In Conversation: Mapping History and Trauma

We speak with four interdisciplinary, intergenerational female artists about ideas pertaining to their artistic practice, as well as concepts of identity and life inside and outside of Syria. Here, Azza Abo Rabieh, Khadija Baker, Sulafa Hijazi and Laila Muraywid talk together from their respective homes in Beirut, Montreal, Berlin and Paris.

For these four artists, each living in a different corner of the globe, their artistic practice is at once a way in which to parse the events they are witnessing unfolding in their native Syria, as well as an intense form of self-expression – as it is for all artists. Each individual practice encompasses complex and nuanced investigations into identity, gender, violence and society.

For both Azza Abo Rabieh and Sulafa Hijazi, in their 30s and living in Beirut and Berlin respectively, the events in Syria remain close in near memory, both having left the country in the last few years and working amongst the ongoing Syrian Revolution during their time there. Hijazi, the first female animation director in Syria, is a writer and director who left for Frankfurt, then Berlin, in 2013. This was due to the unwanted attention she was receiving due to her participation in the peaceful resistance’s movement, creating and publishing works that criticised the political and social oppression of the regime.

Similarly, Rabieh was forced to leave in 2017 after the government falsely levelled serious charges against her. Much of Rabieh’s work deals with the fate of Syria today, and the horrors and impacts the war has had, while Hijazi documents the economic and social changes faced by Syria and the impact of conflict on the civilian population – particularly children.

Khadija Baker, of Kurdish origin, moved to Montreal in 2001, while Laila Muraywid emigrated to Paris in the 1980s. Both share an exploration of the body and space, with the former creating sculptures, performance and photography works, and the latter focusing more fully on performance and multidisciplinary installation.

For Muraywid, the female body assumes a social dimension, a hostage to religion and society, torn between women’s rights, seduction, desire, secrets and violence. She also works extensively with the idea of masks, and the idea of that which we conceal, the mask being a portal between internal and external. Baker, meanwhile, explores the social aspects of violence against women and children, seeking to create a space of empathy and understanding through probing and powerful performative works.

We brought them together to discuss various aspects of their practice, in as much as what binds them as distinguishes them, and some of the ever-pervading issues that both limit as well as catalyse the work of Syrian artists working today.

Azza, your work has a bold, graphic element to it, influenced by Francisco Goya, and in particular, his The Disasters of War series (1810–20). What drew you to him?

Azza Abo Rabieh: Goya’s ability – and bravery – to combine the painful with the beautiful creates messages that are at once strong and unforgettable. His oil paintings are rich in texture and focus on royal life and the court, while his etchings were for the people, specifically created to share widely. The metamorphosis of the faces he draws fascinates me – people with owl faces and bat bodies. These creatures talk of the darkness of that period (19th century Spain), and the bloodiness in his art speaks of the impact the Spanish civil war had on him. He still speaks to us today, as if he is saying: look closely, see how human beings can turn into ugly creatures during times of war and slaughter.

I suppose what particularly interests me, and applies especially to my Syrian Notebook series (2017), is how Goya pays attention to the transparency of the interplay between black and white. Goya is one of the most important references for young artists studying etching, and you can learn a lot from how he uses acquaint. His ability to create an amalgamation of beautiful opposites – a harsh scene that is yet sensitive in terms of technique and composition – is what makes the work so powerful.

Sulafa, you also have a distinctive, graphic quality to your work, particularly the Ongoing series (2011–15), which resonates with Azza Abo Rabieh’s work. In your case, you have said that while your work is born out of your experiences in Syria, it is not necessarily about only Syria, but about global and humanitarian conflict in general…

Sulafa Hijazi: What has been important to me is to create work that resonates on both a local and a global level. No matter what our cultural identity or signifiers, ultimately, the same issues touch every human being.

In the Ongoing series, my objective was not to re-tell the news or current events, nor really to draw attention to them. The severity of the historic moment that marked the beginning of the Syrian revolution – and the sheer weight of aggressive and bloody events – was so unexpected, that I think for many people, it led to a complete crumbling and reassessment of our understanding of human nature and society. Ongoing is special to me as a work that stands alone in my practice in posing more questions than it provides answers.

Undoubtedly, these drawings grew out of my own experience in Syria, however I think anybody can relate to them, for they express human feelings and emotions we all share: fear, revulsion, revolt, anger, critique of military firearms, thoughts on death and mortality, our life, and the role of gender. Its popularity has been due to its spread on social media, which has been a great engine for the Syrian Revolution. Social media has been a lifeline offering a free space for expression, communication and the sharing of news and art, away from the scrutiny of the authorities.

Azza, is the same true for you? Is your work very Syria-specific (in the same way Goya was commenting on the Spanish civil war)?

Azza Abo Rabieh: Of course, although I have never considered myself Syria-specific as much as ‘populist’. I have always been with the Syrian Revolution, as if, together, we could lift injustice from the land. This was an opportunity for me to send these messages, through the Syrian revolution.

While working on my etching series, I read for months about revolutions and massacres throughout history, and just saw the same scenarios repeating over and over: the same scenes I was seeing in Syria in front of my eyes. Even the decision to use Goya as a visual inspiration, down to his characteristic bats, comes from the idea that nothing has changed, our world is still the same, wild place. In my exhibition Athar (‘traces’) in Beirut (which opened of 15 March of this year, marking the anniversary of the Syrian revolution), I think viewers saw themselves in these works, regardless of nationality, which was the most important thing for me.

You have also had the experience of having to smuggle your work out of Syria. As people move out of Syria and have to find a safe way out, so does creative output. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

Azza Abo Rabieh: In 2015 I was actually arrested. Yet, after four months in prison, I refused to leave the country. But the judge’s decision to re-label my case a ‘terrorist crime’ marked a turning point. I had to leave. On one hand, it was easy, as the government approved a ‘one way leave permit’ for me, so I was able to take a lot of my works with me. But I had to leave a lot behind – including my printing press, and my cats. I was initially going to go to Spain in 2017 for an artist residency, but was ultimately not granted a visa, and so have been in Beirut ever since.

This sort of experience damages you profoundly, and in many ways, it was my show, Athar, that saved me. In 2017 I was given a grant by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture and it was with their financial support that I was able to work on my art again and begin, at least a little, to recover. In my eyes I had left Syria a complete loser.

All four of you have now left Syria – at various times and for various reasons. Laila, you were the first to leave, in 1981. What prompted the move to Paris?

Laila Muraywid: There is a secret, sensitive place inside oneself that should remain closed to all explanations, conscious or unconscious. Having said that, there are many reasons for leaving: desire, boredom, frustration, injustice, loss, pain, absence and violence are common to all. So is the need to express one's existential anger, to communicate with others, to confront oneself with one's limits.

Khadija, you are now based in Montreal, and left Syria in 2001 – what prompted the move and, for both of you, Khadija and Laila, how has your environment impacted your work?

Khadija Baker: There have been multiple changes in my work after I moved, but also life changes that would have happened regardless of whether I left or not; it’s just the test that is different. If I think of it through place and social integration: moving from one place to another, one time to another, one might have a clearer vision of the lived experience. The passage gives me more space to reflect and measure my life now, though art, society, culture and more. If there is an impact, it comes from this experience of remembering and through the lived present. There is no separation, only a continuation and full life that goes on. My identity doesn’t fit into Syria only – I am Syrian as much as I am Canadian, Kurdish, a mother, and artist too. At the end of the day, I am a person and all these layers are part of who I am. In other words, it is like building a home within the body, not the outside, and the memory of each place will offer you something new in this home.

Laila Muraywid: In my case, what was eye opening moving to Paris was less to do with nationality than it was about gender. I thought that what is naturally considered feminine or masculine changes from one society to another, and so coming to France would change things for me. But alas, even in France the masculine is considered of a higher value, and the two genders are not considered equal. They are always in opposition, classified and analysed against each other as active and passive, hard and soft, etc.

I guess as humans, we will always need a language to structure, organise and analyse the hidden link between feelings and forms. What seems to matter the most to people is not whether one is Syrian or French, but whether one is male or female. This is nonsense. I don’t believe that an artist can be anything but androgynous; there is no ‘female art’ or ‘male art’.

Laila and Khadija, has there been a sense of helplessness watching events in Syria unfold from afar and how has it impacted your work?

Laila Muraywid: The war was an important turning point for me: how does one face all this horror and violence? How to transform it and not simply reproduce it? How to invent a new way of resistance? War is strangely contradictory, for it is at once constructive and destructive. It is traumatic and yet also a place of awakening, of transformation and regeneration. The weight of suffering was greater than my capacity to deal with it. However, over time my unresolved fears and feelings as well as the images I have seen of violence, injustice, cruelty and inhumanity have taken physical, visual form. This created a sense of a place to build, to open and escape to from the imprisonment of the reality of war. Through my work I was able to start to negotiate with myself the various ways in which to accept life as well as all of this irredeemable loss.

My sculptures have helped me deal with this loss. Through them, I am able to reconcile reality with my inner world to overcome the terrifying incomprehensible chaos, and fight the monsters inside and outside oneself. They help me preserve and have access to the fabulous treasures we have lost in this war, and all of the lives, the heroes and heroines who have gone, leaving no trace behind.

Khadija Baker: As with Laila’s experience, the impact has been enormous. I feel like it sometimes separates me from the present. When violence occurs, we often hang around the borders of hopelessness. It is mothers who worry the most about their faraway children, as well as those who are sick. The Syrian part of me is far away and suffering; I am so disturbed. I want to do something through art, to find ways to work on more than a personal level, to share the stories of what is going on there. There is no other way I can fight the ugly war and hatred embodied within it except through the beauty of art and of an encounter, where I can share some of the pain and provoke the need for support.

Sulafa and Azza, as you both left Syria after the recent conflicts began, it feels as though there is more rawness in your work.

Sulafa Hijazi: On a personal level, of course, the immediacy of the experience of the revolution must have reflected itself in my artwork. In the period that I spent in Syria in 2011 and 2012, violence for me was more an existing reality rather than a conceptual question. It was only during my studies at the Städelschule Fine Art Academy in Frankfurt that I began reflecting upon the concept of violence. The amount of violent images and videos that the media shared during the war in Syria was a daily assault.

In many ways this made it ‘familiar’, and I think in turn simply spurred on more violence. This is when I began thinking about the ethics of using violence in art in general. Then, I thought, being in Frankfurt, home to the European Central Bank, and seeing how tough life can be here economically made me think of violence in another way: how the root of violence can be traced to economic issues and the regimes it creates.

Azza Abo Rabieh: I would add that seeing violence first-hand definitely has an impact. In my case, as I said before, I left in early 2017 and so had lived six years of revolution within Syria. During that time, so many scenes became etched in my memory forever. My eyes were my camera. Of course it had a huge impact on me – to live amongst a revolution, with all its disappointments and damage. I live outside Syria now, yet those awful scenes stay within me. I have to accept that I am powerless to do anything from outside the country. I live in solitude with these memories I have.

How have your artistic practices changed since leaving Syria? How does your immediate locale impact your work? You are spread so globally – Berlin, Beirut, Paris, Montreal…

Sulafa Hijazi: It has been five years since I left Syria and during this period there have been a lot of political, social and personal changes. I studied contemporary arts while in Frankfurt, and then moved to Berlin, where I was exposed to a lot of different influences. Naturally, this intense human experience is reflected in the artistic one. Generally my artworks in 2000 are not the same as those of 2005, and works from 2005 are not like those from 2010, and so on. In other words, art is continuously developing, especially if the accompanying human experience is equally intense.

On a technical art level, I am currently working on multimedia practices and linking it to conceptual art. There are now a lot more technologies than there were just five years ago, such as virtual and augmented reality and social media. To be abreast of these technical developments has had its effect on the arts over the past few years, and on my own practice.

Azza Abo Rabieh: Leaving Syria hasn’t changed anything in my work, per se. My work The Others was done when I was in the country, and it is from the same series which I completed when I came to Beirut and called Athar (‘traces’).

Khadija Baker: The anger will always be there and it is deeply rooted and layered in witnessing this painful experience. I think of my own experience, which has been a continuation of my past – and how being a Kurdish woman has played a big role. The reasons behind suffering in the earlier years of my life were very clear; we were punished for speaking our language, we were not allowed to learn it or hear it. Every time we wanted to celebrate our New Years or carry a book about us, it came with great risk of the authorities punishing us. Discrimination occurred on a daily basis. Our region was supposed to be one the most fertile lands of agricultural and natural resources in Syria yet we didn’t own its wealth.

The suffering is even harder for Syrians as they build resistance to the political, social and daily violence they face now; the whole country pays the price because people dared to speak out, or as writer and poet Khalid Khalifa has said, “because it refused to obey”. All places in Syria are my home; there is no place in which I don’t have a family member, or a neighbour or friend. I lived in many places and I was planning to visit many. They are cites that exist only in memory now. I have put these elements in my work. I need to do that to survive.

Laila Muraywid: During these last eight years of war I've been working mostly on sculptures. One example is a piece called A Tree, A City, A Woman (2015). It was a dialogue between the unknown and the impossible, new materials, new ways of dealing with these materials. It was kind of a reminder that something is still possible, that solutions can still be found. For my work here in particular, the details have been essential, as has time, that is, time to create, as if the materials I’ve been working with were shaped over time to take on new, unexpected forms. I guess they question the faithfulness of memory, and how it bends, warps and changes, both on a personal and a collective level.

Laila, your work has a real sense of intimacy. Tell us about your interest in photography and the body.

Laila Muraywid: How does one deal with the body? The body of a woman, in particular, facing suffering, violence, oblivion and all the other thousand invisible, intangible laws that are inflicted upon her? 99 Women and One Mask is as as-yet unfinished photographic project I am currently working on: one mask behind which fear, society and taboos hide behind, a place where the common, the exceptional, the tragic, and the beautiful all co-exist. I’m asking: when we wear masks, are we facing others, or ourselves?

Laila also works in performance, as do you, Khadija, and you seek to create a ‘space of empathy and understanding’ – could you elaborate?

Khadija Baker: In a way, the idea behind my work is to contribute towards the need for a revolution – one that comes both from within people and for people. One that doesn’t serve any other agendas and with no interference. My performance is interdisciplinary and I use these different materials and forms to practice my own revolution, hoping to enlighten the need for immediate change, especially in regards to the woman's role, the body, and reforms that will accompany political ones.

In performance, women especially are more often labelled, and so I like to challenge perception with my own body by creating places where it is less about the seen body and more about who I am with the multiple identities I have when I perform. I have a respect for the feminist theories that influence my practice; however, I am more into revolutionary theory, for which I want to credit my mother, who had her own feminist way of thinking.

Speaking of intimacy, Sulafa, your work examines the loss of spirituality in the face of modernity, a critique on how technology is taking over, and on economic and social upheaval. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

Sulafa Hijazi: On an artistic level, digital art is just another medium in my palette that I can use to explore ideas and engage with the world. It is the tool that I scream with, dream with, or carry out a social role. It is a tool for constant questioning in regards to form, content and technique. It is an open question and a constant probing that enriches my human experience.

For example, the main question in my show Animated Images 001 (part of the Shubbak Festival in London in 2016) was: what is the relationship between the daily dose of images we are exposed to on social media, and our feelings? Can we give each image the emotions it is worthy of, or that are equal to its value? Can we control or reduce our reactions, so that we can consume even more than what we normally receive on these networks? Do these images leave their impact on us at a later stage? Has the frequency of violent images made us immune to their effects? What is the distance between what is real and what is virtual? Or between a witness and an onlooker?

I must say, though, it’s not only technology that makes us harder, or steels us against emotions. There are wars, banks and all sorts of tyranny beyond that realm too. Personally, I like the digital world, virtual reality and binary language. I consider the QR code a part of my cultural identity, in the same way that Arabic and Islamic motifs are. However, with the massive digital revolution of our time, I think it is important to always keep abreast of these developments with what one might call ‘digital ethics’.

To come back to the works you produce, you each have a distinctive colour palette to your work: dark and bold for Azza Abo Rabieh; pale (harking to a socialist colour palette I believe) for Sulafa Hijazi; hazy and tinted for Laila Muraywid and then of course the ‘reality’ of performance, of the ‘real’ for Khadija Baker. Could we talk a little about colour in your works?

Laila Muraywid: Colours have entered into the process of creation as an element of resistance, of life, of death and as part of a language to express opacity or transparency. Colours exist opposed to shadows, which have an important place in my work, as if shadows were colours rooted in an invisible world.

Azza Abo Rabieh: My work tends to be more monochrome because colour, for me at least, is related to the technique and media used. In etching you cannot really print with more than one colour unless you find another plate. Black here is the master of colour (and variations of grey) and the opposite of white, which gives richness and contrast to the work.

Sulafa Hijazi: I would agree with that. Indeed, there is a clear effect of the colours of communist drawings in my Ongoing series, and that was a choice which I found convenient for the subjects I was working on. But in my other works, colour has been dealt with differently depending on the technique and the subject. In Animated Images 001, that focus was on black and white, and their degradation through the use of digital technology. Then, in Animated Images 002 (2017), the colours were more intense, varying and in harmony. In my more recent work, colour has become more frank.

Khadija Baker: It’s interesting to see the dark and bold theme here, which is also evident in my work. I have a tendency to over think the use of my materials and the colours. I sometimes use a lot of colours when there is no ending or when I see a cycle of experiences. However, I use mostly black and white, as they are my way to highlight unwanted conflict in all its forms: racial, political, social or gendered. Black and white, for me, translates what one can accept or what one can refuse. The colours in-between are justifications and I won’t compromise or accept any justification for any kind of war. My performance derives from the experiences of lived life, it is real and as long as my body is doing the performance, the process counts in my work as well. I almost have no borders between all parts of my life, where the multiple ‘me’s practice life and art at the same time.

Ultimately, who is ‘me’? People love labels, so do you find the title ‘female Syrian artist’ empowering or limiting?

Khadija Baker: I am not against it. It’s important sometimes to have it as starting point for a conversation, but it makes me angry if it is used in a way to make me a subject and to remove me from another group or other artistic practices, in other words to exclude. As I said before, identities limit us when they are used in a wrong way. I prefer to have them as a strong point, a positive, as I want to tell why I am doing this kind of work now, about Syrian conflict and why it is now and here. I take you through places to build this kind of connection on a human level. I start from one personal experience toward a universal one; for example, if you fight for women’s human rights then the fight is valuable in any part of the world if you can do it.

Azza Abo Rabieh: Personally, I prefer talking about art for art, and for it to be far away from politics, even if it is loaded with messages!

Sulafa Hijazi: Yes, I agree. I define myself as a woman and I define myself as a human/individual from Syria, but those two identities are not the only ones that define me as a person. I am a collection of belongings and identities that are changing with time. Identity is on one hand a constant, yet the essence of my identity varies depending on the circumstances I am in. There are also many times that identity becomes a way to generalise stereotypical ideas.

My problem with these generalities is when my artwork is read through the lens of what most people know about Syria. I also find it problematic when I am forced to talk about myself rather than about my work. These moments I feel as if I was the subject in question (the important thing) because I am Syrian for instance, or because I am woman, rather than due to the interest in my artistic production.


About the artists:

Azza Abo Rabieh

Born in 1980 in Hama, Azza graduated from Damascus University, Faculty of Fine Arts (Etching Department) in 2002. She has also won multiple other awards such as first prize in the Annual Youth Exhibition in Damascus 2006 and the third prize in Colour of Damascus Exhibition 2005, Italy, curated by The European Commission Delegation. Azza’s work has been exhibited widely in Damascus, Beirut, Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Sofia, Uzice, Barcelona, Vaasa, London and Chicago and has been acquired by The British Museum, Atassi Foundation and others.

Khadija Baker

Khadija Baker is a Montréal based Kurdish-Syrian multidisciplinary artist who creates installations that combine performance, digital art, sound and animation. Since 2001 she has lived and worked in Montreal, Canada, and received her MFA in Studio Arts/open media from Concordia University. Her work explores social and political themes related persecution, displacement and memory. She has exhibited in cultural capitals such as Montreal, Toronto, New York, London, Berlin, Marseille, Istanbul, New Delhi, Beirut and Damascus, including at the 18th biennale of Sydney. Baker has been a core member of COHDS since 2013, and is undertaking research creation at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture (CISSC).


Sulafa Hijazi

Born in Damascus, Sulafa Hijazi is a director, visual and multimedia artist based in Berlin-Germany. She studied at the Higher Institute of the Dramatic Arts in Syria, where she majored in dramatic studies, and at the Städelschule Fine Art Academy in Frankfurt Am Main, Germany. Hijazi began her career as a writer and director of animation and other multimedia production, with a particular focus on children education, social development, and creating animation that reflects Arab identity. Hijazi is also a founding member of Spacetoon 'the first free Arabic satellite channel for kids’. Her artworks art part of acclaimed collections such as those of the British Museum in London, Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah, and International Media Support (IMS) in Copenhagen.


Laila Muraywid

Born in 1956 in Damascus, Laila Muraywid graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Damascus University, and continued her higher education in the école nationale supérieure des arts décoratifs in Paris. Muraywid had many solo exhibitions in Lyon, Paris, Dubai, and Germany; as well as exhibitions accompanying performance arts in Amman, Beirut, and Damascus. She also participated in group exhibitions in Rabat, Paris, Brussels, and Washington, DC. Muraywid focuses on photography and sculpture, and uses different ways of expression to defy dominant social norms that limit women’s freedom.