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

Published September 4th, 2014 - 12:37 GMT

Rate Article:

3
 
PRINT Send Mail
comment (0)

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. Continue reading below »

View as list
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.
Reduce

Image 1 of 20:  1 / 20Twenty-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.

Enlarge
“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.
Reduce

Image 2 of 20:  2 / 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.

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 3 of 20:  3 / 20The 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.

Enlarge
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?
Reduce

Image 4 of 20:  4 / 20Reducing 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?

Enlarge
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…).
Reduce

Image 5 of 20:  5 / 20The 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…).

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 6 of 20:  6 / 20The 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.

Enlarge
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”.
Reduce

Image 7 of 20:  7 / 20Al-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”.

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 8 of 20:  8 / 20As 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.

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 9 of 20:  9 / 20Hobby? 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.

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 10 of 20:  10 / 20Looking 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.

Enlarge
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?
Reduce

Image 11 of 20:  11 / 20Google “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?

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 12 of 20:  12 / 20But 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.

Enlarge
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”.
Reduce

Image 13 of 20:  13 / 20Calligraphist 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”.

Enlarge
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!
Reduce

Image 14 of 20:  14 / 20He 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!

Enlarge
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?”
Reduce

Image 15 of 20:  15 / 20At 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?”

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 16 of 20:  16 / 20His 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.

Enlarge
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.”
Reduce

Image 17 of 20:  17 / 20His 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.”

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 18 of 20:  18 / 20There 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.

Enlarge
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.
Reduce

Image 19 of 20:  19 / 20Reporters 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.

Enlarge
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.”
Reduce

Image 20 of 20:  20 / 20Future 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.”

Enlarge

1

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.

Image 1 of 20Twenty-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.

2

“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.

Image 2 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.

3

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.

Image 3 of 20The 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.

4

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?

Image 4 of 20Reducing 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?

5

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…).

Image 5 of 20The 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…).

6

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.

Image 6 of 20The 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.

7

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”.

Image 7 of 20Al-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”.

8

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.

Image 8 of 20As 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.

9

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.

Image 9 of 20Hobby? 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.

10

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.

Image 10 of 20Looking 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.

11

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?

Image 11 of 20Google “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?

12

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.

Image 12 of 20But 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.

13

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”.

Image 13 of 20Calligraphist 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”.

14

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!

Image 14 of 20He 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!

15

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?”

Image 15 of 20At 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?”

16

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.

Image 16 of 20His 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.

17

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.”

Image 17 of 20His 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.”

18

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.

Image 18 of 20There 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.

19

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.

Image 19 of 20Reporters 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.

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.”

Image 20 of 20Future 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.”

Reduce

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.

Advertisement

Add a new comment

 avatar