Stepping into the Dubai based studio of acclaimed Syrian artist Tammam Azzam feels like a teleportation back to Damascus, where his career started. The Arabic tunes playing on the radio and the pleasant odor of coffee, paired with the vision of this organised, artistic mess found in studios, are a refreshing change from the glitz and glamour often associated with Dubai. Stacked against the walls, lay the experiments for his new work, in which he focuses on destroyed buildings seen in Damascus. He will explain about them soon, he says. Because they are only the result of his life experience, which he finds is important to describe first.
Azzam graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, and after obtaining a Fine Arts Certificate from Darat Al Funun’s Al Kharif academy, he joined Ayyam Gallery’s Shabab young artist program in 2008. With the start of the uprising in 2011, Ayyam opened a branch in Dubai and facilitated Azzam’s transition to the UAE, together with his family.
Alike many Syrian people fleeing their country for safer environments, Azzam made the choice to move to Dubai and now tries to make this place his own. This proves difficult on a daily basis, because of haunting thoughts about those who stayed back home. From these thoughts surges inspiration, to tell the stories of people and things left behind. To the question of what else inspires him, he sadly smiles. How can he be inspired by subjects other than the destruction of his country and the deaths of his people? Evidently, both the conflict and Azzam’s subsequent emigration influenced his practice in many ways, whether in the subjects or in the media he uses. In the years following his studies, he worked exclusively on paper, with aquarelles and charcoals depicting his native province of Sweida.
It is after joining Ayyam Gallery that he moved to canvas and saw Damascus as an inspiration. Incorporating rags and wires found on the streets to his paintings, he produced multidimensional works called Laundry Series, in a reference to a mother’s balcony and her wait for children to return. This remarkable and innovative work within the Middle Eastern art world seems as a continuity of his previous abstract series titled Horizon, in which he was already exploring lines and their infinite character.
After relocating, Azzam chose to focus on digital work. Because objects proved hard to find on the streets of Dubai, and the Syrian conflict was evolving at such a fast pace, it was important to find an appropriately fast moving medium. From this new practice resulted Syrian Museum, a series of pictures showing iconic paintings on the walls of his country’s war torn buildings. Freedom Graffiti, in which he superimposed Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss on a ravaged wall, was the most significant of them and went viral, elevating Azzam to the international art scene.
With this worldwide recognition also came the label of political artist, which Azzam is not too comfortable with. “I am not a political protester”, he says, “I am an artist who can work from any place, within any conditions, to produce art of freedom.” As many Syrian artists, he refuses to see creativity reduced to war and to politics in general. He thinks that art can’t save a country, because it is merely a means of communication. Because his art is about creating images of what he has seen, to share with a broader public.
However, most of the time media still ask political questions instead of showing interest in his practice. They see him as a Syrian artist, rather than an artist. This realisation brought to life Hide – a series of auto portraits on canvas showing his body but never his face. The concealment symbolises his refusal to hear or let himself be influenced by the crowd’s opinions and expectations, in order to create his own artistic rules.
In parallel to Hide, Azzam is again working on buildings, which have been part of his practice since the beginning. In the Metallica series, which he started during his military service, he depicted the chaos of an industrial city. With Syrian Museum, he showed messages of love and freedom on contrastingly demolished walls. Today, he reconstructs on canvas the deconstructed buildings of Damascus and this proves to be a therapeutic process because of the rebirth it symbolises. Through this series, he returns to multidimensional work and introduces ideas of Spatialism, with gaping holes letting appear cables and wires around his canvases.
This new body of work doesn’t have a name yet. And he is even thinking of destroying it, for he can’t find a satisfactory enough explanation to it all so far. This harsh auto treatment seems to be the result of Azzam’s thought when it comes to his art: “Nothing is important in what I create.” And yet one would tend to think otherwise. Whether direct or indirect, his exteriorisation of the conflict through reconstruction and embellishment is a remarkably optimistic approach. Azzam strives to convey messages of freedom and positivity, making way for a new generation of post uprising artists.
Tammam Azzam is represented by Ayyam Gallery. Find out more about him at http://tinyurl.com/bfhoyfo.
1. Tammam Azzam, Freedom Graffiti, 2013, Lightbox, 75 x 75 cm. Edition of 5.
2. Cement, courtesy of Tammam Azzam.
3. Hide, courtesy of Tammam Azzam.
4. Courtesy of Tammam Azzam