Syria Cultural Index: Reflections from artist Khaled Barakeh

Artist Khaled Barakeh discusses his new initiative, the Syria Cultural Index, dedicated to mapping and connecting the Syrian artistic community around the globe and showcasing their work to wider audience.

Two years ago I decided to move to Berlin. The city became a meeting ground for a community of Syrian cultural producers who shared common hopes and experiences, unlike Frankfurt where I was living at the time. Berlin felt almost like a mini-Damascus – not only could I find familiar faces in a city of strangers, but new artistic initiatives, cultural events and exhibitions focused on the Syrian artistic community were happening all around it. There was a creative network growing and newcomers were welcome.

Since the so-called “refugee crisis” started in 2015, I’ve been continuously asked to suggest or choose Syrian artists for various exhibitions – and even with the best intentions, after a certain time you inevitably get stuck within the same circle, same familiar group. I always suggested artists whose work I believed in, but I felt the need to somehow map the community further, in order to provide chances to unknown producers, not only based in Berlin or Germany, but those still living in Syria and in the diaspora elsewhere. Feeling that granting all of them more democratic access to opportunities would not only improve their situation but maybe even kickstart a bigger artistic movement as well, I’ve decided to establish an online platform dedicated to that goal.

Syria Cultural Index (SCI), created as a response to mass displacement, is an alternative map connecting the Syrian artistic community around the globe, showcasing their work to the world. Alongside a team of professionals, I managed to slowly turn this idea into reality – after receiving a fund we are now finally establishing an online platform. As SCI expands, we might be even able to go beyond the background of the original idea – bearing in mind that Syrian cultural producers not only need equal access to opportunities and visibility on art market, but that they need help on many other levels connected to their professional practice. Through my experience of teaching artists with a forced migration background at UDK in Berlin, I’ve realized that the majority of them lack theoretical knowledge or the ability to present themselves and their creative work in an effective way. Within SCI, starting with providing them with additional information and general know-how, we want to ensure that they get strong personal benefits out of being a part of the platform – through educational opportunities, support on diverse levels and belonging to a bigger movement that allows them to be seen and discovered.

Syria Cultural Index is an easily accessible online platform which, on one hand, functions as a individual gallery space for its users and, on the other hand, serves as a social network for creative professionals. The core focus of SCI are Syrian cultural producers – it’s a space dedicated to not only mapping works of both established and emerging artists, but creating new chances for them to develop it further. Creating a profile on the platform allows them to showcase themselves and their artistic work to the world and thus to find new work opportunities. At the same time, it allows them to find and get in contact with other Syrian artists to share their knowledge and professional skills and to find fitting collaboration partners in order to start new projects, turning the platform into a communication & networking instrument. Furthermore, SCI will be extended by a mobile app offering its users additional services.

SCI will also be a place for cultural institutions and artistic networks to connect and share resources and information. Their input will be extended by a regularly updated overview of other essential information provided by the SCI network itself, to inform the users about topics like legal information, academic opportunities, job and funding offers, artist residencies, as well as upcoming events and activities. It’s not only an event-database and cultural archive, but also a business incubator – the index serves to create opportunities for encounters with artists, institutions and supporters from all fields on the ground to make the community and their surroundings profit from the project. As Syrian Cultural Index network serves as a research tool, it analyses the collected data and maps Syria’s cultural scene as a whole around the globe, which allows the Syrian artists as well as other institutions and individuals who are interested in the Syrian matters to filter the database based on the information needed – and therefore to design future programs according to the real needs and possibilities of the Syrian cultural community.

Syrian culture is constantly under threat: the artistic output is overshadowed by dispersion across nations and regions as well as often harsh economic, social or psychological situations. It is extremely important to realize the difficulties and challenges Syrian producers are facing everyday, both inside and outside of their country. Those still in Syria, besides the obvious harsh conditions of living in a war zone with its ongoing destruction of the tangible heritage and people, have little to no chances of producing freely and growing their artistic career – which is a result of an underdeveloped cultural infrastructure of the country. Nevertheless, Syrian cultural producers living abroad, despite of new opportunities of free, uncensored creation, face new challenges too. As they move and integrate into new societies and communities, so does their art – often blurrying the lines of their artistic indentity, melting into their new surroundings, caught between what’s perceived as Syrian and what’s not. These traumatic times will surely have a lasting impact on the global dynamic of cultural outpouring and there is an urgent need to compensate for the current loss of the Syrian geopolitical identity by replacing it with a collective cultural identity.

Because of the complex narrative of this situation, it’s crucial to provide Syrian producers with means allowing their uniqueness to remain present. Syria Cultural Index addresses those issues and needs, aiming to preserve Syrian art from all over the globe. Working against geographical, religious and political divisions that are now strongly present among the cultural scene in Syria, SCI wants to reflect a wide cultural diversity on all levels. It serves to reconnect the social fabric by bringing together artists who were forcefully displaced with those who remain in the country, as well as it counteracts the defragmentation of the identity as a nation and represents and preserves the cultural heritage and its shape beyond national borders.

The SCI project is expected to have an essential impact on the integration process, so urgently needed in many countries around the globe. Experiencing Syria through its rich culture and outstanding art scene will help to shift from common stereotypes, fears or ignorance, caused by war and immigration problems, to open-mindedness and understanding towards Syrian people. Providing the opportunity to discover Syria through the perspective of art, it will provoke a necessary questioning of the image of Syria, created by the mainstream media. We see Syrian Cultural index as a support system for the process of intercultural communication – enhancing integration and cultural diversity through real interaction with Syrian people. While Syria is a starting point for the Index, in the future we plan to expand the platform to first covering conflict zones in ME/NA region and then, hopefully, moving beyond.

We established a cooperation with a Berlin-based NGO, aiming to run a variety of further actions and initiatives, strengthening the network’s scope. We will focus on diverse means of promoting the initiative within the international society of artists, curators, cultural producers and institutions. This part will include e.g. publishing infographics based on collected data, both in an online and printed form, which will be distributed to universities, institutions, sponsors and other interested parties, creating real opportunities for cooperations in field specific events like exhibitions, festivals and programs in different cities – based on the local artists factual needs rather than the assumptions of institutions. While Syria Cultural Index is the main focus, we are also working on other separate initiatives – such as establishment of a cultural hub, which would operate as a physical space in Berlin where artists can gather, work and host events. It will be designed in the architectural technique of Nader Khalili’s “Eco Dome” – a sustainable method of building houses using earthbags, which is also related to the tradition of clay houses that can still be found in villages in northern Syria. Furthermore, we plan to create the first Syrian Biennale, showcasing works of selected Syrian artists. The exhibition will follow the refugee route – starting in Lebanon, via Turkey, the Balkan route and towards central Europe and Scandinavia, changing its location biannually.

To sum up, Syrian Culture Index operates with the belief that a collective spirit and the active exchange of varying viewpoints is the process to develop innovative thinking. We aim to devise solutions to some specific challenges posed by the extraordinary times we live in. We support artists and cultural producers to be actively involved and responsible for shaping the culture of this and generations to come. Within Syria Cultural Index we are looking forward to having diverse partners, contributions and initiatives, expanding our horizons and bringing new cooperations to life.

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