More than 5 million Syrians have left the country since 2011, with the vast majority initially arriving in the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The British Council alongside other organisations recognised that inevitably among this number would be a significant number of artists and creatives who had contributed to shaping Syria’s rich cultural life and were now often facing precarious existences. Alongside challenges of food, shelter, legal residences and earning a living, artists required space and time to create, maintain networks and contacts with peers to inform practice, and meet new audiences to witness their work.
The British Council in partnership with The Space launched a scheme to support displaced artists through offering opportunities to utilise digital technologies to create and disseminate their works. The first phase completed in summer 2015.
From autumn 2015 Shubbak developed the second phase of the project, which led to a new series of commissions and support for artists. We recognised that many artists were now moving to third countries beyond Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and expanded the scheme geographically to work with Syrian artists wherever they may be based. We also expanded the scheme to embrace all art forms.
OUR AIMS & PROCESS
By speaking to artists and organisations we understood how the ability and time to ‘create art’ was often suffering in times when artists already faced multiple challenges, including being displaced from their homes, legal insecurities, difficulties of staying touch with families and learning new languages. We developed three simple criteria, which would guide us when identifying and supporting artists. Each supported project should:
Lead to the creation of a new piece of artistic work to a high standard.
Equip the artist to operate better in their new circumstances.
Enable the artist to reach a new audience.
We then drew on the expertise from a range of nominators, who identified artists across art forms and in a range of locations. Our nominators included Syrian curators and arts professionals, many of them themselves experiencing displacement, as well as European professionals with strong knowledge of the Syrian cultural sector. Nominees included artists with established track records and successful careers in Syria as well as new and very young talent,
who had only recently graduated or started their practice. Key questions we asked nominators were if they had knowledge of projects that had been interrupted through displacement. How could our support enable artists not to ‘abandon’ work? What ideas were artists currently working on? And in addition: what new ideas have been triggered in new locations?
We then spoke to artists directly, finding out their aspirations and ideas and gradually arrived at our commissions. This was a slow and organic process. Our first commissions were offered in late 2015, our last commission not until late autumn 2018. At time of commissioning, nine of the 19 selected artists were living in Europe (six in Berlin, three in Paris); nine in countries bordering Syria (five in Beirut, two in Gaziantep, one in Istanbul and one in Amman). One artist was not settled. By the end of the project, six further artists had moved to Europe. Many artists moved to new locations more than once during the period of the commissions. We received significantly more nominations for male than for female artists. In the end we awarded 12 commissions to male artists and seven commissions to female artists.