A graduate of the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University, Tammam Azzam, abandoned a successful decade as a promising painter to escape the dangers of the Syrian war. He settled into a small apartment in Dubai with a computer and some PhotoShop software to embark on a new artistic mission: to vividly convey the tragedies of the Syrian war, using images from some of his favorite western artists such as Andy Warhol, Leonardo Da Vinci, Salvador Dali and Gustav Klimt to heighten the emphasis.
One of the works is the Klimt painting “The Kiss” digitally superimposed on a photo from wartime Douma and titled “Freedom Graphic.” According to the Ayyam Gallery website which, among other artists, represents Azzam, within five hours of being posted on social media, it was “liked” by 14,000 viewers and shared by 20,000.
Azzam says once the war in his country is over, he plans to return home and paint an acrylic version of “The Kiss” on the riddled walls of the bombed-out building in Douma. He spoke with senior reporter David Arnold about his “Syria Museum” series and a new photographic exhibit at the Ayyam Gallery in Dubai.
Arnold: How did you conceive of this series of digital images?
Azzam: Actually, there is a lot of courageous people who send me the photos… from Homs, Douma, Aleppo, Idlib. You know a lot of places in Syria are like that: completely destroyed. I have created the “Syria Museum” series, which incorporates iconic subjects from the greatest European masters such as Da Vinci, Matisse, Goya and Van Gogh. Really, it’s depicting the greatest achievements of humanity with the destruction. So, each one is a particular event to what has informed Syria. For example, Klimt’s “The Kiss” shows the love in a relationship between people and I have juxtaposed this with the capacity of hate that the regime has for its people.
Arnold: Why did you choose to place the celebration of dancing women in “The Dancer” by Matisse on a pile [of rubble] on a street in Homs?
Azzam: At first, I wanted to [draw] attention [to the war in] Syria. So, if you have this big difference between the famous painting with the destroyed background, I think it will make something and people will try to understand what had been there. I hope that.
Arnold: You have received international recognition for some of this work. What do you think of the reaction?
Azzam: I appreciate the interest and that they care about my work. But what I care about the most is that all the articles reflect what is happening in Syria right now…. Although I wish they [would convey] that there is no war in Syria. It is a revolution. For sure, because in the case of civil war, you must have two sides with the same [means]: Not one side with Scuds, and the other side just with guns. So, it’s a revolution. I’m a Syrian and I have lived all my life there so I know Syria very well. And I know Syrian people.
“I feel that the destroyed background is more surrealistic than the Dali surrealism itself. As I told you, it’s a revolution, not a war.” – Tammam Azzam, Syrian artist
Arnold: Tell me about the image from Dali as it hangs above the empty streets of Homs?
Azzam: It represents two ideas together. How the world is totally asleep about what’s happening in the background in Syria. And, second, I feel that the destroyed background is more surrealistic than the Dali surrealism itself. As I told you, it’s a revolution, not a war.
Azzam: Yes. I left alone at first because I felt everything became dangerous there for my daughter, my wife and myself and I’m sorry that I had no choice but to leave. So I left my home and my studio and began to make my computer works, like my own studio.
Arnold: Describe your studio now.
Azzam: It’s a computer. That’s it. [A] mini-studio.
Arnold: I have read that you want to go back home and paint “The Kiss” on that wall in Douma.
Azzam: When the revolution [prevails], yes of course, I will go back and try to make something beautiful on these walls. So, till now I am not sure I will be able to do that big project or not. But, yes, I hope to do that.
Arnold: Would you actually try to paint “The Kiss” on that wall?
Azzam: Yes, why not? I would use [a] graphical medium with spray and acrylic.
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.