Za'atari, the world's second largest refugee camp, through the eyes of its Syrian artists

Published September 4th, 2014 - 12:37 GMT

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Deraa
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Image 1 of 20: Twenty-seven-year-old Mohammad Kamal al-Amari hails from Deraa, a Syrian city just north of the Jordanian border. Deraa was the starting point of the 2011 uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It’s a war-ravaged region that most of Za’atari’s residents once called home.

Contemporary Art
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Image 1 of 20: “I worked as an art teacher for four years; I used to be a member of the Deraa Contemporary Art Association and I participated in many art exhibitions, with projects in different media”, said al-Amari. A key member of the Fountain of Youth group, he’s been living at Za’atari for 7 months.

war painting
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Image 1 of 20: The artist paints intricate scenes in a variety of styles. Acrylic paint and watercolors, pen and pencil all contribute to rich portrayals of daily life in the midst of civil war. His colors explode off the paper, but his scenes convey a quiet humanity.

war painting
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Image 1 of 20: Reducing his palette to paper and ballpoint pen, al-Amari shows cartoonist chops worthy of The New Yorker, or the long-defunct Punch. This explosive example parodies the war in (and on) Syria. We’d love to see him expand his work into a graphic novel - Marjane Satrapi, Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman, are you seeing this?

Mahmoud al Hariri
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Image 1 of 20: The artist statement for Mahmoud al Hariri says simply,“Deraa is my hometown, where I got my high school diploma. After that, I continued my studies in contemporary art. I have participated in many art exhibits in Syria, as well as Jordan since coming to Za'atari. ” He’s lived in the camp for 18 months (if you call that living…).

war painting
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Image 1 of 20: The talented Mr. al-Hariri is more animated in person, “Drawing is more than just a hobby. It’s the method I use to express everything I have in my mind and to spread my message to everyone, regardless of the difference in their languages and beliefs.“ The former art student is 24 years old.

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Image 1 of 20: Al-Hariri works in watercolors (on proper watercolor paper). Saturated pigments and shadowy forms evoke strong emotions. He tells us that painting offers an escape from a real life that is hard to comprehend. Perhaps it’s appropriate here to paraphrase another great artist, Robin Williams: “Reality, what a concept”.

Eyad al Sabagh
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Image 1 of 20: As with all his colleagues at the show, Eyad al-Sabagh lived in Deraa before moving to Za’atari. He laughed when asked if they knew each other before the camp, “You know, it was a big city - once.” Art is a hobby for the 27 year old who is starting his 19th month in the camp.

war painting
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Image 1 of 20: Hobby? If only we all were as skilled in our “hobbies” as al-Sabagh is. An excellent draftsman, his carefully rendered pencilworks use color sparingly for knock-out impact. Many of his works are ironic, as in these joyful eyes in a wounded face.

war painting
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Image 1 of 20: Looking at press photos from the exhibition opening, it became apparent that this artist is unafraid of large scale formats (by the closing ceremony, many of his works had been removed, and we assume sold). What remained on display were brutal depictions of carnage, unlikely to appeal to souvenir hunters and home decorators.

eyeball with fingers
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Image 1 of 20: Google “eyeball with fingers” and get smacked with dozens of versions of this surrealist image. Al Sabagh does covers of iconic photos and escapes into portraiture of beautiful women -- who can blame him? Where would your mind travel if you were in a place you could not leave?

girl face paintint
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Image 1 of 20: But it’s not all copies of women’s magazine covers and stock news photos. One of the loveliest pieces in the entire show was this pastel painting of a young girl. To see more of Za’atari Camp through al-Sabagh’s eyes would be a powerful experience.

Ahmad Al Othman
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Image 1 of 20: Calligraphist Ahmad al-Othman is 24 years old. He grew up in Deraa, and has lived in Zaatari for 20 months. A reserved man, he said quietly that art, “is simply my hobby”.

Arabic fonts
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Image 1 of 20: He may call it a hobby, but his paintings say otherwise. His skillful depiction of phrases in flowing Arabic fonts capture a mood, or create an image closely connected with the words they represent. One viewer asked a volunteer if he could commission a tattoo design!

Mohammad Hasan al Awad
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Image 1 of 20: At 21 years of age, Mohammad Hasan al-Awad was the youngest of the group. He was training in art school before moving to Za’atari where he’s lived for 9 months. Asked where he was from, he replied, “Syria. Why say more?”

war painting
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Image 1 of 20: His statement: “I am a contemporary art student. I draw with blue ink; I have good experience in architecture. I participated in many art exhibitions in Syria and in Za’atari, and I like to impress people with my painting. IRD supports the Fountain of Youth Group, and I really thank them for that.” And yes, he drew this with a ballpoint pen.

drawing
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Image 1 of 20: His drawing of a cello with a rose was a motif seen in other exhibited drawings. An American guy asked - through a translator - what the symbolism meant. Was it representative of Syria? “No,” said Mohammad, “It represents a friend - a cellist - who was killed in the war.”

syria refugee art work
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Image 1 of 20: There were stacks of artwork near the reception table - watercolors and collage, pastels and pencil. As space became available on the coffee shop walls, IRD workers taped more pieces up. It was a constantly changing showcase, a real-time slideshow through previously hidden gems.

wheelchair artist
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Image 1 of 20: Reporters stood waiting to speak to this handsome gent, who sat in a wheelchair striking super-model poses for anyone with a camera. We asked which was his artwork, and he pointed to his face and laughed. Turns out the confident comic was just there to support his artist friends.

art exhibition refugee camp
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Image 1 of 20: Future exhibits are in planning, though as yet unscheduled. Want to see more? Or perhaps donate to support the continuation of this project? Drop us a comment and we’ll provide contact details to IRD, Amman. Even Picasso would agree it’s important work. As he said, “painting is just another way to keep a diary.”

Pablo Picasso declared, “The purpose of art is washing dust off our daily lives.” Pithy words from the painter - just imagine his views on the cleansing power of art against the fallout of war.

Artworks created by young men from Za’atari Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan were recently shown in a quiet two-week exhibit in Amman sponsored by NGO International Relief & Development (IRD) and the ubiquitous UNRWA. Za'atari is the world's second largest refugee camp, and was designed to house only a fraction of the approximately 150,000 Syrian refugees that now call it home.

Al Bawaba caught the art show's August 30th closing ceremony, held at hipster coffee shop Fen wa Shay in Jabal al Weibdeh, Amman’s most trend-iferous neighborhood, near Paris Circle. (Picasso would have smiled.)

Visitors could view (and purchase) original works drawn in ballpoint pen and pencil, paint and permanent markers, most rendered on plain A3 printer paper (these are refugees, remember?).

The creators are young men who live within a fenced desert compound in temporary housing with communal toilets, limited privacy, and no access to higher education or paid work. They bring contemporary nuance to the cliché “starving artist”. But limited art supplies be damned! Some of the works were as evocative as the greatest oil paintings in Amman’s museums.

Al Bawaba’s conversations with the five featured artists gave insights to each man’s motivation to create. Several had been trained in art before all hell broke loose in Syria; all exploit visual media to express their subsequent experiences. They titled their pieces with positive poetry: “The massacre of Homs, Deraa, al Joul - massacre, massacre, massacre. Let’s write a more beautiful future together.”

These men are the perfect counterpoint to the headline-grabbing Islamic State terrorists. Where are CNN and the BBC in covering this story - and many others like it?

All money generated by sales go directly to the artists, all members of the Za’atari “Fountain of Youth” - a camp club for young refugees organized by IRD. The artists agree that at least 25 per cent of their proceeds would go to the group’s shared budget to help finance future projects (e.g., performing arts, community services). Most have elected to donate their full earnings. Get your head around that!

So, it seems the ancient conquistador Ponce de León was right - there is a Fountain of Youth. It just never occurred to him to find it in a Syrian refugee camp.

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