For centuries, writers, artists, poets, and practically anyone working in a creative field, have often sought refuge in that field for cathartic reasons. But for many artists of the 21st century, one defined by a burgeoning "so-called refugee crisis" as one Syrian artist describes it, art and cultural production should perhaps more accurately be described as ‘practices of necessity’ – there is no other option but to express, and produce, and by extension, resist.
That artist is Berlin-based Khaled Barakeh, whose entry point into our conversation was explaining, in a list form, the different identities forced onto him over the past years. “I was Syrian in Syria, then I was a Syrian in Europe, but also an immigrant, and then because of the revolution that turned into a proxy war in Syria, I became an official refugee, on paper.” He also made it a point to clarify, at the forefront, that this "refugee crisis" - one he is very much part of - only became so when seen from the vantage point of Europe. "It’s a European crisis. The 'refugee crisis' was and is still happening. Since Europe became involved, the whole focus shifted around this topic, and all of a sudden it becomes a big issue even though it was and still is one."
...art and cultural production should perhaps more accurately be described as ‘practices of necessity’ – there is no other option but to express, and produce, and by extension, resist.
With those identity shifts came several shifts in his career, where he went from being a painter who studied classical art at a university in Syria, to a conceptual artist, a cultural activist, and later, the founder/CEO of Berlin-based institution CoCulture, a non-profit organisation aiming to help displaced artists and cultural producers, particularly those from Syria and other parts of the Middle East.
Barakeh created a map, tracing what he describes as Syrians' forced 'refugee route,' moving through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and into northern Europe.
The governing principle behind CoCulture is the potential that exists in using the benefits of what Barakeh calls a “post-digital world” – where most companies and corporations have gone 100% digital, making it almost entirely possible to map out reality in the digital sphere – to help exiled Syrian artists not only document their work, but find opportunities, network with others, and learn to represent themselves as established artists in spite of the increasingly precarious situation of exile – all through an online presence.
There are currently three projects under the umbrella of CoCulture. The first, which had actually given birth to the idea behind the institution in a twisted turn of fate, is a digital Syria Cultural Index – an online platform, set to launch around summer 2020 but currently in the development phase, that maps out Syrian cultural production by tracking displaced people’s artistic activity, from what they do to where they are, allowing them to update the information on it like one would on Facebook – essentially, a networking site, but for exiled artists. Also acting as a database.
The Syria Cultural Index is an online platform that maps out Syrian cultural production by tracking displaced people’s artistic activity, from what they do to where they are, allowing them to update the information on it – essentially, a networking site, but for exiled artists.
“When I moved to Berlin in 2015, I quickly established a career network, and many institutions and third parties began to ask me to nominate [Syrian] artists, for a show or a fund or whatever, and I of course nominated some people whose work I know, but I thought it’s not fair that there’s all this talent that are not getting to show their work,” explains Barakeh.
Syrian cultural production is threatened by continuous erasure of its existence due to the war, which makes it almost impossible for artists to settle, let alone be able to form an extensive, presentable portfolio or archive of their work. Artwork by and courtesy of Syrian artist Adnan Samman.
The project then began from that urge to start collecting a database that could keep track of the ever-increasing number of exiled artists, who more often than not, cannot find a place to settle, let alone work. Barakeh then sent questionnaires to people he knows, who then sent them to people they know, to get the ball rolling and figure out who’s doing what where.
...we found out in the end that our bank’s corresponding bank blocked the money because the initiative had the word ‘Syria’ on it.
But later, as he began to come across funds calling for projects, he was encouraged to develop the idea further, and decided then to create an independent, online platform – the Syria Cultural Index – and sent out his proposal on Facebook, where it was picked up by a foundation working in the Middle East, who wanted to fund it. But what happened then was pretty much the opposite of serendipity – though it resulted in the creation of something much larger than just an Index.
“They sent us the money to Germany; everything was super fine and legal, and then the money disappeared, we didn’t know where the money went. We contacted all the banks, and we found out in the end that our bank’s corresponding bank blocked the money because the initiative had the word ‘Syria’ on it,” says Barakeh. That’s when he was forced to come up with CoCulture – something with a more “neutral” name that could also encompass even more projects – and Barakeh decided to get ambitious.
Artwork titled "Hugging Damascus" courtesy of Adnan Samman.
What had started as an index mapping Syrian artists became the starting ground for planning the first Syrian Biennale in history – one that is, ironically, sadly, yet understandably, mobile, and not tied to the city of origin but to the scattered map of Syrians around the world, or what Barakeh calls a “refugee route” that goes through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and into Northern Europe, where most Syrians and Syrian refugee camps are located.
In 2015, an estimated 800,000 Syrian migrants arrived in Germany, propelled by the peak of the civil war. By 2016, however, the numbers dwindled down drastically – to around 280,000 registered Syrians – after an EU-Turkey deal to stop boats crossing the Mediterranean was struck, along with plenty more border and security measures making it almost impossible for Syrians – and other refugees – to cross.
...the starting ground for planning the first Syrian Biennale in history – one that is, ironically, sadly, yet understandably, mobile, and not tied to the city of origin but to the scattered map of Syrians around the world...
In spite of that, Barakeh insists that Germany is one of the countries that are more pro-immigration, if not just for human rights reasons, then for economic ones. But while a state might be pro-immigration and attempt to accept refugees – for whatever agenda – that in no way suggests its inclusivity. And that’s one of the underpinnings of CoCulture – the idea that assimilation and integration processes are nowhere near as inclusive and socially progressive as they need to be for displaced people to work and feel at home.
Khaled Barakeh's artwork 'Please Remain Seated' consists of a life jacket embroidered with a traditional Palestinian pattern - a symbol of forced Palestinian displacement.
For displaced artists, the lack of structure alone, along with financial burdens, discrimination, and lack of representation, make it extremely difficult for artists to establish themselves in an environment that’s starkly different. Barakeh wants to disrupt this image of the cultural scene in Europe – the one that decides that art is best when it's high-end and galleries have to be white, polished with high ceilings and minimal décor. He wants to diversify art in Berlin, but at the same time, help Syrian artists represent themselves on a comprehensive platform, with professional help. That’s the benefit of the Index.
The idea is to make it inclusive, not exclusive.
“We do have certain criteria - either you are a graduate from art school, or you sell art and have invoices that show that you’re a professional, practicing artist, or you have a CV, because we don’t want people to create profiles and have the Index become a repository of cat and dog photos, right,” says Barakeh. “But even if they don’t have any of these, they can tag three people on the Index who will then decide. And they can also send us a private request, and we have a jury that will be made up of respectable figures in the cultural scene, and they’ll decide. If they don’t get accepted, they can still reapply in 6 months, because as I said, the idea is to make it inclusive, not exclusive.”
We’re starting to name districts in Berlin that remind us of Damascus after the streets there. We’re using the design of street signs that are designed back home – with the same Arabic font – and we are renaming the streets of Berlin
'The Untitled Images' are a series of photographs captured in locations across Syria, where Barakeh purposefully removes the bodies in the images, "the act of erasure [being] in fact, a protective one; the absence of the bodies [potentially] highlighting their presence."
The Index is one starting ground for the Biennial – the first edition of which is planned for around 2021, to start in Istanbul – where the artists will be picked with help from the Index’s analytical tools, to ensure that all different groups are accounted for – exiled Syrians, Syrians in Syria, women, etc.
On how the Biennial’s mobile structure will work, Barakeh explains that instead of tying it to an actual national city, like all biennials – Venice, Sharjah, Paris, etc. – since war-torn Damascus is now far from being equipped to hold such an event and with Syrians scattered all over the world, it’s more appropriate and true to reality to instead map the aforementioned route, and make the cities its held into multiple ‘Little Damascuses.'
This is built around the third project currently also under development in CoCulture: Giving Spaces. Inspired by an architectural method developed by late Iranian architect Nader Khalili, who developed Superadobe, a material made up from earthen material, fortified with lime, and compressed into bags that are piled atop one another, Barakeh began to realise the sustainable and mobile-friendly structures of earth homes.
A superadobe earth home. Photo courtesy of CoCulture.
Giving Spaces is an initiative that aims to provide infrastructure where artists can work, as well as for CoCulture as a platform to function when it’s taken to cities other than Berlin, for the editions of the Biennial that are planned to take place in Istanbul and Beirut. The aim is then to work with refugees on building these structures as a way of spreading awareness to their benefits – and provide actual infrastructure for them where that is often absent because of their vulnerable status as immigrants.
I will do it the Syrian way anyway… if they give us permission, that’s great. and if they don’t give us permission to do it permanently, it will be temporary, and if they don’t give us permission for that, I will put the street signs, take photos, and the images then can become the reality, more even than the reality itself.
Barakeh also wants to build these domes in Berlin – with permits, of course – as part of an attempt to create a little Syria in the city. He’s also achieving this through another personal project, called Familiar and Strange Places. “We’re starting to name districts in Berlin that remind us of Damascus after the streets there. We’re using the design of street signs that are designed back home – with the same Arabic font – and we are renaming the streets of Berlin,” he explains.
Barakeh considers this to be one of the necessary steps before launching the platform and having the Biennial – to make the city more of a home for Syrian immigrants. “I will do it the Syrian way anyway… if they give us permission, that’s great. and if they don’t give us permission to do it permanently, it will be temporary, and if they don’t give us permission for that, I will put the street signs, take photos, and the images then can become the reality, more even than the reality itself."
Another series by Barakeh, 'Transparencies', consists of an archive of newspaper images gathered since February 2009: "a collections of overlaps; accidental, often callous juxtapositions" made apparent with the addition of backlighting.
It’s that particularly ‘Syrian’ persistence that is starting to assert itself with CoCulture – a need to not just “integrate,” but to be actively Syrian, to produce work that is directly related to their history and background – and their contemporary experiences of exile, war, and political turbulence – and if that can’t be done in the “real” world – whatever that is – then why not use the digital world for help? This kind of work is especially essential because, as Barakeh explains, it is concerned not only with the well-being of the people in question, but of the cultural fabric of Syria, which has been endangered since the continuing onslaught of war.
if that can’t be done in the “real” world – whatever that is – then why not use the digital world for help?
It is not only Barakeh who’s concerned with the future of Syria – both its cultural production and its reconstruction, especially after war – but there are countless other individuals and organisations that are concerned with the active destruction of Syria’s cultural heritage due to war.
But while the focus on a country’s past is undoubtedly important in that context, there also needs to be more attention paid towards its present. Its present labourers. Its present producers. Its present exiled. That’s the gap Barakeh is filling with these – albeit ambitious – projects and platforms. But when asked if he thinks the projects are too big to achieve, he only replies, “why not?” And that's the "Syrian persistence" again that will have the effect of making sure this online presence is more than just that - and that its "digital reality" will, with time, reflect in the "actual" reality of Syrians.
Main image credit: Ayham Jabr.
You can find updates and information on CoCulture on their website.