For me, it’s marshmallows. The moment I catch the scent of powdered sugar I remember lying with my head in my grandmother’s lap as a child. For Benjamin Loyauté, it’s apple-flavoured sticks from Rouen that exert the Proustian pull, transporting him back to his Normandy childhood and squabbles with his twin sister over the sugary treats.
Sweets may be universal, but the nostalgia they hold is intense and intimate, which is why — says Loyauté — they are the perfect vehicle for his long-term project to highlight the “immaterial heritage” of Syria. With a man-bun and a curator’s love of critical theory, the Brussels-based artist and designer makes an unexpected confectioner. Yet when we meet in the foyer of his London hotel, on the table in front of us are little packets of pink candies created to his exacting specifications.
At first glance they could be the cheap sweets sold by Syrian street vendors, except that each is shaped to resemble an “eye idol” — those ancient Syrian figurines whose use and meaning archaeologists are still debating. Loyauté describes his sweets as “transmitter objects” — everyday things with “a real value and symbolic value linked to emotion, history, heritage”. In other words, as it says on one of his text paintings: “candy keeps the past alive.”
“One woman said she never ate these candies because they are sold on dusty trolleys — they are not for rich people,” he explains. “It was only when they started disappearing from the streets thanks to the war, that she realised: ‘I miss them’.”
I can’t wait any longer and break off our chat to open the simple plastic packet and pop one in. The soft texture yields an intense burst of sugar and rose. For an artwork, they are pretty delicious. And at this month’s London Design Biennale, visitors will get their own chance to scoff. Loyauté’s exhibit includes “a practical sculpture”, otherwise known as a vending machine. For £5 (Dh24), it will dispense a packet of the sweets and design buffs will be invited “to do their bit”.
The money put into the machine will directly transfer to the Mosaic initiative, a small London-based charity which distributes aid, both within Syria and to educational projects for Syrian refugees elsewhere. If Loyauté has his way, it will be only the first step in a Willy Wonka-ish ambition to bring people together through sweets.
He calls his candies Louloupti — merging a common Arabic pet name for children with the affectionate suffix “pti” to reflect the Syrian quirk of calling sweets names such as “cuties”. Loyauté is thinking big: aiming to work with a company such as Kraft to mass produce these sweets and use the money raised to protect Syrian heritage. “Haribo sells one billion strawberry sweets a year. I am a dreamer, but if I sell 100,000 in two years that’s something tangible,” he says.
At the heart of the London exhibition is his film, “The Astounding Eyes of Syria”, shot in the Beqaa Valley refugee camp, which lies in the “red zone” of Lebanon’s border with Syria. Loyauté travelled to the camp last winter with Syrian and Lebanese friends, rather than an NGO, to quietly meet families. The result is a heartbreaking 20 minutes of Syrians talking about the sweets they miss. Focusing on this tiny, delicious detail of their former lives highlights how much the war has swept away: a living culture, close-knit communities, simple pleasures.
Loyauté says the families — some of whom he remains close to — enjoyed the chance to discuss happy memories. “There are always Westerners who want to film the dust and the horror. They were thankful to shine a smile inside the horror, because that does exist,” he insists. “We can destroy buildings and kill humans, but we can’t erase the living heritage; the memory of things, the culture, the civilisation.”
One father, Hanadi Abbas, talks of the penny sweets he used to buy to give to guests or relatives. Today a bag costs £10 to £20. A woman shows the camera a plastic box of baking moulds she saved during her flight to the camp. Bringing out a biscuit cutter, she remembers baking her husband heart-shaped biscuits. “He asked, ‘Why so many tiny hearts?’ I said, ‘Because I love you’.” A mother of three, Hani Koubaisi remembers how, on feast days, she would invite neighbours to her house for homemade pastries. If she had fallen out with one of them, it was a chance “to make peace”. Now, she says sadly, “It’s all been lost and we will never get it back.”
Interspersed with their stories are fictional scenes: a sweet seller in an empty shop; one of the traditional ice-cream makers Damascus is famous for, making rhythmical music as he pounds the dessert. They bring the sights and sounds of Syria to life. For Loyauté, sweets also represent the generosity of Syrians, a theme he returns to repeatedly. “Louloupti is an ambassador for a way of living in Syria — sharing sweets in the street. In Syria people want to share.”
Even in the camp, he says, he noticed this reflex. When he went to a small shop to buy sweets to take to the families he was visiting, the shopkeeper “had nothing and was very poor ... but he didn’t want to take my money.”
It’s not hard to see how passionate Loyauté is about Syria. He first travelled to the country in his early 20s, the first time he had been outside Europe. Today he considers himself a global citizen, he says, but he grew up in a “little village with farmers” and was not ready for the impact of seeing archaeological wonders such as Palmyra, or the old Byzantine Church of Saint Simeon Stylites.
“I was like a sponge. When you see in your school book the Krak des chevaliers and then you see it in real life ...” He breaks off in awe at the thought. Among the ruins of Palmyra, he says, he had Stendhal syndrome, a physical reaction to the wonder it inspired. “The psychologist said it was too much beauty and information. This country took a part of my brain.”
He returned often, visiting Damascus on holiday, learning Arabic and widening his circle of Syrian friends. It felt like home, he says, and he always thought that one day he would move there. Now the country is being destroyed, he wants to repay a debt. “I wanted to give back to Syria what Syria has given to me,” he says.
Loyauté invited his Syrian friends — and friends of friends, within or outside the country — to write him postcards about the sweets they remembered. His request yielded hundreds of missives, now collected in a beautiful book that accompanies the project, including one that sums up his work. “Sweets remind me of my friend Amira ... I haven’t seen Amira for a long time, nor her family, nor her house. The war has stolen all these wonderful moments, but it all still lives on in our memories.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd
“The Astounding Eyes Of Syria” is at London Design Biennial until September 27.