By Brian Murphy
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Inside the gallery, artworks by Syrian artists were drawing auction bids from collectors. Outside on the street, the artists traded the latest gossip from Syria and checked their smartphones for news from the civil war.
So goes the divided world for a cadre of Syrian artists brought to the safety of Dubai by their gallery to continue their work but still remain deeply connected and influenced by the bloodshed they left behind.
The Syrian refugee diaspora — now at 2 million and growing — has fanned out across the region and beyond for more than two years from tent camps in Jordan to others trying to rebuild lives in cities such as Beirut and Istanbul. But the Gulf states present a paradox: Deeply involved in the war as some of the strongest backers for the Syrian rebels yet holding firm to tight entry controls that effectively block most refugees.
The auction Monday in Dubai’s evolving art district — tucked inside an industrial zone of warehouses and businesses — served as a window into a small but forward-looking effort to save one niche of Syria’s artistic community with no end in sight to the civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives.
“It’s a tragedy what is happening there now, but it would be an even bigger tragedy if all this art and culture that Syria has so much of would be lost,” said Hisham Samawi, whose Ayyam Gallery moved from Damascus to Dubai in late 2011 as the Arab Spring rebellion widened.
“For us,’” he added, “the artists are part of our family. We had to do it. It was for us and for them.”
Step by step for nearly two years, the gallery operators moved 15 artists and their families to Dubai — hiring them as employees to obtain visas in line with United Arab Emirates’ system that requires a person or company to act as sponsors. Meanwhile, Ayyam crews managed to ship about 3,000 paintings, sculptures and other pieces as fighting intensified in the Syrian capital.
Among those under the gallery’s wings in Dubai is one of the rising stars in Syria’s revolution-inspired art world, Tammam Azzam, a Damascus-born painter who has shifted to prints and multimedia work seeking to draw attention the horrors of conflict. One piece, “Freedom Graffiti,” superimposed the golden-hued sensuality of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece “The Kiss” over a shattered and bullet-scarred apartment wall near Homs. The image became an Internet sensation with hundreds of thousands of views and established the 33-year-old Azzam as one of the artistic voices of the civil war.
Another piece done since his arrival in Dubai is “Syrian Olympics,” a digital print of stick-figure stencils in the shape of Olympic event logos. The shooters aim like snipers at the runners.
A signed copy sold for $12,000 at the auction, attended by more than 300 people. A copy of “Freedom Graffiti” brought in $6,000.
“I have to do something for the people there,” said Azzam. “I want to do anything to send any message to people around the world about what happened in my country: People dying every day, every minute, and nobody can stop that.”
Azzam struggles with the frustrating feeling that “art doesn’t make sense” in the middle of a war.