The artists in the exhibition "And They Left" at a Damascus cafe are scattered across Europe, having fled Syria's brutal five-year conflict in search of safety abroad
The artists in the exhibition "And They Left" at a Damascus cafe are scattered across Europe, having fled Syria's brutal five-year conflict in search of safety abroad © Louai Beshara - AFP/File
The artists in the exhibition
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Maher Al-Mounes, AFP
Last updated: January 1, 1970

In Old Damascus, sombre exhibit by artists who have fled Syria's war

In a traditional cafe in the heart of Damascus, young Syrians linger at an art exhibition evoking the despair and loss of their country's war. The only thing missing? The artists themselves.

Instead of standing proudly by their works, the artists in the exhibition "And They Left" are scattered across Europe, having fled Syria's brutal five-year conflict in search of safety abroad.

They entrusted their pieces to Bernar Jomaa, 39, who curated the exhibition of works coloured by sorrow and nostalgia.

After arranging the last of a series of carved sculptures, Jomaa logs into Skype to show artist Sara Khatib, now living in Denmark, her section of the display.

Khatib, 29, begins to cry as she sees her work -- including a stone figure of a woman hugging herself -- displayed in her homeland, thousands of miles (kilometres) away.

"I was really moved by the idea of the exhibit. I couldn't hold back my tears when I saw my work next to an old Damascene wall," said Khatib, who claimed asylum in Denmark in 2012.

"I couldn't bring them with me to Denmark, but I didn't want that anyway -- I wanted to leave a part of myself back in Damascus," Khatib told AFP.

"My art pieces are like my children... I'll come back one day to brush the dust off them, to see how much they've grown and what they've become."

Syria's war has displaced half its pre-war population of about 23 million, with many displaced internally and nearly five million seeking refuge in neighbouring countries or Europe.

- 'Forgotten works' in Damascus -

The exhibition at Ziryab, a popular stone coffeehouse in the Old City of Damascus, features nearly two dozen works by 15 different Syrian artists who are now abroad.

Their work is displayed under stone archways fitted with stained glass windows and on rustic wooden tables.

"There are many pieces I've accumulated over the years from artists who have fled Syria without their art. I took all of these forgotten works and curated an exhibit by those who have fled," said Jomaa.

Twenty-three-year old Yazan Kelesh pauses at a photograph of eight children, strained smiles shining through on their war-weary faces.

"Usually, artists are present at an exhibit to explain more about their work. But their absence today says everything about the amount of suffering and pain caused by so many young people leaving, including so many artists," he says.

The works emit a sort of tired, worn sadness: faceless blue-and-green creatures embracing next to sketches of a bald man with an anxious, furrowed brow.

They are also nostalgic: One photograph shows the historic Bab Touma square in Damascus "before it was filled with checkpoints", says visitor Mayss, 31.

"Most of the works here are sad, whether in their colours, the photography angle, or the way they were sculpted. The artists clearly are very sensitive to recent events."

On a typical afternoon in Ziryab, a dozen Syrians sip cups of bitter coffee or puff on water pipes during chats about what become typical subjects of high prices, mortar shells and military conscription.

- Too 'dangerous' for art -

Although Damascus has been spared much of the violence of other major cities like Aleppo, young people in the capital have been hit by skyrocketing prices and unemployment.

One corner of the coffeehouse is dominated by a large monochrome snapshot of a weary woman leaning against a wooden plank, her eyes closed and her head in her hands.

The photographer, Rami Skeif, is among thousands of Syrians who made the perilous journey to reach Europe by boat, travelling with his wife and young daughter in late 2015.

"We had to ride in a small boat for part of the journey, and we couldn't bring anything other than the essentials," 40-year-old Skeif wrote to AFP from Sweden.

"I couldn't bring my works with me on a journey full of obstacles and danger, by land and sea, so I left them behind in Syria with my friend Bernard."

Skeif says he hopes to return to Syria one day "to participate in an exhibition depicting a happy woman, expressing the joy we have demanded for my country".

One visitor in a long black coat scrutinises the artwork very intently.

"This exhibit is for artists who have left. Meanwhile, I'm still here, but my paintings are all gone," says the young man, who declined to give his name.

He left his paintings behind in an eastern suburb of Damascus as rebels advanced several years ago, "and they were all stolen".

"I visit all these exhibits, examining the paintings carefully, looking for my own the way a mother searches for her sons."

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