“The way Banksy chose my work was strange, and the place is strange, and so I feel my participation in the exhibition is strange,” explains Syrian artist Tammam Azzam about his inclusion in one of the biggest art spectacles of the summer: Dismaland.
Curated by anonymous street artist Banksy and billed as “The UK’s most disappointing new visitor attraction,” Dismaland features over 50 artists. The pop-up exhibition, which ends today, takes place in a long-unused swimming resort in Weston-super-Mare, an English seaside town where Banksy says he spent his first 17 summers.
Azzam is just one of nine Arab artists Banksy selected for the month-long show. While much media coverage has referred to participants being from around the world, a perusal of the Dismaland website reveals that the only non-western region significantly represented is the Middle East.
Most artists within the exhibition are American or British, with one from Australia, one from Ireland, and four Europeans. Then there’s one Iranian and three Israelis, presumably to “match” the three Palestinians, as well as three Syrians, a Saudi, an Egyptian and a Syrian-South African artist duo.
Looking at the works shown at Dismaland, which deal with dystopian themes, war, debt, consumerism and corrupted media, you can see why Banksy has called it a “bemusement park” and perhaps less convincingly “a family attraction that acknowledges inequality and impending catastrophe.”
Each piece was selected by Banksy himself, and each artist was approached by his manager, Holly Cushing, who doesn’t initially mention his name. Azzam relates how he was approached and agreed without knowing it was Banksy.
Egyptian street artist El-Teneen says, “I got a Facebook message from the organizers and after an initial Skype call, I was sold.” The team specifically asked for The Kiss.
Based on a photograph taken by Esteban Ignacio in a protest in Chile in 2011, this work shows a man and woman kissing, their heads and faces covered to protect them from teargas. But perhaps either this covering or the piece’s inclusion alongside several other Arab works confused some viewers – with UK newspaper The Independent, for instance, referring to it as “Egyptian Muslims kissing.”
When the work was shown in an exhibition called “Of the People” in 2012 in Washington, DC, the words “We will meet” were written across it, but El Teneen says he now refers to it as “The Kiss” – and that it’s a coincidence that in Arabic these words have the same root. And while previously it was a print, for Dismaland, El-Teneen decided to make it into a stencil.
When he was approached, El-Teneen was also working on something about ISIS. “We spoke about including it, but I wasn’t able to finish it on time. It’s almost done now though,” he says.
Azzam’s piece also features a kiss. Part of a series, it’s a digital print that superimposes Gustav Klimt’s iconic work The Kiss (1907-1908) on the walls of a war-shredded building in Syria. His gallery’s website says the image was “liked” by over 20,000 people and shared over 14,000 times in only five hours when first posted on social media in 2013.
The series – which uses easily recognizable works such as Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night – is photoshopped. For two years after he left Syria, Azzam, a painter, could not paint. With 10 years experience as a graphic designer, he decided to produce digital art “so that I could continue as an artist.”
He thinks the piece that uses The Kiss spread because a lot of people thought it was real. Banksy’s team knew it was digital, he explains, but they liked the idea.
To this day, Azzam has not met the photographer who worked with him on the series. He saw Ihab al-Jabi’s photos, disseminated under a pseudonym, and approached him. Only when Jabi left Syria could Azzam start crediting him for the images.
“When I did The Kiss,” he explains, “it spread a lot on the internet and that brought the series to a stop. I couldn’t continue with it after that, it was no longer meaningful to continue after this one went viral.”
The Kiss is not his personal favorite, but “the nicest thing about it,” he says, “is that it highlighted the rest of the series.”
Another Syrian participant, Fares Cachoux, is also represented in Dismaland by work from a series: Six of his Syrian Revolution posters are displayed.
When Cachoux was approached by Banksy’s team, they specified which posters they wanted – they requested five, and later another one. They insisted on their choice, despite his suggestion to include Houla, the poster that started the series and the most famous.
That poster commemorates a massacre in a village north of Homs, in which over 100 people, including children, were killed with knives. As with the posters that followed, figures appear as silhouettes. On the left is Bashar al-Assad, holding a butcher’s knife behind his back, and opposite him are frightened children, one holding a toy.
Homs, Cachoux’s hometown, was an early locus of the Syrian revolution. The art director of an ad agency, Cachoux explains that the killing and destruction in Homs reached a point where he couldn’t work on commercial things like advertisements and turned his attention to Syria, with Houla his first work.
“The massacre in Houla, which happened near the beginning of the revolution, in 2012, affected public opinion among Syrians,” Cachoux explains, “and for me personally, as I used to go fishing in that village.”
The plan was not to produce an entire series. After Houla, Cachoux did two more, creating a triptych. But then he continued, both because he found that the posters resonated and because Syria was descending further and further into destruction.
The pieces he sells at Dismaland will be sold through Artists for Syria, an organization that raises money to support Syrian refugees.
“In the history of the imagery of war, there will be a before and after the Syrian war,” Cachoux says, referring to the millions of hours of footage on YouTube of crimes committed by the regime and militant groups over the past year.
But artists, he says, “can communicate what is happening in Syria without shocking people. They will always find a bigger audience than the audience for horrific images.”
At Dismaland, most works by Arab artists are set up in a side exhibition dubbed Guerilla Island, housed in a tent – many of them close together. Palestinian artists Sami Musa and Shadi Alzaqouq were an exception, as their work is installed in the main hall.
“It was really all about war, but the tent seemed to be more about war,” says Emirati art collector and commentator Sultan al-Qassemi, in the UK because London’s Whitechapel Gallery is hosting a show of works from his Barjeel Art Foundation.
“It looked militant, a sort of survival thing, tents and sand – it looked like a tent in the middle of a war zone.”
Also present were Ammar Abd Rabbo (Syria), Foundland collective (Syria/South Africa), Huda Beydoun (Saudi Arabia), and Mana Neyestani (Iran). Nearby, Banksy placed prominent Palestinian artist Sliman Mansour as the centerpiece of a caravan installation – Mansour is one of the oldest participating artists in Dismaland and has been working on his mixed-media paintings for over four decades.
Reflecting on why there was an emphasis on Arab artists, Qassemi says “I think because the exhibition was reflecting the reality of the news. If Disneyland is where you go to escape and live in a fantasy world, this exhibition was about driving themes even deeper into your mind. Themes of refugees, which are very present in the news and very present in the show, or the Middle East conflict, crime, paparazzi and propaganda, debt.”
“All [these are] themes that resonate with visitors. And the Middle East more than other regions is now heavily present in European circles,” he continues. “Because of the refugee crisis, because of the civil wars, because of ISIS.”
For Cachoux, it is entirely appropriate that if the theme of Dismaland is the world’s trash, that the region most represented would be the Arab world.
“We are the number one in trash,” he says.
While some may be uncomfortable with highlighting problems in the region without pointing to the role and complicity of other powers or states, Cachoux is not.
“The first responsible for the situation is the Syrian regime,” he explains. “The situation in Syria would never have reached this point if the regime had acted with a bit of humbleness towards its people.”
Even some of the media controversy around the show was centered on the Middle East. On finding out that three Israeli artists were participating, including one who has served in the Israeli military, Palestinian artist Shadi Alzaqzouq covered his piece with a white sheet reading, “RIP GAZA, Boycott Israel.”
Nevertheless, his work was sold to major collectors in America who collect Banksy’s works, Qassemi says.
“I know this because I tried to buy it,” he adds. “It was not bought by any collector, or a Middle Eastern collector. I assume it is a major turning point for this artist to be bought by an American collector who buys established European western art.”