THE MIDEAST FORUM - Diplomacy, Politics, Culture, Intellectuals and Oppositions Groups in the Middle East
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Sarah Shamma – A Portrait of a Syrian woman painter
By: Dr. Yohai Sela
During recent years, particularly since the year of 2000, Syria is trying to present to the world an image of country which is peace loving and culture and art advocate. In this perspective, Syrian artists are receiving government encouragement and aid as long as they are keeping in line with the political standards of the Alawi regime, as it was designed since Hafez Al Assad took the control in 1970. The Syrian regime doesn't see any contradiction between the new image which it is trying to nurture and between the tight imposing on internet websites or the imprisonment of intellectuals due to minor reasons. In non-religious Syria it is allowed to show almost anything- as long as the element on display isn't offending the public directly. In order to preserve that law, there is a set of rules that organizes the public behavior according to the values that are customary in a traditional society. There for, there is a set of defined rules that are set to find the right balance between the non-religion views of the government and the society which is mostly religious, due to the religion strength which exist in Syria in one way or another, as a result of that, the government needs to find the path between these two opposite trends.
For example, the Syrian regimes have cast a boycott on the Lebanese female singer Haifa Wehby (an article was published about her in Omedia magazine in March, 2007), in claim that she represent a tasteless provocative image, which contradict the public morals. (For some of the Arab public, Wehby belongs to the group of "naked singers" that are excommunicated due to their revealing outfits). On the other hand, Syrian painters are allowed to show their work in galleries in Syria and around the world, even if their work show defined erotic images. It is appropriate to mention that in many liberal countries people still argues about the difference between art and something that inspires sexual urges.
For many Syrians, mainly from the intellectual elite, dealing with the strict and tough image their country has around the world is difficult. An expression of that fact was given in an interview with Yassir Sadek from Damascus which was published in Omedia magazine in October 2006. Many Syrians are trying to nurture a new and clean regarding their country, using art, sport, economics, communication, academics and international conventions which are taking place in Syria from time to time. It is most likely that the government itself is trying to nurture these new trends as long as the participants know the rules of the game and follow it. For example, the Syrian ambassador in the US, Dr. Imad Moustapha, has a personal online blog where he describes his diplomatic work and the Syria's culture life. Working aside him is his vigorous wife, Dr. Rafif Al-Sayed Moustapha, who recently gave birth to a new daughter. The blog runs in a professional and esthetic manner, due to the fact that the ambassador formally acted as the dean of the faculty of information technology in the University of Damascus. The ambassador's wife received a degree in Computer Science in one of the British Universities. The couple is trying to present Syria's cultural face to the American public with the help of the Syrian community in the US, which contains about half a million people. As art lovers, the couples give special attention to the community of Syrian painters and artists and are trying to promote their work in the US.
In recent years, a lively community of Syrian painters is getting recognized and appreciated by the young Arabic public and by other followers in the west. These painters are showing in galleries all over the Arab world and are invited to show their work globally. Some of them are winning international awards and are given a variety of compliments in the Arab and international media. Among the appraised Syrian painters, one can mention Omar Hamadi, Issa Ba'ajano, Hana Al-Haik, Fatah Modaras, Hadi Toron, the late Louie Kially, Asma Fyumi, Ahamad Ellias, A'san Nana, Isam Darwish and others. In the last few years, painter Sarah Shamma attracts a great attention, mostly among the younger generation, who identifies with her personal and innovative style.
A fan of Bob Dylan
Sarah Shamma, 33, began painting when she was 4 yrs old. Her unique talent led the way to the Arts academy in Damascus, where she began studying when she was 7 yrs old in the children's workshop. By the age of 20 she finished her studies in the academy and in the age of 23 she received a degree in Art from the University of Damascus. She taught for three years in the Arts academy, where she began her career in a younger age. According to Shamma, she is a full time painter. She is considered one of the most successful painters, due to the fact that her paintings are being sold without any difficulties. Therefore she doesn't have to look for sponsors or to court galleries in order to show her art. Various places in Syria, such as the national museum of Syria, the British embassy and the centre for Spanish culture, show her work on regular basis. Many praising articles about Shamma are being published in the Arab press, since 1999, even on an international level.
A magazine from Kuwait claimed that Shamma is one of the most important painters in the Arab world. A Jordanian newspaper described the excitement of the visitors in one of her shows, which recently took place in Jordan. A newspaper from Lebanon named Shamma is the "Diva of the world of painting". Her works were shown in Spain, Holland, Austria, United States and Canada. In 2008, she is planning to show her work in China.
She is a huge fan of Bob Dylan, and as a symbol to her love for the singer and his songs she painted more than 50 portraits of Dylan, some of them were shown in Syria and in other parts the Arab world. Apart from her love to Dylan's music, she also a huge fan of Sufian music and she admire the dance of the Darwishians, known for its unique style. She gave tribute to the dance and the dancers by capturing them in painting which were shown all over the world and got massive attention. Shamma likes to play the guitar for her enjoyment and to the enjoyment of her family and friends, she represent a new generation of young people (especially young women), that are breaking the habits of the old generation and that have the individual carriage, that steps outside of the traditional and social frames.
Surreal individual style
Sarah shamma usually paints using oil on canvas, in different sizes which in many times reach the size of a meter and a half and more. The color red is dominating many of her paintings. In them, she put the individual in the centre in many absurd and surreal situations. In some of the work it is hard to establish whether it is a painting or a photo, as she has the talent of preciseness, a fact which gives her paintings a visual strength and impact. The Arab society is going through big changes which are expressed in the position of the individual in the society and especially regarding women's position in the society, which is on the way to change. Example to this fact can be found in Shamma's paintings. Sarah Shamma prefers to paint portraits in a variety of situations- an old and wrinkly woman, a farmer with the traditional Kafiya, a sensitive child, a man sitting of a sofa- he's either in despair or is contemplative, and woman is many situations, looking at themselves or looking straight at the viewer with heart felt message. Most of these paintings are portraits of the painter herself in various situations; you can almost say the subject in the paintings reflects self-love and obsession.
However, it is her own unique way of presenting a "woman" and "femininity" in different situations as a mirror to the traditional conceptions or as a way to react against them. In one painting, it is a woman with a face which is half wipe out, inside a large vase which is made of glass, and in a different painting it is a woman in front of a glass obstacle, facing the viewer. In one of the interviews she responded: "if I could explain myself using words, I wouldn't be a painter". In this clever way, she removed the responsibility for the verbal explanations regarding her paintings. In this indirect way, she gave great credit to the viewer so that he can see her work independently, according to his personal understanding and conception. And it might be for that reason, that she receives this great attention and loving responses around the world.
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