Syrian artists find refuge in Lebanese mountain retreat
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Like all refugees that are forced to leave their war-torn countries, Syrian artists have had to put their careers on hold. However, a Lebanon-based patron has provided these painters, sculptors, and multimedia artists access to her Ottoman-era building to enable them to continue their work. This provides a unique opportunity for them to re-launch their careers.
Photo shared on the Facebook page of the Aley Art Residence.
Like all refugees that are forced to leave their war-torn countries, Syrian artists have had to put their careers on hold. However, a Lebanon-based patron has provided these painters, sculptors and multimedia artists access to her Ottoman-era building to enable them to continue their work. This provides a unique opportunity for them to relaunch their careers.
In Aley, a village high up in the Mount Lebanon mountain range, Syrian architect Raghad Mardini – who moved to Lebanon well before the start of the conflict – used her own funds to renovate an ancient, 150-square-metre stable. The space was then transformed into artists’ workshops for Syrians that fled the war.
Since the start of the uprising in March 2011, over 90,000 Syrians have fled their country for neighbouring Lebanon.
An artist from the residence at work. Behind him, the television is tuned into an Arabic news channel.
“Up until now, in Lebanon, Syrians were perceived as either being labourers or spies for Assad’s regime”
Raghad Mardini is the founder of the Aley artists’ residence.
I have been living in Lebanon with my family for the last five years. Like I used to do in Damascus, I continued to seek out ancient Arab homes to renovate here, until one day a local friend suggested that I restore a 200-year-old stable that used to belong to his family.
I fell in love with this place on my first visit. I agreed to renovate it in exchange for a 10-year license to use it. The restoration work lasted a year, up until May 2012. In the meantime, the number of Syrian refugees fleeing to Lebanon skyrocketed. Among them were many artist friends of mine. They lived in very difficult conditions in Beirut, sometimes five people crowded into one single room, without any income. It was impossible for them to create anything whatsoever under these conditions.
The stable during the renovations.
Given this situation, I got the idea of transforming this ancient stable into an artists’ residence. It is now divided into two sections: living quarters and working quarters, which include artists’ workshops, a kitchen and an IT room. The first residents were friends of mine, and then other Syrian artists that I didn’t know joined them. Over the last year, the residence has taken in 150 artists. Each artist lives here for free for a month, and we give them a stipend of $150 per week that they can spend as they wish. Many use it to pay down their debts or to send money to their family members who stayed in Syria. We also make sure that all the necessary materials for their art are available to them. Everything is set up so that the artists can focus exclusively on their work.
The residence’s dining room.
An art exhibit at the residence.
An artist at work.
“The majority of artists use their work to reflect what they went through in Syria”
Even though we didn’t give any indications to that effect, most of the artists use their work to reflect what they went through in Syria, each in their own way. For example, one artist chose to represent or subvert the concept of death by expressing it through an explosion of colours. Another was particularly traumatized by the death of children, which has become a recurring subject in his work.
Dead bodies wrapped in colourful shrouds, by the artist Milad Ameen (on the right).
An olive branch in an owl’s beak (instead of the dove, symbol of peace), by the artist Fadi al-Hamwi.
Deceased or sleeping children, by the artist Rabee Kiwan.
The artists can then sell their paintings and sculptures and build a name for themselves, in part thanks to the fact that the project has received quite a bit of publicity. They also build a network that can yield professional opportunities. Some have been singled out by galleries and foreign collectors, and so leave Lebanon to pursue their career elsewhere.
Before leaving the residence, each artist selects a piece that she or he created while there to leave behind. This allows us to build a collection that we will be able to exhibit and in this way continue to finance the project.
A musical get-together at the residence.
Up until now, in Lebanon, Syrians were perceived as either being labourers or spies for Assad’s regime. I hope that with our artists’ residence, we can fight these stereotypes.
All photos were published with the kind authorization of the Aley Art Residence.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira (@SarraGrira).