and imposed memory of the dictatorship. This website will be a point of reference for all Syrian artists, researchers and intellectuals who will be able to learn about the authentic history of urban art by accessing it directly. Furthermore, the website will be an open and shared space; all those who are still making the history of Syrian art may also contribute to it. The open and safe space will again give a sense of participation to the citizenship, violated by political pressures and violence. The website will also be the point of convergence of several artistic realities.

– The platform will collect the reports of the research, audio and video recordings of the meetings, a catalogue of photographs and representations of works with their stories and descriptions. Modon seeks to create a network of Syrian artists and critics, living in both their homeland and abroad, in order to promote a democratic approach to art and culture.

Project Methodology

The archive’s collection will draw upon multiple sources of information, in particular:

1. Desk review. The first part of the research will be based upon the examination of the existing studies and biographies connected with the Syrian artistic production. These documents will have to be found on the Internet or, if they are available, in Arabic and European libraries. This stage with the collection and analysis of existing materials will constitute a fundamental source for the elaboration of a critical reflection on the evolution and connection between the artistic creations and the deep changes that have occurred in 20th century Syrian society.

2. In-depth interviews with Syrian artists, critics, scholars and intellectuals (in Syria or in exile).

3. The use of the web plays a central role in the work we intend to do. It will also be central in the collection of works of art, recordings of theatrical works, etc., as well as in the collection of information about artists and lost, or underground, works. While war and instability rage on, the Internet seems to be the only means of communication and interaction with the country.

4. A consultative and participatory effort from different art disciplines (world of painting, of sculpture and of theatre) achieved through the constitution of an advisory committee, made up of Syrian intellectuals and artists (from 5 to 10) belonging to different generations, who will lead the creation of the repertoire. Every story and every result produced by the research will need to be validated by the experts group.

5. The participation of Italian experts and art historians who will contribute especially with their expertise to the methodology for collecting and archiving, and who will furthermore offer a view from the outside on some works of art.

6. The participation of Syrian art institutions and galleries will be an essential factor for the creation of an International network of Syrian artists.
The Modon project aims to recreate a repertoire of restored artistic memory, so that it will be possible to re-establish a dialogue among the Syrian artists in Syria and abroad. This urban work might continue in Syria in the future. The project will collect a considerable number of artistic and theatrical works, renewing the critical and constructive history of Syrian art. A positive development of the project will hopefully lead to including other fields in it, such as journalism.

Time Schedule of the Activities

Duration: 2 years
The first year will be dedicated to the plastic arts, while the second will be focused on theatrical productions. For each topic we will collect and organise all the necessary data and prepare them for analysis and processing for the platform.

The project activities will be divided as follows:
Activity A- Coordination and monitoring of the project
Activity I- Establishment of the experts group and scheduling
Activity II- Desk review and explorative interviews
Activity III- Collection of materials, including information on the Internet, meetings with key witnesses and audio and video recordings of their contributions. This activity requires travels to Arabic, European and American countries to meet the refugee artists.
Activity IV- Processing the research data.
Activity V- Art- dedicated Platform development.

Coordination

The Modon project will be coordinated by Bassel Saadi in cooperation with a consulting committee composed by a group of five to ten artists of different nationalities and representing either the plastic arts or theatre.
The committee will meet twice a year to evaluate the project’s progress and to schedule the subsequent activities.
The coordinator will meet the sponsors once a year to submit a monitoring report of the project activities.