A Conversation with Artist Soulaf Abas on New Exhibit on Syria

While Syria remains in conflict as it has for the past forever, two people—Soulaf Abas and Muzafarr Salman—are telling stories of refugees and victims here in the United States. Their traveling art show, Seen for Syria, is coming to Orange County Center for Contemporary Art (OCCCA) on January 2 and will run until January 30. It features paintings, prints, collages, and photographs of their homeland, a long-legendary place now tainted by endless murder, rape, and torture. We sat down with Abas to discuss the stories behind the pictures.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Damascus, Syria. As a kid, I had health issues and was confined to a bed for a majority of my childhood which is why reading, drawing, and painting are how I spent my time. At 16, I joined a Russian cultural art studio in Damascus and started pursuing art professionally because it was the only thing I was passionate about.

What inspired you to create art about your homeland?

It was after a visit to Syria in 2012. Home will always be what home is: a place you love that you also want to get away from. After the war started, I was losing a lot of people I loved—many from my extended family—in a short amount of time. One person I lost was my uncle, and I felt great pain from that. Painting about Syria helped me cope with my loss. Then, I figured I might actually lose my immediate family too. That’s why I had to go back to Damascus that year. Nothing was the same.

What do you remember Damascus being like as a child?

Before the war, Syria was a peaceful place. Damascus used to have tons of tourists and all kinds of languages were spoken downtown. It was very lively. Back then, I remember feeling like I could do anything I wanted. But, suddenly, it became the opposite. It went from a place you could always go back to the one place that isn’t yours anymore. You couldn’t feel safe there anymore.  

What kind of artwork will we be seeing at Seen for Syria?

Muzaffar Salman has done some photography of Syria and I’ve created prints, collages, and paintings mostly with oil on canvas and panel. There will also be artwork from the children’s refugee camp I worked with.  

One component of your exhibit is the promotion your book, Me and You, which captures an exchange between Syrian refugee children and American children who suffer from poverty and a lack of social support. Can you tell me more about it?

Painting was personally healing for me, so I wanted to bring that to Syrian refugee children. Just painting about my homeland and the pain I was feeling wasn’t enough anymore; I had to do something beyond that. I wanted to share my healing methods with the children, who probably had no other way of expressing their emotions.

The more I worked with the kids, the more they started to open up about how they lost their leg or saw their mom die. I wanted them to see there’s something in life worth believing in. In my heart, I knew I had to do this for as long as I could. Even if just one child opens up, I feel like I’ve made a difference.

All proceeds for the book will go straight to the children who helped create it. So far, we’ve raised about $1,500 for the kids.

What do you hope people learn from the exhibit?

To me, this exhibit is one way of sharing what’s happening in Syria in a non-political way. It’s not what you would see on television, which can be desensitizing. We want to show the conflict in a humanitarian way. Through art, we can remember the children, lives lost, and little stories that often get lost. With my book, Me and You, I want to show what happens when you focus on faith, determination, and a lot of love. We can make something so beautiful in this world—one that war could never take away.

When did you start working with Muzaffar Salman?

Muzaffar is my cousin. We grew up in the same house. When I was younger and in a wheelchair—he‘s 10 years older than me—I would kick his belly in the mornings so he would play with me. He was crying to become a photographer then. Later, when I saw the photographs he was taking in Syria, I immediately thought we needed to collaborate.  

What are some stories behind the exhibit’s paintings?

All of the paintings have a story behind it. There’s one painting that depicts the first bombing of the neighborhood I grew up in Damascus, which is gone now. When I look at it, I sometimes think, “Wow, that my way to school.” I also painted the second bombing of my neighborhood when it was all gone.

In the other cities you’ve brought Seen for Syria to, how have attendees reacted to the artwork?

The reaction has always been very positive. People are mostly shocked by the imagery which is what I go for. Usually, when you see anything about Syria on the news you start to get numb to it. But there’s something about seeing the canvas and texture of the oil paint that makes a Syrian person’s pain more real. I’ve seen many people cry at the exhibit. Some come up to me and give me hugs.

How has making artwork about your homeland transformed you as a person?

In recent years, I had a moment that clearly answered that question for me. I’ve asked myself that before, too. Once, I was standing in a makeshift camp in a desert in Jordan. I saw the overwhelming amount of sadness around me, and I said to myself, “If this was a painting, what would I do about it?” There are moments when you paint where you have to step back and turn the painting upside down. The answer that came to me is that I had to paint until the refugee camp I helped out at came back to life again. At that camp, I worked with 500 children within four days. We painted our hearts out. That’s when I realized that it was through painting that I saw my life.

To learn more about the exhibit, visit OCCCA's website

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