Written by Eva Bentcheva
Since the problems in Syria began, we felt we will need Hope to overcome this problem. Hope is as important as daily food, and day after day time shows we were right
Issa Touma, director of Art Camping
Aleppo, December 2012
Art Camping is an Aleppo-based art project which was founded on the 2nd March 2011. It was initiated in response to the outbreak of the conflict in Syria in March 2012 by Issa Touma, the director of the Le Pont Gallery in Aleppo and co-organized with Nathalie Kardjian. Since its inception, Art Camping has served as a forum for both citizens of Aleppo and refugees to participate in collaborative artworks. The essence of the project is as much about art production, as it is about working together and fostering dialogue, agency and resistance. Issa Touma has described the goals of Art Camping in the following way; Art Camping is about giving a voice to the normal people who are dying in a silent way.
Since July 2012 Aleppo, Syrias largest city and one of the oldest cities in the world, became a centre of the civil war. Caught between conflict and history, Art Camping is exemplary of local initiatives in Syria which have responded to the existential crisis through creative acts. In doing so, they have targeted a different audience from conventional gallery visitors.
Art Camping is currently headed by Issa Touma along with the help of approximately 50 active members who are either part-time workers and volunteers and has over 500 supporters from Aleppo. The participants are diverse in age (ranging from 15 to 35) and occupation. Any one and every one can be a part of Art Camping, in the words of Issa Touma. There are no criteria or restrictions on participating. Issa Touma has described the philosophy of the project in the following words; Here, you dont need to be an artist to make art. Without receiving any formal funding, Art Campings projects have relied on participants donations for materials. They have also made use of found objects, and taken inspiration from the city of Aleppo itself. Texture of the City (July 2012) was one such project where young participants went out into the historic city centre to trace textures and patterns of the cultural emblems of the area. Using paper and charcoal, they traced the reliefs of walls, patterns on fabric and other objects. Aleppo was historically important as the end point of the ancient Silk Road, where goods and materials were transferred between Asia and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq, Syria and parts of Iran and Turkey). Textures of the City engaged with Aleppos connection to the transfer of material goods, and how this history has been impacted by the conflict. In November 2012, the old building of the Aleppo soap industry was destroyed. This building served as a long-standing hub of local hand-made olive and laurel oil soap production, the green gold of Syria. Texture of the City was the last creative project to take place in the building. The photographs of the art project are now among the last existing records of the historic building before its demolition. This is just one of many examples where the members of Art Camping have redressed and captured the city as a site of continual change, acknowledging that they are a living part of the transformation and ruination currently taking place.
Another of Art Campings projects which engaged with the city, this time in a social sense, was Nairi Dakranian The Wish Stall (May 2012). This work responded to the governments attempts to eradicate street stalls where local goods are sold. Along with other participants, Nairi set up a street stall, where members of the public were encouraged to write their wishes and dreams on a slip of paper. Using minimal materials, this performative and interactive artwork made use of the public space. It framed itself as an act of cultural resistance by both appropriating the stall as an endangered cultural symbol, and by giving a voice to the residents of the city. A large collection of the wishes are still held at the gallery of the Le Pont Gallery.
Photography plays a key role in Art Campings projects. It is essential for capturing an alternative view of Aleppo from that shown in the international media. Issa Touma has emphasized the ability of art to arouse curiosity, engagement and, above all else, give energy in times of crisis. In August 2012, Art Camping ran an art programme with Syrian refugees in the Kindy and Joul Jamal School. Here, refugee children were taught by Art Camping volunteers how to draw and trace textures (using techniques which had been used earlier in Texture of the City), make sculptural works out of empty plastic bottles, and take photographs. Photographs of this project are readily available on Art Campings Facebook page. They offer insights into the conditions of the camps where many bright, young children face an uncertain future.
Almost two years since its initiation, Art Camping is still thriving but faces major challenges. The biggest difficulty, according to Issa Touma is not funding or censorship, but the ability to sustain communication with potential participants about events and gatherings. Regular power and internet cuts have led the organizers to contact everyone by phone in order to plan meetings. Gatherings used to take place once a week at the Le Pont Gallery, whereas currently, they take place on average once every two weeks due to difficulties in communication. In spite of the hardships faced, Art Camping continues with no end in sight. On the 3rd March 2012, Issa Touma created a Facebook page through which Art Camping has reached global audiences. As Art Camping has no website of its own, this page serves as an important archive for completed projects, with new activities being continually added. In spite of the fact that the current membership is constantly in flux and sustaining communication is a major challenge, the organizers plan to continue to reach out to the citizens of Aleppo and Syrian refugees. Issa Touma has expressed why he feels this outreach is important,
Its important because people are shocked when they see young people working among them, giving smiles. At the same time, many around us crying, hungry and have lost hope. We saw at the copper market (copper Souk, in Arabic) a child who was protecting his head from the cold under a dirty pillow. When he saw everyone working and doing art around him, he forgot everything, watched them working and smiled. We now face a very hard time, each one of us. Personally, we do not have clean water to drink or bread to eat … but we are still trying to find way to continue Art Camping. Last month, we had the biggest problems in communicating with each other
The current political situation has shaken the foundation of the entire Syrian arts scene. While organizations and galleries have gone out of work due to a lack of funds, numerous small-scale, independent projects have sprung up. Many of these, like Art Camping, are collaborative in nature and seek to use art as a means to bring people together. They provide activities through which to channel energy and above all else, to help uplift the peoples morale. These have included small theatre groups, formations of music bands with five to seven members, working in small offices and cafes. Issa Touma has described how he meets with such groups on a regular basis in order to plan artistic activities. Their existence is a testament to how the conflict has fundamentally shifted the sites of art production in Aleppo. In light of this, Art Camping plans to continue its two central activities producing art in a social sphere in order to bring the people of Aleppo together, and documenting its projects so that the voices of Syrias ordinary citizens may be heard by the outside world.
Art Camping on Facebook
Texture of the City
Art and Fun Days with Syrian Refugees
The Le Pont Organization
Articles on Art Camping
Syrian Art Comes of Age by Malu Halasa
Photographer Holds Festival of Hope Amid Aleppo Fighting by Catriona Davies
One Photographer in Aleppo Keeps Battling the Odds by Adam Hedengren
11th Aleppo International Photo Festival
Project suggestions and images welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org