Art & Design

The art of exile

Samia Tawil

By Samia Tawil21 novembre 2023

From prestigious galleries to digital buzz, art of exile has been placing forgotten regions of the world back on the map, putting back on the table certain ongoing conflicts that seemed to have lost media interest.

Damascus - Bon Voyage Series. 2013 (Tammam Azzam)

Coming from geographically isolated regions that are rarely talked about, exiled artists are currently under the spotlight, attracting serious attention through the eloquence of their message and imposing poignant works of art in the most prestigious galleries. From Azerbaijan to Colombia, not to mention Syria, the art of exile has carved out a respected place for itself in the art world.

The level of precision that you see on each work, it’s care; it’s caring about that life. (…) That precision gives dignity back and brings with it beauty

Doris Salcedo, artist

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011, more than a million Syrians have fled their country for Europe, amongst which numerous artists. The physical assault on the famous caricaturist Ali Ferzat in August that same year had clearly set the tone, making artists, and any critical thinkers more generally, understand what freedom of expression could cost them within their country was.

Mamdouh Kashlan, one of the most exhibited Syrian artists to date. Here, his work Displacement (Al-Nozoh), 2019

Syrian exile: an open wound

In spite of that, one of the Syrian artists whose work has been most displayed to date, Mamdouh Kashlan, continued living in Damascus. Trained at the Fine Arts Academy of Rome in the 1950’s, works of his such as his “A rural Wedding”, was sold for twice its estimated value at the 2019 Christie’s Dubai Middle Eastern and Contemporary Art auction. Up until his passing last year, he dedicated his life to depicting exile from his homeland, as the passive yet critical witness of and painful reality. In his work Displacement, the country is being emptied before his very eyes and exodus is exposed in its brightest, most joyful garments, choosing, as always, to highlight the beauty of a people over the misery of its fate. A bewildering paradox which might have allowed him to avoid censorship.

More direct still is his painting Children of Napalm, which, although created in 1972 under Al Addad father, was also acquired last May for twice its estimated price through Christie’s online auctions; a sale that translates the irony of a unfortunate History that is repeating itself.   

Concerning artists of the diaspora, Berlin has progressively become the epicenter of the Syrian artistic exile, of which the multimedia artist Tammam Azzam is the undisputed representative, through his omnipresence on the international artistic scene for over a decade.

Tammam Azzam's digital work entitled Klimt - Freedom Graffiti, from his Syrian Museum series (Tammam Azzam)

From Paris to Dubai, not to mention his considerable online success, some of his works have carved their way into the collective unconscious. Such is the case of his photomontage Freedom Graffiti, from his Syrian Museum series, where Klimt’s famous Kiss appears as if painted on a Damascus bombed-out building; a way of drawing attention to what one usually doesn’t want to see. And by using codes that are deeply anchored in Western culture, this contrast between poetry and violence recalls the international community to its duty of empathy.

In this large palette going from poignant paintings to disconcerting photomontages, digital art wasn’t his first media. Tammam Azzam uncovers the story behind his different techniques: «My favorite medium classically remains painting, but when I left Syria in 2011, I found myself in «transit» in Dubai during almost five years, and since nostalgia was eating me up, I had to find another way to create, and my computer temporarily became my studio; that’s how my series Syrian Museum was born». As to his intention behind this series, he confides: «I don’t create with the precise intention of a political message; it stems from a need to express myself. Before being an artist of exile, I am first and foremost an artist».

I don’t create with the precise intention of a political message; it stems from a need to express myself. Before being an artist of exile, I am first and foremost an artist

Tammam Azzam, multimedia artist

In 2015, he finally turns back to painting, with his challenging giant canvases in black and white where he retrospectively depicts in detail the destruction of Syrian landscapes. He fills us in about this tortuous process:  «The process was painful. I had to use pictures and archives of destruction from Syria and beyond as a base, to be able to get it so detailed, which ultimately makes it an indirect memory, so to say. But this allowed me to tackle the question around the idea that one has to reinvent an in-memory geography for oneself.» A necessary although painful catharsis through which the artist vents the trauma of such a distressing perspective. Maybe the last one before he left.

One of Tammam Azzam's acrylics from his Storeys series (Tammam Azzam)

These buildings, uprooted from their foundations, almost floating in the chaos of memory and reflected into nothingness, draw a parallel with another of his most famous work: Damascus, from his Bon Voyage series. A poignant digital work that expresses the feeling of being torn apart, the uprooting and the hurt to have been forced to leave one’s home turned to ashes; a feeling that seems to follow him everywhere. He however explains that, by using the pop-culture reference from the movie «Up», he gives pain its universality back: «It’s most importantly a destroyed building, before being a Syrian building.»

Tammam Azzam just took part in the Asia Now exhibition in Paris and is now on to an individual exhibition at the Kornfeld Gallery in Berlin which will take place throughout November. He will then start 2024 with a major exhibition in January at Dubai’s Ayyam Gallery.

Doris Salcedo, or when art offers a resting place

Doris Salcedo's Uprooted installation (2020-22), created from 804 dead trees and a steel structure for the 15th edition of the Sharjah Biennale, 2023 (Juan Castro)

With Doris Salcedo too, art fights oblivion. As an artist of social suffering, this wonderful Columbian plastic artist who got famous for her large-scale installations was in the limelight during the whole last semester at the Fondation Beyeler, with an exhibition that was initially inaugurated with great fanfare during the Art Basel 2023. A pathway through different installations set up in different rooms, symbolically staging particular situations of political injustice throughout the world. Getting into the last room, visitors discover the highlight of the exhibition: her impressive work Palimpsest, resemblinga desert, as much as a cemetery. There, on those grey sand rectangles appear the names of people who died at sea during their exile. Names written with a water-like material created out of a unique technique including resin and hydraulic components, and which at times, dry up, to then progressively reappear, humidifying the earth.

Every single work is based on the testimony of a victim or a survivor of violence, and each room has its specific character

Doris Salcedo

These Polynices subjective to the whims of the Mediterranean, drowned at the wrong mileage, too close or too far from the shore. Here, Salcedo offers them a tomb. She displays their names. She makes the brutal facts plain to the visitor; facts she collected through assiduous research in archives and other documents she accessed - not without difficulties -, negotiating with each concerned country. Her art expresses the wish to give an identity back to these victims reduced to percentages and statistics. The Earth cries their loss. And the desert, makeshift epitaph, draws their names.

Untitled, by Doris Salcedo (Doris Salcedo)

Her work Untitled also describes sudden absence; the desertion of a household frozen in terror. Pieces of furniture encased in blocs of cement, exacerbating their total uselessness when in the absence of life. The suffocating heaviness of this absence. A bold way of making the ungraspable painfully tangible. Shown in 2008 already at the Guggenheim Bilbao, one of the chairs of this installation, which includes several closets, tables and beds, is exposed within the permanent collection of the New York MET, who describes her as: «(…) a catalyst for internal reflection and public dialogue about trauma and grief.» When asked about the strength that emanates from her works, Salcedo responds: «The strength comes from the victims. (…) Every single work is based on the testimony of a victim or a survivor of violence, and each room has its specific character (…) to be faithful to the testimony that has been given to me». She adds: «The level of precision that you see on each work, it’s care; it’s caring about that life. (…) That precision gives dignity back and brings with it beauty».

That symbol of the chair can be found in several other works of hers, amongst which her 2003 gigantic installation displayed during the 8th Biennale of Istanbul, where 1550 chairs piled up between two buildings was used to symbolize the heavy history of migration and displacement in the region.

Her very literal work Uprooted, representing a house built out of branches, and created from 804 dead trees, interestingly echoes the themes addressed by Tammam Azzam, and won the Sharjah Biennale prize this year.

Pursuing her mission of universal witness, Salcedo becomes, through that painful cry that exudes from her work, the voice of worldwide misery.

Craftsmanship as a vehicle to reclaim and transcend cultural identity

Living in Paris, after being marked by war between Iran and Irak, which Eastern Azerbaijan is still mourning today, Younes Faghihi began with calligraphy to then extract it from its context and bring it to its esthetic essence through large frescos. Fragments of words, letters, stripped of their meaning and brought down to their simple right of being. A manifest against censorship. His recent work goes one step further, by removing the words from their support, and turn them into sculptures that seem to be floating without needing to hang on to anything anymore. Relieved of their political weight, these hanging letters become an abstraction for freedom of thoughts; a freedom that disturbs the obtuse headed by its elusive nature.

The sculpture The mirror of the mind, by Younes Faghihi (

After having represented Azerbaijan at the 2007 Venice Biennale, artist Faig Ahmed is making a sensation in museums across the world with his collection of optical illusion-inducing tapestries. Successfully exhibited at Geneva’s Palais des Nations for the 30th anniversary of the inclusion of Azerbaijan as a member State of the UN, his work is currently being shown at the Springfield Art Museum, within the framework of a collective exhibition called «Tradition Interrupted». Here, instead of fixating, the artist aims for movement. Indeed, Faig Ahmed isn’t an artist in exile. However, he scratches its surface through his art which echoes the charged migratory history of the Azeri region, amongst which that of the Armenian people. That impression of melting which emanates from his works reminds us how fluid and lively cultures are, and how they boldly transcend political boundaries. Just like some of the greatest masters,  be it Klimt or Dalí, Faig Ahmed transgresses the rules; starting from the high mastery of a typically Persian ancestral savoir-faire, to then transcend it and carry it to an almost shocking modernity. Somewhere between weaver and viral designer, Faig Ahmed invites us to overcome clichés and reminds us that the Azeri culture is much more than what we tend to know of it.  

Palimpsest installation, by Doris Salcedo (Juan Fernando Castro)

A universal tragedy

All of these artists, each through their own esthetical ways, and from the angle of a precise origin, have in common the weight of absence or displacement. A tragedy which they put into light and offer to our contemplation. Amongst these movements, Farsi cinema has also much to say about Iranian and Afghan exile, and has recently put urgent political claims linked to women’s rights in spotlights of big festivals. Another very special movement: Palestinian Art. As stemming from the longest ongoing trans-century exile which started in 1948, it embodies a particular vocabulary which has been forged from generation to generation of exiled artists, and which is extremely interesting to decipher. We will soon dedicate articles to each of these movements.  

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