A London exhibition is showcasing the work of 11 Syrian and Lebanese artists dealing with trauma through art
LONDON - When Syrian artist Anas Albraehe lost his mother to cancer in 2013, he entered such an intense period of grief and mourning that he could not even bear the sight of her photograph.
In the depths of his pain, which was compounded by a brutal civil war, he left Al-Sweida, his hometown in Syria, the following year to start a new life in Beirut and try to come to terms with the debilitating loss.
Anas Albraehe dealt with his grief by painting his mother, picking scenes from various stages of his childhood and adulthood (Photo courtesy of Anas Albraehe)
With time, the 27-year-old confronted his troubled state of mind head-on by painting multiple portraits of his late mother, recalling with fondness various stages of his upbringing.
I needed to confront her death, so I started drawing what I’d been running from
- Anas Albraehe, artist
“I used to escape all memories of her and all photographs of her because remembering her would stir within me intense emotions,” Albraehe told Middle East Eye from Beirut. “I needed to confront her death, so I started drawing what I’d been running from, incorporating art therapy into my work and dealing with my grief artistically.”
The experience proved transformative. Albraehe went on to earn a master’s degree in art therapy from the Lebanese University in 2014 so he could immerse himself in the discipline and its mental health benefits.
“Art can help you heal from tragedy and confront your past, no matter how painful it is,” Albraehe said. “Anyone can be an artist.”
‘The Neighbour of the Moon’ collection explores Syrian painter Anas Albraehe’s visual confrontation with the grief triggered by his mother’s death (Photo courtesy of Rania Mneimneh)
Neighbour of the Moon, one of the series in the exhibition, depicts Albraehe imagining his mother sleeping on a cloud while an older version of the woman dozes off on a chair. Albraehe said that as a toddler he’d watch his mother knit, creating “colourful threads of memories” and inspiring him to become an artist. “She looks at me from the heavens, while I look at her through my memories, and we’re connected by a knitting thread,” he said of the painting.
The exhibition showcases the art of 11 Syrian and Lebanese artists who have each experienced some form of war, displacement, loss and a search for identity.
A weapon against one’s demons
Partly supported by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, the display of work makes the argument that art can be wielded as a weapon against one’s demons. The exhibit invites the public to “explore creative ways of dealing with their own difficulties” by offering a series of events including a live interactive calligraphy performance, an art-making and art therapy seminar, and an art workshop.
Scientific studies have shown that the arts can serve as a potent therapeutic mechanism whose ripple effects have the potential to positively impact mental health and even the management of pain. Some have posited that the playful, childlike nature of creative expression can bolster the resilience of those suffering from mental health disorders, suggesting psychotherapists incorporate the practice into treatment plans.
Art can help you heal from tragedy and confront your past, no matter how painful it is
- Anas Albraehe, artist
A February 2018 paper published in The Arts in Psychotherapy found the results of an art therapy study conducted on 195 patients were overwhelmingly positive, with participants experiencing improvements in pain, mood, and anxiety, irrespective of diagnosis or age.
“Tints of Resilience" was born of “a strong belief in the necessity of transmitting the voices of Middle Eastern communities through the honest lens and immediate impact of artistic expression,” Rania Mneimneh, a Lebanese artist who curated and participated in the exhibit, told Middle East Eye.
Diala Brisly started painting murals on school tents in Lebanon’s refugee camps to 'encourage children to attend [classes] and feel that they were safe and in joyful spaces' (MEE/Zahra Hankir)
Mneimneh has witnessed first-hand the benefits of art therapy. While volunteering with the International Committee of the Red Cross, she took part in an art therapy project where families of individuals who disappeared during Lebanon’s civil war painted memories of their loved ones onto empty white chairs.
The artist, 32, has also worked closely with blind and visually challenged children, as well as Syrian children in refugee camps who she encouraged to explore “the sense of both self and others” by clay-making and jointly painting a mural that told “stories of friendship”.
“Such projects shed light on the positive influence of art in times of hardship for children and adults,” Mneimneh said.
In his series of photographs called ‘Wall of Dreams,’ Lebanese photographer Youssef Doughan captures the work of Syrian artist Diala Brisly (Photo courtesy of Rania Mneimneh)
In addition to photographs by Lebanese photographer Youssef Doughan and calligraphy by Syrian artist Ghassan Ismail, the collection of artwork features paintings by Syrian refugee children, alongside those of their mentors.
In one of those canvases, by Abdel Hadi and Fadel, two refugee children from a refugee camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, stars and planets light up the sky. In another, Baraa and Nour, two girls from the same camp, evoke happier times, having painted a girl in a floral dress wearing new ballerina shoes.
Rays of Hope
Safia's Sea, a story written by Syrian author Zeina Kanawati, was adapted into an illustration for “Tints of Resilience” by Syrian artist Dima Nachawi. In the story and illustration, a deaf and mute girl knits a scarf as a concerned-looking owl perches atop the branches of a red tree.
The owl gives Safia the knitting needle and the yarn to distract her from a war whose tentacles had spread as far as the bottom of the ocean, Nachawi explained. While framed as a fable for children, the themes of Safia's Sea are geared towards adults, the artist said.
Syrian storyteller Dima Nachawi illustrates stories that combine personal memories of her home country with what she refers to as Syria’s 'collective memory' (Photo courtesy of Rania Mneimneh)
Thoroughly engrossed in her knitting, Safia isolates herself and communicates with the townspeople only to take knitting requests. Even as the war approaches, Safia stays put, while those around her flee.
The message behind the illustration is that “there are rays of hope in the middle of a sea of darkness,” Nachawi said. You could say Safia herself was engaging in art therapy, as was Nachawi, while she painted her.
Children have to see that they are the hero of themselves
- Diala Brisly, artist
Nachawi’s work comes across as intricately layered, like a Russian doll filled with fairy tales. Her art is a form of “resistance,” she says, and it has helped her heal from the trauma she personally experienced in the aftermath of a war that has claimed more than half a million lives.
Scientific studies have shown that the arts can serve as a potent therapeutic mechanism whose ripple effects have the potential to positively impact mental health (MEE/Zahra Hankir)
Prior to the war, the artist worked with Somali, Yemeni, Sudanese, and Iraqi refugees in the field as a counsellor with UNHCR.
In an ironic twist of fate, she eventually had to leave Damascus in 2013, after some of her friends had been detained by the government of Bashar al-Assad and several members of her family had fled the country. After securing a scholarship and earning a degree from King’s College London, where she explored the ways in which art can be used to preserve cultural memory, Nachawi moved to Beirut.
Dima Nachawi turns to art and clown theatre to channel her energies constructively, providing relief and laughter to communities that are in need (Photo courtesy of Rami Ahmad)
“When you’re away from your homeland, everything feels heavier. You experience sorrow from a distance,” Nachawi said. “I use my art as a mirror, to reflect on my emotions.” Alongside her artwork, Nachawi, now a freelance artist, moonlights as a clown, working with a collective called "Clown me in," which performs for children at refugee camps.
Nachawi hopes the exhibition will prompt people “to think outside of the box. The Syrian situation is complicated, but there is something to be clear about: civilians want to live in dignity,” she said.
Diala Brisly's 'Integration' is part of a series of self portraits, exploring how the artist felt about herself at different stages of her life (MEE/Zahra Hankir)
Following the outbreak of the Syrian war, Brisly, a 38-year-old native of Damascus who participated in the uprising against the Assad government when it first erupted, moved to Istanbul in 2013 and then to Lebanon in 2014. There, she started working with “tent schools,” painting murals and holding art therapy workshops at refugee camps across the country, eventually meeting Mneimneh in North Lebanon.
When you’re away from your homeland, everything feels heavier. You experience sorrow from a distance
- Dima Nachawi, artist
Brisly’s sprawling works quickly garnered attention, not just internationally, but among the children of Lebanon’s refugee camps who started referring to her as “the artist”. Despite having to constantly grapple with her own struggles, she was galvanised.
“These children endure horrible circumstances at the camp, and I thought because many of them hadn’t been to school in a while, maybe art would encourage them to focus on learning,” Brisly said.
A still from Ayman Nahle's short film 'The Exceptional Moon' (Photo courtesy of Rania Mneimneh)
The artist was careful not to form close relationships with the children she worked with. “Children have to see that they are the hero of themselves,” she said. “You can’t be their hero because you can’t change their situation. You have to inspire them to be strong where they are.” The approach, though necessary, was “soul-destroying,” she said.
Haunted by memories of friends and colleagues she’d lost to death and detention in the aftermath of the uprisings in Syria, during which the artist secretly worked with various field hospitals by smuggling medical and food supplies, Brisly turned to art as a form of therapy. While she now lives in Paris, having sought asylum there in 2016, she still works with refugees, albeit from a distance via the non-profit Alphabet: Alternative Education.
Part of the profits from “Tints of Resilience” will go to Alphabet, which addresses the educational needs of children who have experienced an interruption in schooling due to the Syrian war.
'It’s a Baby Girl,' by Syrian artist Diala Brisly, depicts 10 refugees and a sleeping baby girl on a rubber dinghy making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe (MEE/Zahra Hankir)
The running theme of Brisly’s work is survival, with the life jacket figuring prominently in her smaller pieces. One of her works, It’s a Baby Girl, depicts 10 refugees and a sleeping baby girl on a rubber dinghy making the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. She says she wanted to “emphasise that this could be the start, or it could be the end”.
‘Pouring my feelings’
In another piece, a mother and son walk among the ruins of their hometown in Syria, wearing life jackets. In a third, a young, lonesome refugee girl sits on the congested roads of Hamra in Beirut, selling bits and bobs for survival; she, too, is wearing a life jacket. “I wanted to say everyone needs life jackets, not just people in the sea,” Brisly said.
Everyone needs life jackets, not just people in the sea
- Diala Brisly, artist
Another four of Brisly’s canvases at the exhibit depict the artist going through different stages of her life as a displaced Syrian, under the titles Survival Mode, Solitude, Integration, and Shattered.
“I always ask children to draw themselves and to imagine themselves as something really important, because that can help them connect positively with themselves,” she said. “So now I’m doing the same, painting myself at different stages of my life. These paintings are extremely personal. I’m pouring my feelings into them.”
"Tints of Resilience" opened on 17 August and will run through 6 September at London's P21 Gallery.