Soulaf Abas Alyssa Arney Melissa Smyth

Until 2012, Soulaf Abas painted mostly landscapes and insects. Her work is emotive, warm, impressionistic yet controlled. Her paintings still maintain this characteristic style, but now she gets most of her subject matter from television and the Internet. Explosions, shattered glass, and piles of corpses take the place of bumblebees in flight and still Indiana rivers. A year into the war that has gripped Syria since mass protests began in 2011, she visited her family in Damascus and encountered a reality that shattered her concept of home. Back in the United States, where she teaches art at Indiana State University, she turned to paint to deal with the complex emotions of seeing the places of her memory destroyed, and of encountering the callous accounts of violence and death tolls that reach her screens every day.

Abas translates images she sees in the news to paint, in part to process her own feelings and in part to urge a reconsideration of the content for the casual media consumer. She urges viewers to spend time with the image as she has, producing cathartic pain and considered empathy. It is a process of mourning, but she mourns only so she can begin building. Her Syria artwork has become the basis of a project that has spanned continents and passed through dozens of small hands. She continues her work driven by the hope of seeing a transformed and regenerated Syria.

In the summer of 2014, Abas traveled to Jordan, where she volunteered at refugee camps, hospitals, and cultural centers to bring art to Syrian children displaced by the war. She used drawing and painting as a form of therapy, encouraging children to express visually what might be too difficult to describe verbally. She also facilitated their exchange of letters and drawings with children at Ryves Hall youth center in Indiana, building a pathway of learning and communication across long distances.

Their letters and drawings have been published as a book, Me and You, and Abas continues to paint and exhibit her work as part of the ongoing project she calls Seen for Syria. Most recently, her work traveled to Santa Ana, California, where it was shown at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) throughout January. The exhibit included twenty pieces of the children’s artwork, four installations and thirty-four of her works on Syria, in addition to photographs by her cousin Muzaffar Salman. Abas returns 50% of all art sale proceeds and 100% of sales of books and other items to the children she worked with in Jordan.

I met Abas in Amman in July 2014 and wrote about her project here. I recently caught up with her and co-curator Alyssa Arney to discuss how the project has evolved since.

 Soulaf Abas, Idlib, oil on canvas, 30x30" (2014).

Melissa Smyth: Describe how you first began responding to the events in Syria with art. Was painting a natural reaction to what you were feeling at the time?

Soulaf Abas: No, it wasn’t. The last thing I wanted to do was to paint about Syria for the first year. In 2011 people would ask me if I was going to paint about Syria, and I was like, “No, that’s stupid. It’s just going to be over soon, why would I even worry about it?” And then I went there—it was after I went there for three months and after I had lost so much family that it actually hit me. So it became a natural reaction after I had experienced it myself. But before that, it still felt like a painful thing that’s happening to others, not to me.

MS: How would you describe the process of painting this kind of subject matter? Is it a way to process something overwhelming, to mourn, protest, or release?

SA: Yes. Yes to all of it. Because as soon as I started my first painting of Syria, I could face all the things I was hiding from or preferring not to deal with. When I paint… you know when you have food poisoning and all you can do is just get it out of your system? When I paint, it feels like I’m cleansing my system. Like that paint, those layers of paint that end up on the canvas are not being squeezed out of a tube—they feel like they’re being squeezed out of my soul. And every time I finish a painting, I feel so light, I feel like a part of me is now a little bit… I don’t want to say normal because I don’t even know what that means, but… a little bit less burdened.

MS: What does it mean to access once familiar places through images in the newspaper and online? How does painting these images translate them into something else?

SA: Every time I see an image that touches me enough to do a painting about it, it feels like a joke. It feels like, this is a bad dream and it’s going to all be over soon. There’s still some part of me that’s in denial. Like when I saw the image of my neighborhood where I grew up, I thought, “oh my god, if I turn right here I get to my school.” That’s where I grew up, and now it’s on the news. I have to go through my own process to just understand and just believe what happened to be able to paint about it. When I saw this image I knew it would take me about a year to get to it emotionally, to be able to put it on canvas and make it real. Actually, when paintings end up on canvas, that’s when they feel real to me. That’s when I know and believe that this person had died or that this neighborhood is now gone. When I see the images on the news, I visually understand them, and then when I put them on canvas, I emotionally process them.

MS: What do you think this intimate confrontation with violence and death does for viewers?

SA: I take all my images from the news because we see it so much and become numb to it. And the more it’s repeated, the less we feel it. The screens—the TV screen and the laptop screen—are really barriers. When they exist, everything behind them is just irrelative to us. But when that canvas is right in front of you, if you can touch it and feel the texture of the paint, something about that—to me and to everyone I have ever seen come to one of my shows—makes it feel relative, makes it feel real, and makes them feel the pain. It creates this sense of empathy with others that seeing the same images on the news wouldn’t anymore. When you are standing in a gallery and hearing this story of someone who is standing right there, you can’t escape that, you have to face it. And when you face it, you have to respond to all the new emotions that it’s bringing out of you. 

 Soulaf Abas, Qudsaya, Damascus, oil on panel, 12x12" (2015).

 Soulaf Abas, Torture, oil on canvas, 30x30" (2014).

MS: How has your project continued and changed since returning to the US?

SA: It changed because I wasn’t with the kids anymore, which was the essential part of the project. But it continued and grew in unexpected ways because when I came back, the kids at Ryves Hall who sent the Syrian children letters, they didn’t believe I was going to return bringing their letters back. So when I did, and they got the letters and the artwork and the pictures, it changed my relationship with them, and there was this level of trust that opened up communication between us in a very unexpected way. The book, also a product of the project, had raised about $18,000 in a year. That was sent to all thirty families. A lot of the artwork that the kids did sold and benefitted those families as well. My paintings have traveled to exhibitions in Indiana, Ohio, and now in California. I have given about twenty-five lectures at campuses, in churches, and different places in Indiana and D.C. and California. I also sent a copy of the book to President Obama, and he responded with a very sweet letter. These are all positive things but what I’m itching to do is just go back and work with the kids again. As soon as I came back from Jordan, I felt like I left a part of my heart there. It has been a year and a half, and that has not changed. And every time I talk to someone at Jadal, I feel like my heart is broken, because those kids have changed me so much. But it’ll be a while before I can go back.

Alyssa Arney: Another way the project has changed has been the addition of site-specific installations. The OCCCA is a gigantic space, and it’s pretty conducive to installations. With Soully’s paintings of dead faces, we used atypical formatting by putting the works on the floor or on low pedestals rather than the wall, with one in an alcove where we’ve set up this tomb-like structure. It’s like the viewer is stepping into this space, and really feeling the presence of the situation, through the paintings. On the reverse side of one installation, Soully and I wrote Arabic numbers (S: She learned so fast, it’s amazing) to symbolize all of the countless numbers of people who have died, and there’s also red Arabic text that says, “forgive us Syria.” Next to that is her very graphic collages, and they’re pretty brutal, so we’ve kept it in a binder so that people can view it at their own discretion. We also brought Soulaf’s blooming Syria project, which she’s done all over the world, including in her backyard, to the space inside of the OCCCA. We created an outline of Syria with rocks and put plastic sheeting underneath of it, next to a giant earth mound. It’s an ongoing participatory installation that visitors build throughout the month by scooping some earth into the outline of Syria and planting a seed, symbolizing the rebuilding of the torn nation. It was really nice seeing that on opening night, each person very gingerly took the dirt and put it in and organized it into these neat little shapes in a way we were not expecting; it was very touching, very sweet.

SA: It was a very loving process for people to be a part of. The Syria garden is my favorite installation because I am so passionate about it. And I intend to take it wherever I go. Because they took my Syria from me. I’m going to plant my Syria everywhere I go, because the one I love is no longer there. Because of my Jordan project, the Syrian government has threatened me and my family and they won’t let me go back any more. So I feel like the act of planting roots everywhere helps remedy that sense of longing for a place you no longer can be a part of. I met a Syrian man at the opening and invited him to plant a seed in his hometown of Dara’a. He picks up some dirt, grabs a seed, plants it, gives me a hug, and starts crying. He just said, “I saw the pictures, I saw the paintings, and they were very touching, but then when I put the dirt in my city, I felt like I was home.” And that’s the symbolic moment that the kids responded to in Jordan. They would step inside the map and say, “I’m home,” and step outside the little garden map and say “I’m a refugee again,” and it created these very sweet and poetic moments that everyone can respond to.

AA: It really does make it real. So many of us want to ignore the news, we want to ignore politics, but when you’re seeing the work of someone who’s experienced this, in a very profound way, it is inescapable and it wakes you up to reality and compels you to do something, even if it’s a small act, and I think that’s really important. The garden, the donations, and the small treasures for sale allow visitors to make a tiny contribution that can go a long way. And it does. Soully has been able to purchase prosthetic legs for children with donations, she’s been able to feed and clothe them during harsh conditions in the camps in Jordan. 

 Soulaf Abas, Burning Bridges, oil on canvas, 9x12" (2015).

 Soulaf Abas, The Sky is my Witness, oil on canvas, 20x20" (2015).

SA: To add to that, my main inspiration comes from what every family in Syria is doing today to be able to survive, all of that life that comes from death and destruction, just the act of survival itself. My family, like many other families, has suffered so much, and every time I talk to them, they say, “It doesn’t matter, because we’re home. And home is going through a rough time, and we just have to deal with it.”  Just a couple weeks ago, my parents’ house in Damascus was bombed and my mom was in it. She was pulled from under rubble and she’s now being treated in Dubai to be able to breathe again. We thought we lost her; it was the worst thing that has happened so far. When I came to see Alyssa, I was like a ghost. I had no idea how to even deal with that news. But you see all this happening and people still coming back from it. So I feel like that garden and those symbols of life represent every Syrian person I know who is still fighting for their life, and fighting to stay a normal, healthy, positive person.

MS: In some ways this project seems like a memoir, recording these details of life in war and your connection with home and people and places. But the project is ongoing as the war is. How important do you think documentation is during such a turbulent period, especially documentation of intangible things- emotions rather than death tolls?

SA: I’m trying to create a memoir so we won’t forget, even if we forgive. Not because I want us to stop at the war and not move beyond it, but because what’s happening now is worth remembering, with all its pain and with all the beauty that might come out of it later. And I think it’s important to document things to stay true to how you feel at each step, because the way I feel about Syria—the way things are now—is very different from the way I felt about it three years ago. The moment my parents’ house was bombed, and I lost the place where I grew up, my perspective completely shifted. I feel like, emotionally and internally, I am in labor. I don’t know if I can paint about it any time soon, but I know new things are going to come, just from the images of the destruction of my own house. I think that social change is only going to happen through people being aware of their emotions and the effect that war has left on them. But if we hold it all in and do not express it in writing or music or art, then what’s the point of this revolution? Revolution only begins to break everything we have so we can be born again. And if the Syrian revolution doesn’t do that to us, then it’s done nothing but damage and we have not learned anything from it.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Melissa Smyth is an associate editor at Warscapes. Twitter @perrykeetsmyth email

Soulaf Abas is an artist and educator from Damascus, currently based in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she teaches at Indiana State University.

Alyssa Arney is an artist and art curator based in Orange County, California. She co-curated Seen for Syria, which ran at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art from January 2-30, 2016.