Western Art Roaming Syrian Destruction: Tammam Azzam Overlays Classic Vignettes Atop Catastrophic Images

The Syrian Museum: Mona Lisa
The Syrian Museum: Mona Lisa

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: Matisse
The Syrian Museum: Matisse
One of the artist's self portraits
One of the artist’s self portraits

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.

The Syrian Museum: Goya
The Syrian Museum: Goya

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

Note: Opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, and are not necessarily held by the individuals, groups, or producers of media featured in this article.

2 thoughts on “Western Art Roaming Syrian Destruction: Tammam Azzam Overlays Classic Vignettes Atop Catastrophic Images”

  1. Dear Mr. Nimen, I just read your article “Feeding the Bullies” in the August 2017 Readers Digest. I loved it.

    By appearances my wife and I and kids are very much a peanut butter and jelly on white bread family. When our children were young we lived in LA in a multi-cultural environment. Our son went to a gifted elementary school that had a large proportion of Asian students. Our son came home from school one day and asked if he could have fried rice for lunch like the other kids. My wife learned how to make fried rice.


Have a comment on this ilikum article? Go for it!