Syrian artist Jaber Al Azmeh’s latest body of work, “Wounds”, expresses the anger, pain, courage and determination of his countrymen who are fighting for their right to freedom and dignity. Cameras have played an important role in recording and transmitting what is happening in Syria. But unlike the pictures of violence and destruction seen in the media, Al Azmeh’s photographic artworks depict the wounds deep within the hearts and minds of the people.
The artist began working on this series during the early days of the revolutionary movement in Syria. As the violence escalated, he had to leave his country for the safety of his family, and his own. But his heart remained with the protesters on the streets. He took inspiration from the stories he heard from those directly involved in the revolution to create images that provide a vivid account of exactly what is happening on the streets, what is going on in the minds of the people, the courage with which they are fighting, and the sacrifices they are making to achieve their goals.
“Leaving Damascus at a time like this was a very difficult decision. I feel like a traitor to the people and to the revolution and carry that guilt with me. But I am trying to contribute to the revolution through this work,” Al Azmeh says.
His abstract recreations of various incidents capture the moment and convey the intense emotions and the spirit of the protesters. All the images feature shadowy figures against a deeply symbolic red background. The artist has used a simple but effective technique to create these images. Taking on the role of the activists, Al Azmeh used an open shutter to photograph himself in many different poses in front of a wall lit by a red flashlight; and the final works, depicting groups of protesters, are composites of these images.
“Many of my friends were involved in the protests and it was amazing to see the fire in their eyes and the positive energy of patriotism that drove them to take immense risks. I did not dare to go out on the streets, but wanted to contribute in some way. When I asked one of my activist friends how I could contribute, he told me that in a revolution nobody can tell anybody else what to do. Every person knows from within how they can help.
“His words spurred me to do something as an artist and I began this series. And I decided to take the risk of displaying the artworks at an exhibition in Damascus and posting them on Facebook, which is closely monitored by the regime,” Al Azmeh says.
The first image he created in this series was of two hands, with one pointing a gun and the other defiantly showing the middle finger. “This image reflected what was happening on the streets. The authorities would shoot at the protesters and the next day there would be many more people on the streets,” he says. A similar work, titled “The Creation of Freedom”, is inspired by Michelangelo’s famous mural, but with blood dripping from the hand of the creator. Another image that he created for an online protest features the slogan “Equality, Dignity, Freedom” being written on a red wall with the flame of a candle held in his hand.
After fleeing from Syria, he started making pieces based on the stories of the unsung heroes of the revolution, such as Al Kashoosh, the famous singer. “He dared to go out on the streets and sing songs against the regime. He inspired thousands of people to follow him and chant along with him. The authorities arrested him, cut his throat and pulled out his vocal cords,” Al Azmeh says. Similarly, “Physician’s Oath” is dedicated to a young doctor who was killed because he had organised a group of doctors to help the injured protesters. And “Rising Once Again” is a tribute to his friend Orwa Al Mokdad.
“Right at the beginning of the revolution, Orwa was caught filming the protests on his mobile phone and was jailed and tortured for 45 days. But he was back on the streets as soon as he was released. Once again, he was almost beaten to death. His friends found him unconscious and bleeding, but within a week he was back on the streets with the revolutionaries,” Al Azmeh says.
In fact, Al Mokdad has written the text that accompanies many of the artworks. It recounts his personal experiences connected with the people and incidents depicted in the images, such as the rows of protesters, swaying in unison, chanting the patriotic slogan, “Heaven”; and the Tsunami of Freedom, a carefully orchestrated protest, which begins with the protesters chanting softly, which gradually gets louder and louder. His powerful words bring alive the passion and fervour of the revolutionaries.
Despite the sadness and pain, Al Azmeh expresses hope for a better future. In “The People”, he shows a tiny, lone figure about to push a huge rock off the cliff. Another work, “Epic”, depicts a group of people struggling against powerful, armed attackers, but refusing to bow down; and “Rapture” shows people dancing in an allusion to the celebrations that everybody is waiting for.
“I know that we will achieve our goal. But I feel sad that my country has been destroyed by the ruthless regime,” he says. “The red background in these images is a symbol of the passion of the revolutionaries and the blood they have shed. But it is also refers to the love that exists between all the people. Although the regime is trying to project our struggle as a religious or sectarian issue, I want to tell the world that the Syrian people are united in this fight for freedom and dignity.”
Wounds will run at Green Art Gallery until October 29.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.