By: Lindsey Doyle
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of sitting down to talk with Khaled Barakeh, prolific Syrian-born artist, activist, and, most recently, founder of coculture, an organization focused on connecting and empowering exiled Syrian cultural practitioners and culture worldwide. Khaled’s current projects – Syrian Cultural Index, Syrian Bienniel, Support the Supporters and Makan – all respond to the challenges posed by the dissolution of culture and artistic practice when cycles of violent conflict take root.
Khaled’s relationship with art started with Arabic calligraphy, a talent he developed later during a compulsory time in the Syrian military when he was repeatedly forced to paint presidential portraits of the father of the current Syrian dictator.
Khaled, like so many professional artists who have been forcibly displaced or left in visa limbo, do what is necessary to survive, creating as he goes – what he calls his “Practice of Necessity.” Embedded in Khaled’s language of this practice was the grief, anger, and tension that only profound loss can create – a sense of loss I hear in many voices of the artists that MAP works with.
This iterative style led him to take inspiration from the “Hands Across the Divide” sculpture by Maurice Harron in Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland of two men with outstretched hands, reaching toward one another yet never touching. Khaled created a sculpture of the space between their hands called “The Shake.”
This concave impression became the centerpiece of an installation called “Memory Scaffolding” surrounded by a free-standing, 30 meter-long panoramic photo of the sculpture shot from different angels to enhance and distort the size of the arms – an embodiment of the push-and-pull of armed conflict. In the corner, you can see Khaled himself etched into the photo where he was standing while it was taken.
Khaled continues to iterate on this subject, creating figurines of the sculpture and even a clock, giving form to the tense, elusive dynamics of decades of post-conflict reconciliation, as if in kinship with so many others grappling with that same Necessity.
Skeptics continue to say that culture is not part of building democracy – perhaps because they are comfortable, because they don’t have to experience Necessity, and because they don’t dare to connect the ways that they get to enjoy creativity in their personal lives with what happens at the office when they have power over what gets to move forward and what doesn’t. As one visitor during Khaled’s talk put it, it’s as if all the artists hiding behind their suits and ties need a support group to say, “It’s okay, you can come out now.”
Art and culture have everything to do with democracy. They are channels through which experiences of oppression that are a result of abuses of power are translated for the everyday person. They are some of the things that bridge the treacherous waters between authoritarianism and democracy.
Take Khaled’s piece, “Damascus 15/02/2012 19:47:31,” imprints of his friend’s wounds after being beaten by Syrian police during an interrogation. It puts onto paper the result of physical violence during a period when artists were being detained, tortured, and killed for being those expert channels and trusted messengers of society.
Why would they be beaten if they didn’t matter? What were the police so afraid of?
Can we, at once, be radicalized in spirit by the forces that oppress us, yet compassionate and strategic in our reaction? Is this not what democracy strives for, or any group of people who have ever wished for life to be better and more humane?
In talking with Khaled, I reflected that the artist is anyone who dares to use their sentience – their courage to listen to their emotions as a guide – to put into sensory form what cannot otherwise be described using rational thought. Khaled, in particular, is intimately aware of the dynamics of power around him and uses a practice that builds upon itself in order to respond to it.
Democracy is all about power and how it’s managed. And so, too, is art. Art and culture are perhaps the reasons why we can have a radicalized spirit and a compassionate hand.
“Homeland is racist”
Khaled and his class at the University of Arts Berlin (UDK) asked visitors to their “Refugee Class for Professional Artists” final exhibition to put on glasses with the word “refugee” written on each lens. At first expecting a high-tech virtual reality experience, guests were surprised by the purposefully low-tech, literally “in your face” words through which they now had to view the exhibit.
Why must we be labeled as “refugees,” Khaled contends? We are professional artists with awe-inspiring bodies of work. See us as such.
Khaled saw this label – simply as an adjective describing a person or a Community, not a noun – as victim blaming: You’ve been forced from your home as a result of forces outside of your control, so now you will carry a scarlet letter, that, based on international humanitarian law, you actually must carry in order to ever have any hope of becoming a citizen of any country ever again.
Khaled isn’t the only one bucking the term. Fellow artists Heba Amin (a friend of Khaled’s, in fact), Caram Kapp and Stone made headlines when in 2015 they were commissioned to paint graffiti in Arabic on the set of what was supposed to be a Syrian refugee camp for the television show Homeland. In reaction to the objectification of “the refugee” and of the show’s Islamophobic premise, they wrote on the set walls, “Homeland is racist,” “blacklivesmatter,” and, perhaps most fitting, “The situation is not to be trusted.”
Heba Amin was recently shortlisted for the 2019 Sussmann Artist Award that specifically recognizes artists who are "committed to democracy and anti-fascism through their work.”
Finally, Khaled reminded us of the de-banking problems that artists face, even when backed by major, reputable international donors. Simply for having the word “Syria” in the name of his project, a German bank upheld hundreds of thousands of dollars in legitimate donations, causing him to change the name of the project to “coculture.” Artists (and many others including local and international non-profit organizations) risk getting caught as bycatch at the hands of undiscriminating laws intended to prevent terrorism and money laundering, without consideration for how their blanket approach might be affecting “democracy” and contradicting their goals.
Yet we wonder why we have the global problems that we do. It is in part because, as a friend remarked, we allow into our homes and onto our screens a version of the world that doesn’t show the consequences. It uses the easy labels, it doesn’t bother to hire an Arabic-speaking television consultant, it enforces laws without asking, “At what cost?” It thinks that public grievances don’t matter until the Arab rises up, and it never shows that great art and democracy are forged out of Necessity, not in spite of it.