Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 2nd September 2018

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Experiences of Syrian refugees in Lebanon inspire London art exhibit

“Art can express what we cannot express in words. It is a language that overcomes barriers of identity, of nations, of political discord and conflict.” - Curator Rania Mneimneh


Ongoing dilemma. A photo of Takieddin El Solh house by Rania Mneimneh.  (Karen Dabrowska)

Ongoing dilemma. A photo of Takieddin El Solh house by Rania Mneimneh. (Karen Dabrowska)

LONDON - “Syria is Happy,” the title of a painting by 10-year-old Nour Ismail, a Syrian refugee in elementary school in Lebanon, summarised the theme of optimism evident in “Tints of Resilience,” a multimedia exhibition inspired by the experiences of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

London’s P21 Gallery showcased the paintings of Syrian refugee children alongside other works of art inspired by the Syrian war.

“Art can express what we cannot express in words. It is a language that overcomes barriers of identity, of nations, of political discord and conflict,” said curator Rania Mneimneh, adding that art is a valuable resource in developing resilience in times of war, loss and personal difficulty.

Describing the work of some of the 11 artists who contributed paintings, photography, videos and poetry, Mneimneh said: “Diala Brisly dealt with her experiences of surviving in Paris as a refugee. Anas Albraehe shared the pain of coping with the loss of his mother. Calligrapher Ghassan Ismail used letters to document the loss of his archives, which were looted from his house after he left Syria. Nour Huda presented a brilliant portrayal of the struggle between society and the self through a series of portraits in which the figures are surrounded by geometric forms. And Margaux Chalancon portrayed the world of Zubaida, a refugee child, through her camera.”

Calligrapher Ghaleb Hawila drew inspiration from refugees at Yahya refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa region, which he visited with Mneimneh, Chalancon and photographer Youssef Doughan last spring.

“I wanted to interact with the refugees and went to the camp every week for two months. I organised workshops for the children to give them insights into art and teamwork. They chose the colours for my canvases and that is the essence of this exhibition for me,” Hawila said.

“Migrating Letters” is a collaborative work between the artist and the refugee children in which play and art intermingle in beautiful splashes of paint and calligraphic verses. The verses are taken from a poem, “My Friends,” by Lebanese poet Elia Abu Madi and are a juxtaposition of both a collective recognition of suffering and a collective force of resilience from a refugee camp to the world.

Hawila drew the verses of the poem calligraphically over giant canvases painted on by the children, then cropped them into more than 50 pieces. The intention was for the canvases to spread to new places and for the calligraphic letters to migrate, carrying the voices of migrant children to the audience.

Brisly, a Syrian painter, displayed a series of portraits, “Survival Mode,” which she described as “an intimate self-recollection of my personal journey and survival through war and migration to France.”

In 2014 she travelled to Lebanon to work with children in refugee camps. “I started painting murals on school tents to encourage children to attend school and feel they were safe in joyful spaces. I also conducted expressive art workshops, often asking the children to draw themselves,” Brisly said.

“The Exceptional Moon,” a short film directed by Ayman Nahle, was screened in conjunction with the exhibition. It presented a parallel narrative between fiction and reality. Six-year-old Aisha was born and lives in Yahya refugee camp in a tent she calls home. Ten-year-old Nujoud’s destiny changes as she embarks on a journey to save the crying moon flooding her village. Aisha follows Nujoud and the space of the camp expands, implying that it is not impossible for dreams to come true.

Mneimneh, a Lebanese designer and artist who was born at the end of the Lebanese civil war, said she was influenced by suffering and instability experienced by her parents’ generation.

“I believe in the vitality of the artistic experience, in times when our aspirations are choked by constant instability,” she said. “The selection of work for the exhibition started from the premise that art cannot be detached from what is happening. I am trying to convey a message of hope as well as portraying the reality of the Syrian war.”

Mneimneh photographed the dilapidated mansion of former Lebanese Prime Minister Takieddin el-Solh, who died in exile in France in 1988. “The mansion is not being taken care of and our generation feels this kind of stagnancy” she explained, stressing that, like the Syrians, the Lebanese are faced with the dilemma of whether to stay in their homeland or migrate.

The exhibition raised funds for Alphabet for Alternative Education, a Lebanese NGO, which through a specialised intensive curriculum teaches children who had no or limited access to schooling. They are helped to the appropriate education level for their age before being enrolled in Lebanese public schools.