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Arts + Culture: Painting Ghouta’s Massacre, in 140 Characters

Aleppo native Kinda Hibrawi is a painter and a cofounder of the Zeitouna Foundation, which provides arts education to Syrian children at the Atmeh refugee camp in Atmeh, Syria.

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

In the wake of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, she incorporated printed Tweets from that night with a portrait of a Syrian child. The resulting piece, titled “Ghouta,” quickly went viral, a sign that in her country’s revolution, social media and visual expression are entwined.

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Here, Hibrawi talks about the process of creating the painting, how Syrian art and politics are connected and how Damascus’ art scene thrived before the conflict.

Syria Deeply: How did the Ghouta piece come about?

Kinda Hibrawi: The Ghouta piece is the most personal painting to date. I’ve been stuck as an artist with regards to art and the Syrian revolution for almost a year, because it’s such an intense, tragic and personal situation going on for everyone. It was really difficult for me to wrap my brain around it and approach this subject matter in a respectful yet powerful way. I had artists’ block. With this conflict, as an artist, you feel that some things are so much bigger than you. So how do you climb that mountain?

I’m very active on Twitter. On the night of Aug. 21, I was in New York City helping my younger sister move, and I was on Twitter, keeping an eye on things. All of a sudden the stories of an attack in Ghouta started to come out from people I knew and respected, such as activists and writers, and you’re literally watching the body count going up, live on Twitter.

On top of that, the media wasn’t talking about it. No one was addressing it other than these Twitter activists and people on the ground. You felt this real sense of a Twitter community, like it was a moment in history. At the time, I felt those Tweets were really significant, really historical, and I wanted to somehow incorporate that into a painting. Those users are “vocal soldiers.” And with Ghouta, they were the ones who got the media on board. Twitter was on fire that night. I felt like I wanted to capture the moment through my art, but I thought, how do I do that while being respectful and powerful? The subject matter is much heavier than anything I’ve ever done before.

I printed out the Tweets on paper and then glued them on. Its 36 x 36 inches. I always like the idea that what you see from afar looks different up close. I love seeing people come up close and read it, and then walk away with a different facial expression than what they approached it with. It looks like this beautiful sad image of this child, then you come in close and read all these Tweets, and it gives the portrait more depth without being obvious. And I hope it leaves a lasting impact.

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After I had all the Tweets up, I started to paint the portrait. To see them all in one space was very powerful and impactful. It was a black moment in Syrian history, among many other tragedies, and these people were reporting about it live. I posted just a small close up of it on Twitter and it took off. The Twitter community just embraced this idea.

I’m going to do a whole Twitter series. Right now i’m working on a piece about the Houla massacre.

SD: You returned to Syria and the Turkish border over the summer. How did that affect you?

KH: My trip to Syria in June affected me on so many levels. We went to Reyhanli and then to Atmeh, to the largest IDP camp in Syria. We worked with the refugee kids there. It was an overwhelming time. I was depressed for a month when we came back. When you read about it and you go and actually see it, it’s two very different things. Being on the ground, in that land, at this time: it’s very traumatic.

For the aid workers, journalists and activists who are there on the ground day in and day out are unconsciously being traumatized over and over again, with no time to emotionally heal from what they have seen. But when you do step away and head back to your contrasting world in the U.S. and you have time to be introspective, the shock and tragedy and the immensity of the situation hits you harder. I live in Orange County, California, now. Nothing could be a bigger contrast.

SD: How does Syria’s art landscape look right now? It seems like it’s become extremely politicized.

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KH: Back in 2010, I almost considered moving back to Syria. The art scene was booming and in the Middle East there was a huge demand for the work of Syrian artists. There was a certain censorship of artists in Syria if you were going to go the political route. Now people are coming out of the woodwork, even people for whom art was a side hobby. Sometimes, when impactful traumatic events happen to people, art is a very powerful outlet.

If your work hasn’t changed [over the last two years], and you’re a Syrian artist, you’re in the wrong profession. My earliest work is literally night and day to my stuff now. I painted beautiful flowers for the longest time. Then I did more introspective calligraphy. If you just look at my work from 2005 until now, it’s a huge change. You can look back and see your visual development as a human being.

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