Powerful and inspiring, Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s artwork does not leave spectators indifferent. In 2013, his Freedom Graffiti series went viral in social media across the world. In this work, Tammam superposed imagery taken from masterpieces of Western art history into scenes of devastation across Syria, calling the world’s attention to the limitless suffering brought about by the Syrian conflict. Born in Damascus in 1980, Tamman had to flee to Dubai when the uprising started in 2011. There he is represented by Ayyam Gallery. Fascinated by his work, and intrigued by his artistic persona, I contacted Tammam to know more about his aesthetic vision. He kindly agreed to converse via Facebook—for which I thank him very much.
Q: Tammam, what was your source of inspiration for the Freedom Graffiti series? Any particular narrative you were trying to convey? Has the (well deserved) recognition you got for the series changed your approach to art or life?
TAMMAM: I do not look for messages in the artwork. The recipient may find that, or find another question, or maybe an answer. Inspiration came out like any other one in art, but maybe I felt that searching more and more for the subjects could get attention to the hard and tough truth behind. And for the (well deserved) recognition, I think nothing can make sense when the sound of the tanks shelling is the prevalent one. In Syria, I didn’t believe ever that words have more power than the bullets. But that doesn’t mean we should stop making art.
Q: I showed my mother your work –she is herself, at 80, a well-established artist in Europe. First, she praised its lyricism and originality. Then she labeled it “a true representation of man’s never-ending creativity and artistic genius”? What would you say to that statement?
TAMMAM: She makes me stop talking and concentrate more on doing art. I sincerely hope that I am doing true art, real art, which is the most important and hard art to produce, anyway. But yes, I want people to feel art in my works, and not focus in the background, the political situation.
Q: Who is your favorite artist from all the master(pieces) you experimented with in the Freedom Graffiti series?
TAMMAM: Actually, none of them is one of my favorites, but all of them are masters. I am more fascinated with artists from the modern scene: Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, and the great Frank Auerbach, and… a long list!
Q: Ruins and debris are a thematic constant in your work –your updated Facebook pic being just one last example. Talk a bit about your artistic and conceptual representation of debris. Could it be a way to convey suggestions without showing the real sheer killing or destruction of human lives? Is it a conscious mechanism?
TAMMAM: Ruins and debris always contain the story that has been there, the lives of people, the stories of the buildings that are now destroyed. They evoke the people who lived once there. Showing the real sheer killing is another mission, for media for example. Art shows the stories themselves.
Q: You clearly love experimentation in the application of various media (i.e., working with digital media, referencing street art, including as components ordinary elements from every day’s life, etc.). Can you talk a bit about your understanding of artwork as a “hybrid form”?
TAMMAM: The result is the aim always, it doesn’t matter which kind of medium we artists use. But the final result should be the ARTISTIC statement. So when I can use paintings I will do; when I can’t (like the first months after I left Syria), I tried to do digital ART works without thinking about the medium itself. So I have to make my own statement in any medium I can use… and why not if that medium is just me?!!
Q: What do you think about the transformational power of art? In other words, do you believe that engagement and protest through art can make a difference in today’s world?
TAMMAM: Well, for me the bullet has more power more than art. Tanks now run into everything, the shelling destroys people and their lives altogether… But people still need to find another sound to hear.
Q: Finally, I know you like to keep the focus on art, but I would like to ask you quickly about Syria’s political situation. I read a Europa Press dispatch Aug. 2 stating that 5,300 died in Syria just during July 2014 (1060 civilians, 225 children). Do you feel like the rest of the world has left Syria alone to its own devices? And any prospects that you could return home any time soon?
TAMMAM: I don’t think I am going back soon for sure. I know I can’t do anything there… even I don’t have the courage to go. As for the second part… actually you just gave the answer: yes, Syria alone from the first day, to endure its own suffering and chaos…
To find out more about Tammam, you can visit the Facebook page on Syria’s art (https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.161554477315587.35984.16153627065074&type=1), or Ayyam Gallery’s page on Tammam (www.ayyamgallery.com/artists/tammam-azzam/bio). You can also read a recent interview with Tammam by Marina Iordan for the online magazine Aesthetica (www.aestheticamagazine.com/blog/interview-syrian-artist-tammam-azzam/). All pictures courtesy of Tammam Azzam.