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Photo essay: Syrian artist challenges death with art

Akram Suweidan transformed the very same weapons of war meant to kill him and his fellow Syrians into pieces of art, delivering his message of freedom to the world.

4 March 2020

AMMAN — “I have no room for despair. My work is a mirror of the revolutionary who seeks peace and demands freedom in the face of some of the most formidable and vicious machinery of war,” the Syrian artist Akram Suweidan told Syria Direct

Suweidan’s artistic products focus on transforming explosive remnants of war (ERW)—bombs, bullets, missiles— that fell on Syrian opposition-held areas into unique works of art as part of a project called “Painting on Death.”

He now lives in the city of Al-Bab in the northern countryside of Aleppo after being displaced from his hometown of Douma city after government forces captured Eastern Ghouta in March 2018. 

Due to the government sieges of Ghouta and his inability to cross legally into Turkey, Suweidan has been unable to travel to international art exhibitions and galleries to showcase his pieces. Instead, he has had to “photograph the art pieces in high resolution and then print them in the country where the exhibition is being held,” he said. 

Suweidan, whose artistic works were most recently displayed in Bruchhausen-Vilsen, Germany, last February, had been an artist even before the March 2011 revolution. He used to paint on glass for years in addition to his day job as a cellphone sales and repairman. However, the realities of war led him to begin creating art from the ERW. 

“When the Syrian revolution lost some of its peaceful nature, and the killing machine began [targeting] civilians, I started my artistic journey of painting the [explosive] remnants of war. It’s a journey I started in my hometown of Ghouta in 2014; a journey I’m continuing to this day,” he added. 

With “Painting on Death,” Suweidan aims to convey a message to the world so that they “know the Syrian people and recognize their legitimate demands,” he said. “We are advocates for peace, not advocates of war,” he added, and that his art is “a message, not a profession.”

Although Suweidan believes that his art “will not change the course of the war,” he maintains that it is meant to survive on “for history.” 

In his view, these pieces of art “may contribute to explaining and clarifying what took place at this point.”

He has also been encouraged to continue painting on ERW because of “people’s positive reception to my work, both inside and outside of Syria.” Through these reactions, he has seen that “there is a segment of society outside Syria who still sympathize with us.” 

At the heart of Suweidan’s work is a paradox. At the same time that it was impossible to find food or basic supplies in the markets of Eastern Ghouta due to the government blockade of the area, there was an abundance of weaponry that Suweidain could use for his art. “There was not one street or neighborhood free of spent ammunition or bombs,” he said. 

Suweidan’s artwork has spread across the virtual world. While initially he only published pictures of his work on his website, his artwork has become famous after their pictures were displayed in several international museums and organizations’ headquarters, as well as through media coverage. Still, even as pictures of his artworks circulate the web, the real works “remain trapped in my house, because I can’t take them out and share them.” 

Despite his success, Suweidan’s wish remains that someday, “a day will come when I won’t be able to find a piece of weaponry to draw on.” 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Megan Pierce.

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