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Unrest Shakes Syria’s Lively Art Scene

Wissam Shaabi didn’t want to leave.

As the conflict in Syria spilled into Damascus earlier this year, the artist regularly went to his studio and kept painting.

He noticed that some of his fellow artists began to incorporate the conflict into their work, capturing the chaos and bloodshed that became routine. Shaabi, 26, tried to paint the opposite, using bright colors and abstract shapes to convey a sense of hope.

It wasn’t easy to maintain his optimism. One evening this summer, Shaabi heard a heavy gun battle near his home. “It was horrible. You just think of running,” he said. “It’s not safe anywhere. Something can happen at any time.”

Shaabi decided it was time to get out. He packed up 10 paintings that he was working on, left behind another 20 and moved with his family to Lebanon in July.

Shaabi is only one of dozens of Syrian artists who have fled the conflict.

“A lot of my friends left the country. Some of them went to Amman or to Egypt,” Shaabi said. “The situation is very tough. You can’t have a normal life. You don’t have the freedom to exhibit anything.”

Shaabi has had a measure of success since he arrived in Lebanon. He has an exhibition of six paintings at a gallery in Beirut along with two other Syrian artists.

But the adjustment has been difficult. “Sometimes I feel like my body is here, but my mind is there,” Shaabi said.

Before the unrest in Syria began last year, there was a lively art scene in Damascus, and many galleries showcased contemporary painters.

The departure of artists from Syria has caught the attention of gallery owners and collectors in Lebanon. “It was a way for us to discover that Syria has so many great young artists,” said Alia Noueihed Nohra, the owner of the Art Circle gallery in the bustling Hamra neighborhood of west Beirut.

Some of those artists remain at work in Syria.

Rania Moudaress Silva is a 31-year-old painter whose father, Fateh, is seen as one of the pioneers of modern art in Syria. Silva, who uses her ex-husband’s surname, continues to work from her home in Damascus, but she had a solo exhibit at the Art Circle gallery last month.

On opening night, Lebanese art aficionados and a handful of Syrian artists and friends checked out the exhibit while sipping champagne and juice. Many of the paintings were large portraits of women blended with naturalistic themes: dark birds flying across the face of one woman, roots splayed across the face of another.

“People think it’s too happy and bright,” Silva said, reflecting on her art. “But I don’t want to give in to the dark. These images are my only escape.”

Since the uprising in Syria began last year, Silva’s life in Damascus has been upended. “Going out of the house now, you expect to be killed at anytime,” she said. “It changes your life.”

Silva has set up a gallery in the basement of her home in Damascus to work discreetly. She worries constantly about her seven-year-old son, who often hears explosions that rattle their windows. She tells him it is only fireworks.

As the conflict has intensified, some art supplies, including paper, have become particularly difficult to find. Silva stocks up on trips to Beirut.

Some of Silva’s artist friends have been threatened or arrested, but she still makes a point of going out to regularly meet a group of artists at a cafe in Damascus. Security agents at the cafe watch them closely, she said, but the artists know who they are and try to steer clear of them.

Many of the artists who have left Syria can’t go back – at least not now. One young Syrian man, who goes by the name Juan Zero, started his art career with formal training and began painting. But he drifted away from his classic training and began drawing blistering political cartoons, taking equal aim at both the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels. That caught the attention of government intelligence services.

Security agents began scouring Damascus cafes and asking about Juan Zero last year, when his cartoons gained a following on the Internet.

He said he was arrested during one security sweep, but his interrogators didn’t find out about his work as Juan Zero. While in custody, he said he saw fellow detainees tortured. “I saw people getting hung by their feet for days on end until they couldn’t see anymore. I saw them putting the genitals of a person on fire,” he said. “It was random torture, unprofessional, unplanned.”

It wasn’t long after this arrest that Juan Zero fled to Beirut, and he now calls his exile “forced tourism.” But he still dreams of going back.

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Washington Post special correspondent Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.

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