Mona Lisa looks passively content at us as though the annihilated buildings behind her are part of a snap shot she asks locals to take of her before her vacation ends and she returns to Paris. Within moments she’ll post them on Facebook or Instagram and mention what a wild place Syria can be. When seen through a media lens, images of catastrophe, especially after five-plus long years of catastrophic images coming from Syria, bear a similar ongoing dreariness. We’ve seen image after image of blown up buildings and carnage on social media and news, and each iteration becomes more like the previous and the previous before that. Interrupt this unrelenting parade of mayhem with the intrusion of excerpts of famous classic Western art, and suddenly the rubble and the calamity are freshened up significantly as is our repulse to them.
The Syrian Museum series by Tammam Azzam is an exploration in juxtaposition. By extracting portions from important works of Western art, the oldest being Leonardo Di Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and the most recent being Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis, and placing them in images of Syrian war ruins, creates implausible compositions that are visually striking if not arresting.
A true multimedia artist — photography, painting, sculpture, graphic design, digital design — Tammam composes visuals representing the absurdity of the circumstances of war. He trained in oil painting at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus, but as the Syrian civil war gained momentum, he expanded into digital media as a way of conveying the challenges that Syrians face.
Destruction is a prevalent backdrop in much of the contemporary artistic culture coming from the Middle East, and other artists represented in ilikum include similar symbols and motifs. Although the visual components parallel those of news and social media counterparts in terms of war elements, the introduction of Western symbols underscore the atrocity further. The dancers in Matisse’s Dance have no business maying in Syria’s debris nor does Van Gogh’s Starry Night make a fitting sky for a war zone much less Andy Warhol’s Double Elvis, complete with six-shooters, that might allude to the US intervention, belong in this Middle East scenario. Salvador Dali’s Le Sommeil finally rests when there’s nothing left to annihilate, and Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti Women on the Beach seem listless rather than relaxed when envisioned with a UN Refugees Project triage instead of the beautiful Caribbean ocean.
I think, however, one of the most gripping juxtapositions of the series is the appropriation of Goya’s The Third of May, 1808: Shooting at Montana del Principe Pio and transplanting it into a war-wrecked Syrian alleyway. Tammam reminds us that this has all happened before, and more than a century later, we still haven’t learned our lesson.
Ayyam Gallery, Dubai
Images generously provided by Tammam Azzam
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