Syria: A Conflict Explored @ the Imperial War Museum

As part of its centenary the IWM is launching a new exhibition strand called Conflict Now to explore current conflicts around the world, seen through the eyes of artists, photographers, refugees, citizen journalists, war correspondents and so on.

Syria: A conflict explored

The first of these is Syria: A Conflict Explored which will comprise a series of exhibitions and events addressing the ongoing Syrian civil war and will include events, seminars, discussions etc over the show’s run (until September 2017). The main element consists of two free installations in gallery 2 and gallery 4 on the 3rd floor of the museum.

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Damascus, Syria, 24 August 2013 © Sergey Ponomarev

Gallery 4 – Syria: Story of a Conflict

In gallery 4 is a small display exploring the origins and impact of the war. It consists of three elements:

1. Half a dozen or so artifacts including:

  • a lifejacket from a boatful of refugees from the war;
  • newspaper headlines in a British and American paper, referring specifically to the beheading by ISIS of British and American citizens
  • a mug and a plate with the images of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad next to Russian President Putin
  • cartoons by Ali Ferzat, a well-known political cartoonist in Syria until he over-stepped the mark by depicting members of the government, and was beaten up one dark night in Damascus and had his hands shattered… at which point he realised it was time to leave the country
  • one of the characteristic white helmets worn by the Syrian Civil Defence, the people who clear up after the bombings and shooting
  • a replica of a barrel bomb i.e. a metal barrel packed with explosives, petrol and scrap metal, onto which are nailed some crude fins so that it can be fired from a primitive mortar at ‘the enemy’

2. An eight-minute video giving a timeline of the war, how it developed from some acts of graffiti by dissident school kids in 2011 who were subsequently arrested and beaten which sparked protests against the regime.

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 14 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

The region known as Syria was part of the huge Ottoman Empire for centuries. With the collapse of that Empire and the creation of modern Turkey, the victorious Allies (France and Britain) inherited control of the Middle East and laid out borders which endure to this day, more or less. While Britain took control of Iraq and the Gulf States, France took colonial possession of Lebanon and Syria. In fact, Syria was under French rule for only 25 years, from 1920 to 1945, when, in the aftermath of World War Two, it was given independence.

Syria’s subsequent history has been marked by a bewildering series of military coups (1961, 1963, 1966, 1970) until power was seized by Air Force colonel and one-time Defence Minister Hafez al-Assad. Assad instituted an Arab Nationalist dictatorship over a country mostly populated by Sunni Muslims but with a significant number of minorities – Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Druze, Mandeans, Shiites, Salafis, and Yazidis.

In fact al-Assad was himself an Alawite (a heretical form of Shia Islam) and packed his government with colleagues from this sect – which was just one cause of resentment against his long oppressive rule. When Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar, educated as an eye surgeon in the West, and who commentators – ever over-optimistic about the Middle East – thought would relax the state regime and help Syria transition to a modern democracy.

Whatever hope there was of that was crushed when Bashar was forced to choose whether to let the ‘Arab Spring’ protests of 2011 continue or crack down on them: the same dilemma faced by numerous dictatorial regimes in the past generation – Gorbachev’s Soviet Union and Li Peng’s China and Honecker’s East Germany in 1989. Possibly prompted by those around him, by the survivors of his father’s dictatorship who had so very much to lose, he decided to crack down – and the rest is history.

As the government used increasing violence to repress the protests, the protestors took up arms, dissident military units turned against the government, America and NATO refused to be drawn in and supply heavy weapons to the rebels (on the reasonable grounds that these might well end up in the hands of anti-western Islamist forces), while the opposition forces fragmented into up to a thousand different militias, among which – predictably enough – hard-line Islamist forces emerged. Combined with President Obama’s strategy of withdrawing US troops from Iraq, a vacuum of anarchy opened up in northern Iraq and eastern Syria into which surged the new, super-violent ISIS militia.

While chaos spread across the country, the Kurds in northern Syria – just like the Kurds in northern Iraq – tried to declare independence and secede, as their forebears have been trying to do ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. As usual, the Kurds turned out to be the most disciplined and unified fighting force in the country, particularly effective against the Islamist fanatics, and the West and America accordingly gave them practical help.

But this outraged Turkey, nominally a member of NATO and Western ally, but which has been fighting a campaign against Kurdish secessionists in its far south-east ever since the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and has suffered a long series of attacks on civilians and police by Kurdish terrorists. While America and NATO dithered about their policy, trying to aligned themselves with the democratic opposition to Assad while also trying not to end up arming Islamist forces – in September 2015 Russia stepped in with an aggressive policy to support its long-term ally in the region, the Syrian government.

Russian President Putin has trodden a tricky line ever since, claiming at the UN and to the world at large, to be helping Assad combat ‘terrorists’ – while in fact Russian planes have quite openly attacked non-terrorist opposition forces, most recently at the heart-breaking siege of Aleppo.

Still, however murderous their impact has been on the ground, Russia has effectively staked its place as the key external player in a struggle which is overflowing with external interference. For I haven’t explained how the two regional powers, Saudi Arabia (backing Sunni insurgents) and Iran (backing the Syrian government) have also been supplying arms, soldiers and advisers to their respective sides.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Bringing all the warring factions in the country together to any kind of peace discussions is impossible, since many of the opposition groups refuse to accept Assad’s right to rule, while Assad refuses to talk to the opposition which he indiscriminately brands as terrorists, and the actual terrorists – ISIS and related groups – oppose both the others, wanting to establish a medieval caliphate in the region, while the fierce enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia also has to be mediated.

Just getting America and Russia to talk rationally about the situation would be a massive achievement, which doesn’t look likely any time soon, especially given President Trump’s unpredictability.

3. The third element in this gallery is a series of wall panels and photos giving the life stories of nine representative ‘ordinary’ Syrians. They are not happy stories. And somehow, they seem completely overshadowed, crushed, by the weight of the military, ideological and strategic forces which are tearing their country apart.

Gallery 2 – Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria

In gallery two (which is made up of four rooms) is the first UK exhibition of 60 photographs by award-winning Russian documentary photographer, Sergey Ponomarev (b.1980).

As a Russian i.e. a citizen of the government’s main ally, Ponomarev was able to enter the country and get access to areas most western journalists couldn’t. His photos are in colour, big and vivid. However, they are not images of the conflict per se. Unlike say, Don McCullin, who I’ve recently been reading about, Ponomarev doesn’t take images of fighting men, soldiers, militias and so on.

Instead his work concentrates on civilians living quite literally on the edge of the front line as it weaves to and fro across cities and towns – Homs, Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus itself. The impact of the war is obvious enough in the shattered buildings all around, but is only implicit in the faces of the civilians, peering out the window at snipers, leaving their bombed-out apartments, trying to live normal lives in cafes and shops while their entire country is torn apart.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

There is no blood anywhere. It is the implicitness of the conflict which gives so many of the pictures their spooky, haunted quality. There’s a particularly haunting one showing the congregation in one of the rare Christian churches left, in Damascus, and you can see the haunted anxious expressions on their faces. It’s the third down on the left in the montage on this page:

In fact, these four rooms are divided into two distinct shows:

1. Assad’s Syria – the first three rooms feature 24 big – really big – colour prints of images of civilians, the result of visits Ponomarev made to government-run territory in 2013-14. Obviously lots of shots of people amid rubble, although also lots of pics of people trying to go about their everyday lives in cafes and churches. As I worked through the rooms, it dawned on me that these photos are dominated by buildings; many of the people are looking out of big windows, or are framed in vistas of buildings (destroyed or still standing), or are seen through windows or against pillars or staircases – and it’s the architecture which gives many of these photos their monumental effect (that and their enormous size).

2. The Exodus In the fourth and last room is a second distinct portfolio of work. There’s a bench where you can sit and watch a 14-minute slide show of 40 or so big colour images of Syrian (and other) refugees escaping across the sea from Turkey to Greece, then trying to get across the borders into Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, all hoping to get to Germany, the promised land of wealth, jobs and security.

These photos were taken between the ‘refugee crisis’ from June 2015 and March 2016. It was for this work that Ponomarev won the Pulitzer Prize (2016), the World Press Photo Award (2017) and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award (2017). Obviously they are of people in extremes of desperation and distress but what also struck me was how beautifully framed and composed they all are.

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Lesbos, Greece, 27 July 2015 © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

If the Assad’s Syria photos rely on architectural features to create compositions, the Exodus photos – by their nature mostly taken outside, by the sea, in fields, railway stations, wherever the refugees gathered or were corralled by the police – these have a completely different feel because they use the shapes and patterns of human beings to give shape and compositional effect.

Boats, trains, buses intervene a bit, but it is mostly the forms and patterns into which groups of human beings naturally fall which Ponomarev picks out with unerring skill. In the photo above there is a diagonal line from the heads of the people in the boat following the rope heading to the bottom right hand side, enlivened by the two figures struggling through the water. I’m not saying it’s schematic or planned – just that Ponomarev has an extraordinary ability to see, frame and capture the patterns and shapes which naturally arise in human situations.

His photos are quite stunning.

The information in the first gallery, with its random objects, people’s stories and short film, you could pick up almost anywhere off the internet. Ponomarev’s photos, by contrast, are extraordinary, vivid, wonderfully composed, tinged by a distinctive blueish colour palette, haunting. They are well worth a visit just for themselves.

Videos

These days most exhibitions have at least one promotional video on YouTube or Vimeo: this exhibition has 12!


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

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