The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the aftermath of civil war, contemporary Syrian art emphasizes not just loss, but resilience

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Images of Syria in the news media over the past decade have become almost numbing in their repetitiveness, documenting the horrors of civil war, death, destruction and endless streams of refugees. Seemingly almost in opposition to this imagery, however, many Syrian artists have responded by creating work that is extraordinarily diverse, aesthetically rich and at times even beautiful, as a new group art show at the Middle East Institute makes clear.

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“In This Moonless Black Night: Syrian Art After the Uprising” is the first significant exhibition in Washington to focus on contemporary art by Syrians. It features 14 artists, half of them women; the majority have not previously been shown in D.C. All are living in exile, whether in the United States, Europe or elsewhere in the Arab world; most left Syria at some point after the uprising that began in March 2011, although a few were living abroad already.

The uprising and what followed “kind of saw an upsurge in creativity,” according to curator Maymanah Farhat, speaking during a live-streamed preview of the exhibition. “There was a sort of release. I think with being in exile, artists have really allowed themselves to experiment.”

Themes of displacement and migration appear as a through line in multiple works, among the most immediate of which is Essma Imady’s installation “Pillar of Salt,” consisting of a child’s tiny pink backpack and teddy bear resting atop what the work’s label describes as a child’s weight in salt. While at first appearing as a simple cluster of everyday objects, it poignantly references the refugee crisis and in particular its impact on women and children.

In a recent webinar hosted by the gallery, the artist, who has interviewed Syrians in the United States and Canada about their experiences, said the installation was inspired by the concept of “looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt — how us refugees . . . have this pulling to look back, while also feeling the danger of that action.”

Four pieces by Mohamad Hafez, who was trained and has worked as an architect, feature extremely realistic, almost ­diorama-like re-creations of homes or street scenes set inside open suitcases, like miniature windows onto those worlds. Some of these “Baggage” pieces are named after and based on the lives of specific refugees to the United States who have told Hafez their stories.

“Ayman and Ghina,” which shows an elegant, blue-tinted living room, complete with a coffee table set with china, is inspired by a family from Homs who left home at a moment’s notice when they learned the army was just outside their village.

“I decided to model their living room because the day they escaped, they were in their living room, having breakfast,” Hafez says by phone from his home in Connecticut. “They left breakfast on the table. They thought they would be back in a few hours . . . and it’s been eight years now, or nine years.”

Other works grapple with migration more abstractly, such as Khaled Barakeh’s “I Haven’t Slept for Centuries.” What at first appears to be a jumble of dark black lines on a white background is in fact a digital print of superimposed visas, passport entry and exit stamps, and rejected applications to visit various countries — all personally accumulated by the artist, in a bleak commentary on the bureaucratic indignities faced by those in the Syrian diaspora.

The exhibition’s wide range — in media, form, content and tone — also highlights the country’s rich visual culture and how it has influenced its artists. Two mixed-media pieces by Bady Dalloul incorporate intricately painted old wooden gaming boards that call to mind the designs of traditional Islamic tiles or inlay. Photographs by Osama Esid of the interiors of refugee tents in camps in Turkey, lined with patterned carpets and textiles, capture how Syrians have decorated their surroundings in even the bleakest circumstances.

“I wanted the show not to aestheticize trauma, and despair and ruin,” says Farhat, adding that her aim was “to emphasize how beautiful the works are and . . . how aesthetics are so important to Syrian artists.”

Digital images of the works, including Ammar al-Beik’s short film “The Sun’s Incubator,” are available online on the gallery’s website. But the exhibition — whose title is adapted from a verse by the late Syrian poet Da’ad Haddad — is best viewed in person because of the tactile nature of much of the art and the use of varied materials.

In Kevork Mourad’s dynamic “Sanctuary City,” for example, Gothic-style illustrations of architectural elements on layers of cutout fabric are held together by threads that link the overlapping positive and negative spaces. “Cleansing” by Lara Haddad is printed on a thin fleece blanket of the type handed out by aid organizations at refugee camps, while Oroubah Dieb’s “Displacement I” and “Displacement II” incorporate patterned fabric and stationery, as well as sand, to add texture and vibrant colors to her collaged paintings of families carrying their possessions through the desert.

In marking the 10th anniversary of Syria’s uprising, “In This Moonless Night” powerfully conveys both the huge loss and remarkable resilience of Syria’s people over the past decade, through the lens of some of its most talented artists.

In This Moonless Black Night: Syrian Art After the Uprising

Middle East Institute, 1736 N St. NW. In-person visits by appointment only, scheduled at The full exhibition can be viewed online at

Dates: Through July 16.

Prices: Free.