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FEATURE STORY

Syrian Crisis: The Art of Resilience

April 8, 2014

We Are Not Numbers: “In We Are Not Numbers, I relied on my memory of drawings of children from Syria. The aim was to draw attention to the fact that children are not part of the war, to protect their memories from the acts of violence and the cruelties of armed conflict.” – Heba Al Akkad

Fragmentation, fatigue, bloodshed, nostalgia: these are the themes of 35 paintings by Syrian artists in a special exhibition at the Bank this month.

April 8, 2014—Artists are among the millions of Syrians affected by the past three years of Syria’s bitter war, and collectively, and their art conveys a sense of the inner turmoil the extreme violence in Syria has caused them. 

“I contemplate the painting as a witness to all this hell, the terrible destruction,” says Essam Hamdi, one of 15 artists whose work has been brought to Washington by the World Bank and is being displayed in the Main Complex lobby and Wolfensohn Atrium from April 9 to May 9.

"Today, we are privileged to get a glimpse into the lives of Syrians,” says President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank Group. “Their art gives us new insights into what’s happening inside Syria now—that the conflict is not about statistics, it’s about people suffering each and every day."

His message reflects the meaning of one of the 35 works of art exhibited—the collage We Are Not Numbers in which artist Heba Alakkad challenges the anonymity of the statistics that people become in war. “The martyrs, the detainees, the missing persons, the refugees—children or adults—are not case numbers on a file,” she says in a statement on her work. 

In the case of Syria, even the statistics are breathtaking: The United Nations says more than 9.3 million people inside the country need aid. The number of internally displaced is about 6.5 million, and more than 2.6 million Syrians have left the country, most seeking refuge in neighboring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

Kim has been outspoken about the Syrian crisis and the need to support Syria’s neighbors, taking part in the launch of an International Support Group for Lebanon last year. At the Group’s most recent meeting in Paris in March, the Bank’s regional Vice-President for the Middle East and North Africa, Inger Andersen, said stepping-up support to help Lebanon cope with the impact of the Syrian crisis was “our collective responsibility.” The Bank is already providing Jordan with support.

The exhibition contains photographs that capture the regional scope of the Syrian crisis, including a copy of the famous photograph taken this year by the UN’s Relief and Works Agency, of Palestinian refugees trapped by fighting and starved of food in their camp at Yarmouk in a suburb of Damascus. 

The rest are photographs taken by World Bank staff of Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan, where the Bank is focusing on supporting municipalities to provide services to both local residents and refugees.

When the situation in Syria deteriorated toward the end of 2011, some Syrian artists moved to the Lebanese capital of Beirut, while others stayed behind in the Syrian capital of Damascus. 

The Red Part of a Second: “My paintings are about events that take one second, a second so long that it could include many changes. And there are fragments that float in the air, they are immaterial, not like the ones that normally exist in an explosion: They are ideas, emotions, dreams and souvenirs, or unfinished projects.” – Imadeddin Habbab

Raghad Mardini, a Syrian engineer and designer displaced to Lebanon by the war, decided to renovate the ruin of an old horse stables to provide an artists’ workplace and retreat in Lebanon—what she describes as a “cultural safety net”—for Syrian artists living on either side of the border. Her Art Residence in Aley gives two selected artists at a time, a month’s free board in exchange for one of the paintings they do there. 

Artist Imadeddin Habab arrived there from Damascus. His painting The Red Part of a Second could be interpreted literally—the moment a bomb explodes in the middle of a crowd—or metaphorically, as the artist says he chooses to view his paintings, containing ideas, dreams or emotions, as “events that take one second, a second so long that it could include many changes inside it.”

More than 130,000 people have been killed in the war in Syria, and the emotional toll it exacts on its survivors is evident too. Both hope and despair are projected in the fragility of new life in Reem Yasouf’s splintered Womb, the darkness and light of Mahmoud Majdal’s Fountain (“so much beauty yet so much hideousness” the artist says), and the nostalgic longing for serenity in Hasko Hasko’s Season of Migration to the North

A bearded general—“a monster turned into a dictator”—in Mohamad Omran’s The End is the most obvious visual reference to militarism in the exhibition, while Fadi Hamwi’s “X-ray” series of farm animals is aimed, the artist says, at revealing what lies beneath warlike images of the exterior, “where the thoughts of violence and brutal instincts of killing hide, and how the war provokes them …”