Earlier this year, Personal Revolutions, curated by Mouna Atassi, brought together the works of 11 pioneering women artists in an exploration of personal identity against the backdrop of Syria’s socio-political landscape over the last 100 years.
The artists themselves live scattered across all corners of the globe – we speak to two who live in Berlin, Hiba Alansari and Alina Amer, about their reflections upon the show, as well as their experience living and creating work in Germany.
Walking into Personal Revolutions, it would have been impossible to miss Alina Amer’s striking video piece, Blessing with Infection (2018). A meditation on Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war and the Russian Orthodox Church’s public ritual of blessing weapons, it features the artist sitting on a tall, elongated stool. She is draped in white, staring listlessly at the camera as she cradles a large bowl in her lap. Below her, resting on the floor and with its barrel aimed up at her is a rifle. Nearby, Hiba Alansari’s sculptural installation, Book of Mathematics (2017), takes a school maths book the artist found in a bombed out house. The book becomes both dead body and relic of war; with the artist’s interventions it evokes the futility of such conflict.
While disparate in their artistic practice, what unites these two artists it that they both currently reside in Germany – Ansari moving there in 2012 to study in Munich, before relocating to Berlin, where she has been based in 2017. Amer lives in the East German city of Halle (Saale), where she is a guest student at the art and design university, Burg Giebichenstein Kunsthochschule Halle.
Exhibiting work in Personal Revolutions allowed their work to come into new calibrations and juxtapositions with the other exhibiting artists, displaying work in an array of different media. “What made me feel the most connected to the curatorial approach of the show was not just that it honoured Syrian women artists and their works, but that it had a real focus on the personal, internal revolutions these great artists have all gone through,” reflects Amer. “For example, conceptually, I was really drawn to the work of Nour Assalia – the way in which she dealt with the medical and scientific brutality her mother had had to undergo in the process of dealing with failing eyesight, and how she turned the whole process her mother went through into an artwork – it was so poignant.”
Similarly, Alansari suggests that there is an even deeper commonality than the show’s theme that tied all of the artists together: “There is a transparent thread that connects all Syrian artistic and literary creativity, a thread so deep and sensitive that I find it hard to describe,” she says. “Each Syrian has gone through immense change over the past few years, both personal and public. What happened in our country was like a volcanic explosion, a tectonic shift. It destroyed everything, and we all felt it and are dealing with the aftershocks. It is this thread which binds us.” As such, the specific works both artists presented dealt with both personal as well as political issues. Ansari’s Book of Mathematics installation, she explains, focused on “bringing together my own past and present,” while Blessing with Infection, says Amer, “provoked questions such as – what is holy and what is clean? My work has always been focused on hygiene and rituals of cleaning and how these issues might reflect mentally in our social patterns, but in this work in particular I wanted to examine the use of ‘hygienic’ speech in politics to justify wars and mass destruction, using vocabulary that evokes fear of being ‘infected’ by the other, and in fact encourages people to manipulate, fight against each other and isolate groups.”
One such sense of isolation might be the factor of moving – far, and often – for both artists have travelled extensively. Yet amidst the change there is room for making new connections. For Amer, this has translated into the sense of community she has found in Halle, while for Ansari, it is the revitalising effect Berlin has had on her work. “I’ve moved between so many worlds – from Libya to Syria, Germany and beyond. New places can be cruel and cold at times,” says Alansari. “However, while every city I’ve lived in has always brought about new experiences, Berlin – the trees, the vast expanse of the city, the way people have a relationship with old things, the streets – it has been a revelation.” That is not to say that it has all been smooth sailing, for the challenge, says Ansari, “for a Syrian in Europe in general, and Germany specifically, is that no matter who you are or what you do (artist, student, doctor), you are treated as a ‘refugee’ and therefore both your personality and work are prejudged,” says Alansari. “This is mostly due to the superficial stereotypes propagated by the media. Having said that, I don’t think this need have any profound or long term impact on your artwork – ultimately, you just have to get on with it as best you can.”
Within the framework of Personal Revolutions, then, what do both feel has been the most significant for them? “I’ve worked on numerous different projects over the years, and experimented with different techniques,” says Alansari. “I don’t know that I would describe it as a ‘personal revolution’, per se, but I have to say that probably my most important achievement so far has been to do with my performance art – experimenting with the different relationships that exist between my body and my artwork.”
For Amer, the key factor has been the change from architecture to art. “My most significant personal revolution was starting my artistic career through times of war, and switching from practicing architecture to art during this time,” she explains. “Then after moving to Berlin, with the Russian intervention in the Syrian war in 2016 I felt motivated to develop my work and my research in a more political direction. I am half Syrian, half Ukrainian and speak Russian, so it was impossible not to engage with this. The reality is that, whether I like it or not, the war in Syria is a reality, and one that is pushing artists to find the vocabulary with which to process it – not as a direct reaction to the war itself, but as a way to articulate how it.”