Syrian artist Tammam Azzam grapples with man-made destruction in latest exhibition

Artist went viral for his digital artworks in 2013 depicting European masterworks juxtaposed against the ruins of Syria

Tammam Azzam’s solo exhibition is at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue until February 20. Photo: Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s latest solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery captures the stillness, the emptiness that’s left behind after mass destruction.

Titled Diary, the exhibition features paintings and works on paper, combining techniques of collage and oil paints. They depict eerily beautiful scenes of demolished ruins of abstracted cities that are framed and balanced within strong horizons.

“What interests me is the emptiness when a place is destroyed, erased or has been attacked,” Azzam tells The National.

“It’s a display of what humanity does to itself and to others.”

It’s a macabre theme to grapple with and one that Azzam understands first hand.

Azzam fled Syria in 2011 at the beginning of the uprising in his homeland and settled in Dubai until he moved to Germany where he now lives.

Far removed, Azzam saw devastation on a mass scale change the face of his country and felt hopeless. A painter by training, Azzam had no studio when he first arrived to Dubai, so he turned to his laptop and created his works there instead.

Through digital art, Azzam created a series of works titled The Syrian Museum. One work, named Freedom Graffiti, superimposed the famed artwork The Kiss by Austrian painter Gustav Klimt over a bullet ridden and bombed out building in Syria.

The work went viral and became a poignant symbol of the country’s devastation throughout the civil war.

After the success of this series and establishing his own studio, Azzam returned to painting, leaving the medium of digital art behind. Given the success and popularity of the digital works, and what they have come to represent, Azzam felt that there was nothing else he could say using that medium for now, returning to his preferred medium of paints.

However, his exile from Syria, his experiment and success in the digital medium left an indelible mark on his practice as seen in his current exhibition.

Like his viral digital works from The Syrian Museum, his body of work from the past five years reveals an exploration of the effects of man-made destruction in both dramatic and subtle ways.

Each work is a combination of elements – the geography of one place, a particular structure from another and the light from somewhere else. Azzam builds worlds that may be far away from reality, but speak about what happened to Syria and what is happening now in Palestine and other countries across the region.

What is happening is painful, what could have been is beautiful, what remains is tragic, Azzam tells the viewer visually through each work.

“I try to compose colour or light from a particular place, from memory. It could be from Syria or the Middle East, a specific mood or aesthetic that only exists here,” he says.

“Then I combine it with new colours I’ve experienced in Germany – my style changed a lot in Germany.”

Through layers of collage, where coloured papers interplay with his expressive gestures of paint, Azzam creates scenes that feel simultaneously real, bordering on the surreal. It’s a dystopian vision that is both the future and our present.

“These paintings depict a world that is separated from reality, but depicts the world, the reality of the world at the same time,” Azzam says.

It's a state of humanity that Azzam attempts to understand through his work – how it can unleash such devastating violence upon itself.

“For sure, there is no answer as to why people do this, there are only daily questions as to why we are living in these nightmares,” he says.

“What is the goal that is higher than the value of a human life? The issue, the question is constant [in my work]. Every time I work through it in a different way – sometimes through colour or form or space.”

For the collage aspect of his work, Azzam uses different colours and textures of papers like a paint palate. He rips and tears pieces to compose the work. It's a process he feels is connected to taking what exists, elements of life that are man-made, whole and serving a purpose, only to then destroy them.

Azzam sees his work as a means to record his emotional observations of not only what is playing out currently in real time, but on that has become a poignant part of his country’s recent history.

“The only way I’m dealing with this is to translate my feelings, the rage I feel every day from the nightmare we are living in, the nightmare of what we are seeing,” he says.

“In my studio, I try to translate these feelings into my diary. I’m recording my feelings, and my life in this way.”

Tammam Azzam’s solo exhibition titled Diary will run at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue until February 20

Updated: January 24, 2024, 2:25 PM