By NYU Florence student Sariah Bunker
Issa Touma is a prominent figure in the Syrian art scene. He began his career as a photographer in the early 90s living and working in Aleppo. He later established gallery Black and White as a response to his isolation—due to the Syrian conflict—from the international art world and photography scene in 1992. Several years after Black and White closed, he founded Le Pont Organization and Gallery, an independent group dedicated to the promotion of freedom of expression and stimulation of the local art scene through international events. Touma has demonstrated his commitment to bringing world photography exhibitions to Syria through his continued involvement in hosting and organizing photography festivals, including the 8th Women´s Art Festival, which welcomed more than 70,000 visitors. In 2006, Touma served as artistic consultant for the exhibition Images of Syria, at Moestings Hus, Copenhagen, which included photographs from his series Aleppo from Above with other Syrian and Danish Photographers. As the war in Syria grew worse, Touma initiated the Art Camping Workshops program in an attempt to counterbalance the violence of the insurgency with artistic interventions around Aleppo. More recently, the short film 9 Days - From my Window in Aleppo, an initiative by Dutch filmmakers Floor van der Meulen and Thomas Vroege, featured the footage captured by Touma. Touma joined NYU Florence and LPD for a dialogue on September 7 2015: Art in a War Zone, Everyday Life in Syria. In an interview following his dialogue, he talked more about his work.
What does dialogue mean to you?
Dialogue inside the war is different from dialogue outside the war. Inside the war you can dialogue with the people who, yesterday, were distant from you, they are from different religions or ethnicities, but now you are all together in one place protecting yourself from soldiers, so actually inside the war, dialogue becomes much easier with others. The exception is dialogue with the warriors, the people who use guns, the armed people… we don’t know anything about them. But I think the war opened up an incredible opportunity for people to dialogue. All the people, even when they leave [Syria,] like the refugee problem in Europe, they’re helping each other. They’re together. But maybe, in normal day to day life, they would never talk to each other. I don’t like the war at all, but this is one good aspect.
Could you share one story that stands out to you as particularly moving?
I think great things happened when I was working with some refugees in Aleppo. They came from far away, from all over [Syria.] One of them, her name was Amani, she was a very unique lady. She was very active. This lady, she tried to make incredible change in her society through education. She brought the people of the camp together, people of all races, backgrounds, religions, and taught them what she learned in school. This was their only form of education available in the camps. I think I will remember Amani for a long time. She was a really, really wonderful woman.
Besides the beauty you’ve seen in interactions between people in the war, you have undoubtedly seen a lot of hardships due to the conflict, yet you continue to stay in Aleppo. What has motivated you to stay?
It has a lot to do with foundations, cultural foundations. When the conflict in the Middle East began, it became necessary for lots of writers, academics, to go to Europe, to speak to Westerners about what was happening. I am against the intellectuals leaving to the west we need them inside. Not all intellectuals are against the regime, there are 2 sides for sure. I am in the middle. I try to work with all sides to build understanding. That is why I stay in Syria. I want to give opportunity, education and art to the people of Syria. I want the young generation to have a space to work, like my gallery. That is why I always come back. We don’t need to make the young generation feel isolated and like no one cares about them. We should give them hope, and correct the wrongs of the past generation.
You continue to take beautiful photographs despite terror and destruction going on around you. Do you think there is a relationship between destruction and beauty?
Of course, in reality, the war machine will never stop. We will kill forever. When we see beauty in the city, it would affect anyone, even the most cold-hearted soldier. I have been contacted by many universities in the West, many of whom say that they never think of art as peace, and I am an example of that. When I make art that is peace. The most striking of beauties comes in the direst situations. We made a banner, a while back, and hung it right between the two sides [of soldiers] and hung it where the soldiers could see it. They loved it. Not just the soldiers but the people as well. We did that for everyone. The call of art as peace is finally being answered, and I couldn’t be happier.
In your short film The War Outside my Kitchen Window, you can frequently hear the Syrian army praise Allah and say God is on their side. What are your thoughts on the use of God in that way?
All the armies in every war think God is on their side. For me it means nothing. Maybe for them it means a lot of things, but for me it means nothing. If you look at history, every culture, every army thinks God is on their side.