Syrian artist Abdalla Al Omari left his home country in 2012, the year that the battle between rebels and government forces reached the streets of Damascus and Aleppo.
Displaced and angry, Omari sought asylum in Brussels in 2014. That's when he started a series of paintings portraying the world's most powerful and influential figures as if they were in the same position he had found himself in.
Omari portrayed the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former president Barack Obama as dirty, disheveled and starving refugees lining up for food. His exhibit, “The Vulnerability Series,” which features at least a dozen paintings of world leaders, is on display until July 6 at the Ayyam Gallery in Dubai.
In one painting, President Trump carries a little girl in his left arm and holds a picture of parents and their children with his right hand, while carrying a backpack and a plastic bag; the anguished look on his face seems that of a man who has just lost his loved ones.
Putin in a blue sweater begs for mercy from strangers; he holds up a handwritten sign that says, “Help me. God Bless You.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is partially submerged in the Mediterranean Sea as the gray, ominous sky looms behind him; he stares at no one in particular.
A childlike Kim stands timidly in front of a red wall, with his hands holding a toy plane behind his back.
Omari said he was driven by his anger. To him, the paintings were his “sweet revenge” through art, at least initially.
“In the beginning, my desire was to imagine how those supposedly great personalities would look like if they were in the shoes of the mass, of refugees displaced, besieged … to take them out of their individual self and see them as disarmed mass in order to discover how much greatness or divinity they would still be able to demonstrate, or would they at all be able to,” Omari said in a video statement to The Washington Post on Tuesday, which was World Refugees Day.
As he spent months working on his project, his motivations shifted.
He found himself empathizing with his powerful subjects. He wanted to portray them as regular humans in a state of vulnerability, stripped of all the qualities that turned them into leaders.
“I wanted to take away the power not to serve my pain or my personal story, but to give back those leaders their humanity,” he said. “I've been totally convinced that vulnerability is the strongest [weapon] humans have, way more powerful than guns and bullets. … It's a weapon I felt that I want to share with human beings. Vulnerability is a human gift that we should all celebrate.”
Born in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Omari graduated with a degree in English literature from the University of Damascus, according to a brief biography. He also attended the Adham Ismail Institute for Visual Arts. His paintings usually portray victims of the civil war in Syria.
Omari said he's inviting the world leaders he portrayed to see his work.
“To see themselves and to think, to feel, as well, what it means to be vulnerable, to be a refugee, to be displaced, to be besieged, [to be] someone who is under unjust conditions,” he said. “They might relate when they see themselves in such positions. They might think out of the box.”
His message to the world: Don't think of refugees as just a mass of people.
“When you only talk about quantity of people and you totally ignore the fact that all these numbers are persons, are individual stories, are people,” he said. “Every one of them has a story that if we would hear it, or if we would hear them say it, it would extremely have a totally different approach to the story of refugees.”