The Challenges of Being a Syrian Artist Today
Once artists leave Syria many find that international borders are closed to them as they try to build a professional and creative life in exile.
ISTANBUL — There are two simultaneous versions of globalization in the arts. There’s of course a polished version, dominated by biennials and art fairs and the never-ending event of contemporary art in which borders have more or less ceased to exist and cultural practitioners move seamlessly from one continent to another. In the other version of globalization, there are endless borders, visa applications, attorneys, notarized documents, and ultimately, refusals. It’s not that these two versions don’t overlap; artists from numerous countries, are often invited to take part in international events, only to be refused permission. We are not discussing here the right of asylum, which means moving permanently to a new country in order to rebuild a person’s life, but the simple right to visit another country.
The case of Syrian artists is particularly telling as it reflects accurately the situation in the arts and the bigger picture of migration politics, as the war in Syria has now entered it’s 7th year, it has made millions into refugees and most don’t expect to return anytime soon. Istanbul-based Syrian photographer Khaled Akil, for example, has been refused entry to the United States more than once, the last time was as the result of Trump’s temporary ban on all Syrians entering the country, which coincided with an invitation by the Markaz Center at Stanford University to exhibit his work — and he’s not the only one facing this frustration. Back in 2015, Syrian artist Thaier Helal was denied entry to the UK where his work was being exhibited at Ayyam Gallery’s London space. The scenario is so common that some artists, Akil included, have simply stopped applying for visas.
Cultural practitioners in general have all suffered from this dismal situation. Back in 2014, the entire cast of “Syria: The Trojan Women” were denied visas for a performance in Washington, DC, and in 2016 rapper Mohammed Abu Hajar, a resident of Germany, was refused a visa to perform in the UK. Last year a quarter of the performers invited to an Arab arts-focused festival in Edinburgh were also refused visas, and most of them had Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, and Sudanese passports. The same year, Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, a New York resident of 16 years, and a graduate of Julliard, was stranded in Beirut after the Trump ban went into effect. This year, an Oscar nominated Syrian producer Kareem Abeed, also a resident of Turkey, wasn’t able to attend the Academy Awards ceremony after his application for a US visa was rejected.
More recently, Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh, who is based in Berlin, has received a remarkable string of rejections. Barakeh traveled to Europe to study in Denmark even before the Syrian conflict began. He subsequently continued his studies in Germany, where he is currently an asylum seeker. Barakeh, who is heavily involved as an artist and curator in the development of a grassroots Syrian arts scene across Europe, was invited by the British arts organization Counterpoints Arts to take part in the “Who Are We?” program at the Tate Modern in May— his visa application was also rejected. It’s worth noting that as a Syrian registered in Germany, Barakeh had traveled to the UK in the past without restrictions.
Even stranger is Barakeh’s other simultaneous rejection. The artist was curating a group exhibition at the STATION Beirut cultural venue in Lebanon that focused on the role of archives in modern artistic practices, with an obvious focus on Syria, and he was even preparing a two-days workshop for Syrian cultural practitioners based in Lebanon. He was refused a visa to Lebanon, which is particularly unusual since the country doesn’t require visas for most passports. Barakeh explained the Kafkaesque ordeal to Hyperallergic. “Yet again, I was denied entry to Lebanon, as my Syrian passport is no longer valid,” he said. “Even though I’m a holder of a German travel document, Lebanese authorities didn’t recognize it; the only possible way for me to attend the exhibition opening and workshop would be returning to Syria after 48 hours of entering Lebanon, in order to apply for a Syrian passport, which for obvious reasons I couldn’t agree to.” Returning to Syria for Barakeh, who is a dissident, would lead to his arrest.
The absurdity of the story continues: “As a result, I had to curate the exhibition and run the workshop remotely, via [a] constant Skype connection.” The exhibition In Need of Archives: Memory Revisited, opened on June 21 with the participation of artists Behjat Omer Abdullah, Heba Y. Amin, Anna Banout, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Fadi Jabbour, Randa Maddah, Mohammad Omran, Jayce Salloum, and Elia Suleiman. Barakeh wasn’t present.
According to Omar Berakdar of Arthere, an arts organization based in Istanbul, the issues for Syrians aren’t limited to Europe and the US, but includes Jordan and Egypt, which are countries that routinely deny visas to Syrian artists.
“These bans prevented a lot of artists in the region from exchanging opinions and expressing their viewpoints, which is essential for the development of an art scene,” Berakdar told Hyperallergic. “In a conference Arthere was attending in Europe, addressing the role of displaced persons in media, for example migrants and people who cannot get their voice heard, it was precisely the voice of displaced persons that was missing completely. In spite of all the efforts of the organizers to bring as much diversity into the conversation as possible, refugees were not issued visas. In June 2018, for the London BFI Film Festival, we couldn’t bring any of the Syrian artists who participated in documentaries from Turkey.”
Barakeh knows that the visa issues aren’t restricted to one region or continent. In 2016, he was invited to participate in the Shanghai Biennial but China denied him a visa. Now, he’s wondering whether he will also be denied a visa to South Korea, where he is planning to participate in the upcoming Busan Biennial. Even when artists leave Syria, they quickly realize that many borders continue to be closed to them.
Speaking with Ivor Stodolsky and Marita Muukkonen, the founders of Artists at Risk, an organization headquartered in Helsinki that organizes residencies for artists in situations of danger, you realize that the future may be grim for artists’ mobility. The majority of cases they handle are from the Middle East and North Africa regions. Although they are presently dealing with cases from Syria, such as the actor Remi Sarmini, the issue is not limited to Syrians and includes many other countries, including people like Iraqi painter Saddam Jumaily, who is currently residing in a Jordanian refugee camp, and Cameroonian poet Tito Valery, both of whom have denied visas to visit European countries even with considerable institutional support for their applications. Nevertheless, there are many artists who have successfully been able to secure visas through the Artist at Risk program, which already makes guarantees to host countries that the individual will not remain as asylum seekers in the countries they visit. According to Artists at Risk, if an artist is rejected by a Schengen-area country, the chances of success are even lower on a second attempt, therefore they’re building residencies outside of the traditionally desirable countries for refugees, which includes nations such as Serbia or Nigeria. This creative solution is a way to bypass the issue of strict visa policies by means of agreements with organizations in countries not traditionally known as migrant destinations. Barakeh was able to recently visit Brazil for a conference and an artistic project.
Artists at Risk and Arthere agree that a policy change isn’t something artists can achieve simply by applying for visas and following the protocols. This is a task for organizations with institutional support; they must lobby embassies and government officials, on behalf of the artists. Artists at Risk also mentions in the case of Europe that “it should be noted that, like most EU countries, the UK outsources their visa processes to third-party businesses, who make money and allow the national authorities to shift the responsibility to unknown entities and decision-makers.”
Despite their guarantees and successful returnees, Artists at Risk is still struggling to help artists trying to visit the West for professional reasons and the challenges Syrian artists will continue to face in the foreseeable future are not small, but Barakeh is realistic. “I know that many artists around the world deal with the same problem; it’s hard for me to accept those power structures contradicting the modern idea of creative freedom, formed on the basis of one’s border-free mobility,” he explains.
In the highly interconnected world of today, the forces of neoliberalism and nationalism may continue to erect more and more walls, real and imaginary, but artists continue to seek ways to be heard across borders. It is paradoxical that art can travel with an ease people cannot, so that knowledge encourages artists from Syria and beyond to continue their journeys across the world in unexpected ways.