how civil war impacted creative life in syria
Photographer Amer Mohamad on his artistic coming of age in a war zone, and why he believes art can change the world.
Amer Mohamad is a 22-year-old Syrian fashion photographer and architecture student currently living and working in Moscow and studying in Ivanovo, the textiles capital of Russia. Since he was a teenager in Damascus, Amer has been fascinated by fashion and the creative freedom and expression it offers. Growing up, his bedroom walls were covered in photo collages and glossy editorials. But with the outbreak of civil war in 2011, he saw his artistic community retreat and the world he belonged to fade.
Leaving Syria to attend university in Russia, he was once again able to engage with art. But now his enjoyment was tempered by a keen awareness of what he had left behind and what was lost. In Russia he began creating his own work that explored sexuality and experimentation. They were subjects that never would have been open to him at home, and the resulting preoccupation with the ebb and flow of creative autonomy would go on to inform much of his life and work.
He spoke to i-D about growing up in Damascus and why he believes art can change the world.
When people think of Syria they're often focusing on the civil war, but tell us what it was like from a creative point of view when you were growing up.
It was a mix of everything: we had opera, ballet, exhibitions for painters, sculptors, modern art, calligraphy shows and Islamic art - which doesn't include human shapes, just nature or ornaments. Creativity was taught from generation to generation like a craft, even making carpets, bags and traditional sandals from leather.
So expression through art was very free.
Yes. Art is appreciated in Syria. It's just hard to get the recognition in third world countries from the first world. If any artist was displaying in Paris, Amsterdam or anywhere, they'd get much more attention than displaying in Syria or Iraq or Palestine. But we have galleries that help artists to sell or showcase their work.
You were still living in Syria a year after the war started, how did you see this all change?
There was displacement, chaos, bad energy, struggle - so many words to explain it. I believe before this, we were ok. The war was never what we wanted. In the last six to eight years (before the war) Syria was going through big changes with many creative opportunities. Then it started to seem that people were going backwards in mentality. They became scared to go outside and there were a lot of dramatic changes: loss of inspirations, sadness... death was everywhere.
Is that why you made the decision to leave Syria for Russia?
I moved to Russia to study, because my university closed due to rebels. I chose Russia because my parents met and married here, and continued onto higher studies before returning to Syria. I started my photography here, so Russia had a big effect on my career and my talent.
What do you explore in your photography?
My work is about experimentation: I like exploring sexuality and colours. I try to take the everyday view and look at it from different angles. After all I am living in Russia, and what interests me doesn't interest Russians due the fact they are seeing it every day, to them it's lame.
You're very interested in the impact art can have in combatting violence and oppression, tell us about that.
Well for example, there is a revolutionary Syrian artist called Akram Sowaidan, he used to paint on glass and coal, but he lost his business. Now he works to transform the fragments of missiles and bullets of war machines, that led to the deaths of thousands of civilians in his hometown, to ornate carvings and vases that tell the stories of his city and its war.
I quote him: "I want to push away the spectre of fear from my kids at the mention of the words war, rocket or missile or anything like that. I want to say that we are not terrorists. Within each one of us a child and an artist and lover and worker." I think this is a very open example of how creativity can end war, by looking at it from the other side and trying to shape the violence into peace, or art work.
Can foreign creativity impact the situation?
Creativity is communication. For example, a work by Ehsan Alar at the Venice Biennale Syrian pavilion shows sculpted feet in sand that represents human migration. When art shows what we are struggling with it touches the humanity in people and opens eyes to see what we are going through. Like the statue made on Turkish shores by Indian artist Sudarsan Pattnaik which depicted the drowned Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi. Or Jason deCaires Taylor's underwater sculpture off the coast of Spain which draws parallels with the plight between thousands of migrants who risk their lives daily escaping the Syrian war zone, and other countries.
So it can introduce emotion into a narrative. Bring a personal element into the images we see about Syria in the media.
Yes, I'm sure about that. Just like Iranian artist Shirin Neshat changed the whole world's view of Iranian women and culture, I hope one day I can do the same for Syrians. She has had a big influence on me.
What motivates you to do this?
I'd say it's because of my father. He motivates me to be a better person. Even though I'm doing fashion, alongside my architecture, he still encourages me and tells me to follow what I love because he says in Syria, they won't understand this. I want to prove to him that I can do it.
Text Alexandra Manatakis
Photography Amer Mohamad