INTERVIEW: Syrian artist Tarek Tuma

Tarek Tuma is a Syrian artist, originally from the city of Douma. Whilst studying medicine at Damascus University, Tarek took a short sculpture course. He then went on to study three years of fine art followed by a post-graduate diploma and MA in fine arts. Tarek recently joined our #art4peace campaign, creating a piece at the Old Street Peace Booth. Here, Sarah Mullin asks him about the importance of art for peace.

Why art and not medicine?

The plan was to pursue medicine and art together, but it wasn’t that easy, so I chose to follow art. The main reason that made me want to study art was change – the ability to make a change on the outside comes from within. I was not happy with what was going on in my country and I wanted to change it.

Why did you decide to get involved with our #art4peace campaign?

I think art can be a great force against war. You have the force of destruction represented by wars and atrocities and you have another force of creation represented by art.

Like a line of defence?

Yes. You need love to stop any kind of brutal activities and art is the hub of love.

So do you think art can change peoples’ perceptions?

It must make a change, even if [people] are not inspired by art, if you are passionate then it will be translated to people and they will be attached to it, and they will ask questions. The artist is not answering questions. The artist is asking questions to the spectator. We don’t provide answers at all. We make people use their faculty of compassion – if you can describe compassion as a faculty.

Is there an artwork which has a particularly strong message that sticks in your mind?

Guernica, Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece. The tapestry of the painting was the backdrop when Colin Powell declared war on Iraq in the United Nations. It made a huge controversy, so they had to cover it in a blue shroud. If they had to cover it, it must have a very powerful force. I think Guernica is a continuous testimony of our failure to establish peace, yet it is the embodiment of hope.

Paul Nash’s Dead Sea painting is a very powerful piece as well. It shows the remains of destructed war machines as the sea.

What does art show that the media can’t?

Compassion. The media makes the event seem so regular or rather flattened – you get immune to the atrocities. Media disguises war by its selective coverage. It makes viewers feel as if war is not happening, as Baudrillard [the French philosopher] would put it. What I think art does is to bring the crisis back down to a humanitarian issue. The media brings to you everything, but is deprived of reality. With art, you are brought to it to practise your own freedom and judgment.

Have you seen a change in the artist community since the uprisings in Syria?

I do pretty much feel, inside Syria, that people are expressing themselves, even regular people…, in an artistic way, which is very powerful. There is a man in my home town who is collecting shells and making musical instruments out of them. This is quite an inspiration for everyone to convert this tool of destruction into musical instruments, to play music on them, to turn fury into sensation. I think this symbolises everything. It’s like a phoenix – out of destruction, the ashes, hope is reborn.

Also artists such as Hamid Suleiman and Fadi Al Jabour have shifted from figurative paintings to now more abstract.

Why?

Abstraction deconstructs the thing as it appears to us. It skins reality to its essence; it reveals the thing as itself.

Does this include your own artwork?

I used to be more inclined to depicting everything in a realistic way – I was taught realism. Now I cannot.

Why?

Because it’s horrifying. Reality is brutal. In my art I dwell in the domain of dream; the realm of symbols. Now I have painted Hamza Bakkour – a 13-year-old boy shot in the face during a siege in Homs – I can’t anymore. It feels like committing a murder.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on a piece devoted to peace. I think it’s going to be an anti-war painting; an embodiment of hope, peace and love.

How long does it take you to complete a painting?

Sometimes it takes a year and sometimes a day. It depends on the painting – how long it needs. It’s never finished anyway. It’s always something left to be interpreted.

Which of your works are you most satisfied with?

I’m not satisfied with anything that I do. I don’t want to be harsh. Sometimes I love everything, sometimes nothing. But the one I am most attached to, besides the one of Hamza Bakkour, which will carry on in my mind forever, is a painting I have done recently. It is reflecting on the persistent destruction of my hometown, Douma. Also, it is inspired by Guernica.

And finally, what does peace mean to you?

Peace simply means love. That, I think, summarises everything.

See Tarek Tuma’s piece exhibited at Hoxton Gallery from 24 September-3 October. It will also be available to purchase online (www.intalert.org/art4peace) and in a live auction on 3 October.

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