Art of war: Dubai gallery haven for Syrian artists

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By BRIAN MURPHY, Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Inside the gallery, artworks by Syrian artists were drawing auction bids from collectors. Outside on the street, the artists traded the latest gossip from Syria and checked their smartphones for news from the civil war.

So goes the divided world for a cadre of Syrian artists brought to the safety of Dubai by their gallery to continue their work but still remain deeply connected and influenced by the bloodshed they left behind.

The Syrian refugee diaspora — now at 2 million and growing — has fanned out across the region and beyond for more than two years from tent camps in Jordan to others trying to rebuild lives in cities such as Beirut and Istanbul. But the Gulf states present a paradox: Deeply involved in the war as some of the strongest backers for the Syrian rebels yet holding firm to tight entry controls that effectively block most refugees.

The auction Monday in Dubai's evolving art district — tucked inside an industrial zone of warehouses and businesses — served as a window into a small but forward-looking effort to save one niche of Syria's artistic community with no end in sight to the civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.

"It's a tragedy what is happening there now, but it would be an even bigger tragedy if all this art and culture that Syria has so much of would be lost," said Hisham Samawi, whose Ayyam Gallery moved from Damascus to Dubai in late 2011 as the Arab Spring rebellion widened.

"For us,'" he added, "the artists are part of our family. We had to do it. It was for us and for them."

Step by step for nearly two years, the gallery operators moved 15 artists and their families to Dubai — hiring them as employees to obtain visas in line with United Arab Emirates' system that requires a person or company to act as sponsors. Meanwhile, Ayyam crews managed to ship about 3,000 paintings, sculptures and other pieces as fighting intensified in the Syrian capital.

Among those under the gallery's wings in Dubai is one of the rising stars in Syria's revolution-inspired art world, Tammam Azzam, a Damascus-born painter who has shifted to prints and multimedia work seeking to draw attention the horrors of conflict. One piece, "Freedom Graffiti," superimposed the golden-hued sensuality of Gustav Klimt's masterpiece "The Kiss" over a shattered and bullet-scarred apartment wall near Homs. The image became an Internet sensation with hundreds of thousands of views and established the 33-year-old Azzam as one of the artistic voices of the civil war.

Another piece done since his arrival in Dubai is "Syrian Olympics," a digital print of stick-figure stencils in the shape of Olympic event logos. The shooters aim like snipers at the runners.

A signed copy sold for $12,000 at the auction, attended by more than 300 people. A copy of "Freedom Graffiti" brought in $6,000.

"I have to do something for the people there," said Azzam. "I want to do anything to send any message to people around the world about what happened in my country: People dying every day, every minute, and nobody can stop that."

Azzam struggles with the frustrating feeling that "art doesn't make sense" in the middle of a war.

But conflict has always been an incubator for creativity: The political cartoons of the American and French revolutions in the 18th century, the powerful canvases inspired by the 1930s Spanish Civil War such as Pablo Picasso's "Guernica," and now the Web-driven protest art of Middle East uprisings.

In Iran, songs, videos and artwork followed onto the Internet during the unrest after the disputed presidential re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. In the latest election this June, Iran's art community and others rallied around the fictitious candidacy of "Zahra," the heroine of a graphic novel narrative begun in 2009.

Since 2011, dozens of prominent exhibitions have showcased the work of Arab Spring artists, including Egyptian Ahmed Basiony, who was killed during clashes in Cairo during the final days of Hosni Mubarak's rule. Street battles this summer in Turkey, meanwhile, stirred a kind of mass performance art as anti-government protesters mimicked the "Standing Man" sentinel of choreographer Erdem Gunduz, who stood motionless amid the skirmishes around Istanbul's Taksim Square.

"The artists are paramount so we had to get them out," said gallery owner Samawi. "There was no question about it. It wasn't like: We'll go find other artists. These are our artists. We believe in them and believe they have a voice."

He said there are plans to try to bring other Syrian artists out of the country, but the efforts are made more complicated by the deepening battles and the increasing lockdown atmosphere in Damascus over threats of possible U.S.-led military action.

"It's a good thing we started when we did," said Samawi, "because it becomes more and more difficult as every month passes."

The artist Azzam said he has friends watching his abandoned studio in Damascus.

"But who knows if it will be there when I return," he said. "And who knows when I can return."

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