GAZIANTEP, Turkey – The night before Syrian painter Leila Said Hassou, 28, hosted her first art exhibition in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, an alleged ISIS group suicide bomber attacked a nearby Kurdish wedding, killing 50 people.
The attack was a harrowing coincidence considering the theme of Leila’s work. Her paintings are inspired by a simple question – what is the root of extraordinary, sometimes incomprehensible, violence?
Hassou drew inspiration from thinkers such as the German Jewish scholar Hannah Arendt and Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist from the Caribbean island of Martinique, who have published some of the most influential views on violence.
After witnessing the brutality of French colonization in Algeria, Fanon concluded that the oppressed have to take up arms if all other attempts to free themselves fail. Arendt, who lived through the Holocaust, coined the phrase, “banality of evil,” which suggests harrowing atrocities can be committed by anyone at any time.
In Syria, atrocities occur every day. At least 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict since 2011, and nearly half the country’s population have been uprooted from their homes.
Hassou believes the Syrian regime’s brutal repression ultimately pushed Syrians to take up arms to defend themselves, but her paintings simply invite observers to reflect on their own capacity to commit extraordinary acts of violence.
Syria Deeply spoke with Hassou about her work, the Syrian conflict and her quest to explore the origins of violence.
Syria Deeply: When did you first begin to explore the concept of “banality of evil” through your art?
Leila Said Hassou: I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and while I was living there I saw first-hand the injustice that migrant workers faced. Seeing that injustice is what first made me conscious of the many forms of violence around me that were so normalized. However, I didn’t really start exploring specific questions of violence until I met Nawrs Majeed – a friend and intellectual – seven years ago. The views he held really influenced me. And so, far before the uprising [in Syria], I started to produce paintings that captured many of our common vices that can lead us to commit horrible acts of violence.
Syria Deeply: What conclusions have you come to since exploring the origins of violence through your work?
Hassou: I knew I wasn’t going to come up with an answer immediately or at all. I just wanted to explore the humanity of evil. That’s where I started. In a way, it was easier for me to understand evil or violence because we can all see a part of it in ourselves. It’s these parts that I wanted to show in my paintings.
Syria Deeply: Which painting displayed in your first exhibition best illustrates the sentiments of the many Syrians suffering in the war?
Hassou: There is one painting [titled Betrayal] that speaks to me on an emotional level. [President] Bashar al-Assad should look at this painting. He probably would see a big part of himself inside it. He might recognize the evil presented in this painting in himself. That’s the point of every painting in this room: They are designed for people to come to terms with their own capacity to commit horrible acts. If we don’t understand the root of violence, then we’ll never be able to protect ourselves from committing it.
Syria Deeply: You were in Saudi Arabia when the revolution took place in Syria. Did you wish you could be there, or did art allow you to try and contribute to the struggle in your own way?
Hassou: Yes, I was in Saudi Arabia when the revolution started. But I wanted to contribute to the revolution in any way I could. That’s when I started producing digital freedom signs across social media. These were symbols that were totally different than the ones produced by the regime. Of course, I wish I could have been there.
Syria Deeply: Where will you donate the proceeds from your work?
Hassou: I work in an association called the Hurras Network. It tries to protect children in war as much as we can. All the money raised from selling my paintings will go to this association. We hope the money can help the most vulnerable children receive urgent medical treatment for injuries inflicted by war. On a different note, I think it’s so important to protect and work with children at a young age. If they can develop a critical methodology that helps them cope and make sense of the violence around them, then maybe they’ll be able to better reflect and protect themselves from partaking in meaningless acts of violence once they’re older.