I recently saw a small exhibition entitled Culture in Defiance: Syria Speaks, held in a café in Shoreditch, east London. Part of Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture, the show had a resonance far greater than the sum of its modest parts. The pieces of video footage, poems, posters, photographs and drawings would not necessarily have stood out in a community art centre anywhere; but the story they tell is as harrowing, shocking and, in a strange way, uplifting as any being played out on the global stage.
One thing that consumers of news in Europe and America may not immediately associate with the Syrian uprising, or civil war, or ungraspable bloodbath (see how the narrative changes) is art. The only element of this that I’ve seen reported widely is the tragic destruction of large parts of Syria’s artistic endowment built up over millennia.
Speaking to two of the curators of the show, the Syrian journalist and translator Nawara Mahfoud and the editor, author and journalist Malu Halasa, I began to see that the view of events in Syria that we get from the mainstream media – which is understandably dominated by blood, military hardware and geopolitics – is lacking if it does not also consider art and imagination.
In fact, art and imagination were in some ways at the heart of the Syrian uprising. The events began not with a fortress being stormed but with a quiet act of street art: the writing on a wall of some graffiti, “The people want to topple the regime”, by 15 schoolboys, later arrested and tortured. Despite this, pieces of graffiti have gone on proliferating. The spray can is mightier than the mortar.
Wit and humour have also been at the heart of it. One of the videos running at the Shoreditch exhibition showed extracts from Top Goon, a sort of Syrian version of Spitting Image, with finger rather than glove puppets making fun of the dictator and his entourage. This, of course, is rather more risky for the makers, the anonymous Syrian artists’ group Masasit Mati, than the British TV series that got up the nose of Margaret Thatcher. As the masked director Jameel remarks rather casually in an interview printed in the exhibition catalogue, “The girl who usually carries the puppets from one place to another got arrested. We don’t know what kind of information she’ll give.” Or under what kind of torture.
Finger puppets are an inspired choice both because they are so portable and concealable and because they are brilliantly suited to belittling the pretensions of tyrants. Apparently, people in Syria have already begun to refer to President Bashar al-Assad as “Beeshu”, the name of the pathetic puppet character in Top Goon.
Like much of the art in the exhibition (which moves around, and may soon pop up in a city near you) Top Goon is transmitted via the internet and especially on YouTube. As one of the essays in the catalogue argues, this is a new kind of protest art, more about process, the quicksilver exchange of “user-generated and peer-produced creativities”, than any officially sanctioned content.
Suddenly my mind went back to another war, where not just “official” art but posters, cartoons and comics played a famous part. Reporting from war-torn Spain in 1937, the English poet WH Auden described the popular artistic response to the military uprising against the elected government of the Second Republic: “Altogether it is a great time for the poster artist ... and there are some very good ones. Cramped in a little grey boat the Burgos Junta, dapper Franco and his bald German adviser, a cardinal and two ferocious Moors are busy hanging Spain; a green Fascist centipede is caught in the fanged trap of Madrid; in photomontage a bombed baby lies couchant upon a field of aeroplanes.”
The Spanish civil war may be the conflict in history most identified with art and poetry; it was the poets’ war, in which many poets fought and died, and it was also the war defined by Picasso’s great protest painting “Guernica”, and by Miró’s poster “Aidez l’Espagne”. At the same time it was the war in which a thousand anonymous artists drew posters or used walls to scrawl graffiti. I suggested to Mahfoud that there were other parallels between Spain in 1936-39 and Syria today. Both conflicts were or are exceptionally complicated and not amenable to the simple goody-baddy scenarios so beloved of our media. Salvador Dalí described the Spanish civil war as the war in which all the ideologies clashed. More specifically, both in Spain and in Syria you could say that there was a revolution within a war. The Spanish workers’ revolution was itself complicated; an essentially anarchist revolution was partly taken over, partly crushed by a communist one.
In Syria, the revolution seems less ideological. Amid all the carnage, Mahfoud and Halasa still see possibilities of hope, of the freeing of imagination and means of expression, of finding a voice, after decades under the cosh of the murderous Assads.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres