Far from home, traditional Syrian fountains return to Warehouse421

We talk to artist Talin Hazbar about the significance of these structures at her new exhibition

Structures of Impermanence by artist Talin Hazbar
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"I can't think about my home town without imagining a fountain; it is the centre of my childhood," Khaled Youssef, a French-Syrian doctor, tells Syrian artist Talin Hazbar. Youssef grew up in Damascus and his fountain was in the shade of a grape tree.

Hazbar, who lives in Sharjah, has gathered these recollections of Syrian fountains, known as "bah-rah", to understand what they mean to Syrians, particularly those living abroad. 

Hazbar asked members of the Syrian diaspora about their experience with fountains and the emotions they evoke, and has published these in a small book Structures of Impermanence, available at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi. Alongside this research, she designed four fountains that she installed in the gallery, each one based on a different design and scale: one square, one more angular, another taller. One, in dark green marble, looks like puzzle pieces stacked on top of each other, while a more rounded one lets water slip over its edge into the waiting pool below. "These are fragments of distant memories," Hazbar explains. "They are four separated ones, rather than one focal point – all segmented, fragmented." 

Fountains are typically situated in the middle of a house's courtyard, accessed via a doorway or corridor, making them semi-public, semi-­private spaces. Historically, they circulated water to the kitchen and bathrooms of the house. In places where several houses shared one fountain, the water distributed was proportional to a family's standing. 

"Neighbours used to sit by the fountain to trade gossip because the sound of the water would obscure what they were saying," Hazbar says. "The fountain acted as a barrier, even though it is transparent, constantly flowing." 

A fountain at the exhibition. Courtesy Warehouse421
A fountain at the exhibition. Courtesy Warehouse421

Breakfasts and dinners were served by the fountain, which was often perfumed with jasmine and other flowers. In Hazbar's book, one woman says she grew up near a fountain large enough to swim in, although they never did, and instead her family used it to keep their watermelons cool. Another person featured in the book tells of preparing for a wedding around a hotel's fountain. Throughout, these structures are described as a site of socialising and congregation. 

"When I think of the fountain, it feels like I'm trying to connect back to Syria, but through a structure," Hazbar explains. "It's something we used to see constantly before leaving Syria, which is very beautiful when you think about it now." 

There is a mournfulness around the project, from the interviews among the Syrian diaspora to the fountains that trickle away in Warehouse421. To come up with the designs for them, Hazbar reached into the past, finding old images that have since been destroyed, or structural plans. Hazbar, who is also a designer and works at an architectural firm, was interested in the fountain for its unique properties as an element that is entirely in flux, constantly moving and flowing, while providing a stable centre point for the household. 

When I think of the fountain, it feels like I'm trying to connect back to Syria, but through a structure. 

In previous projects, including one she did for a collaboration between Louvre Abu Dhabi and French artisans Manufacture Nationale de Sevres, she looked to the properties of sand, an element with a natural entropy. She travelled to France with bags of sand from the UAE desert in her luggage and tried to fire dishes at the famous Sevres foundry. The material proved too fine to hold its shape and for her work at Louvre Abu Dhabi, she constructed pillars using sand and the fragments of the plates: this turned into an homage to both the UAE and France.

Hazbar's overlap between art and design is typical of several artists working in Dubai and Sharjah who have come up through the American University of Sharjah, the country's pre-eminent school for art education, which doesn't have an art course per se. Hazbar studied design and now her works ask emotional questions of design objects and technical questions of art ones. "I like that the fountains sit between art and design," she says. "I didn't want to have to define them." 

In Structures of Impermanence, she allows the fountain to be read both as a real emblem families gathered around and that the Syrian diaspora remembers fondly, as well as a metaphor for transitoriness more broadly. 

Syrian artist Talin Hazbar
Syrian artist Talin Hazbar

This works beautifully for the book, but the fountains suffer from the shift in context between art and design. Whereas design objects are made to be used, art objects are made to be looked at. In the exhibition, they feel forlorn – the lively gaiety and intimacy that comes through in the memories she assembled is missing as the gallery visitors peer ­respectfully towards them. The superfluousness of cool water within in an air-conditioned building and the fact the fountains are sequestered from trees and flowers, make them feel like grandmothers: once the centre of a family and later tiptoed around, held at arm's length. Though it is clear the project mourns the real bah-rah, there seems to be an added sadness from the exhibition context, on top of that of diaspora and loss. 

The project is ongoing and Hazbar is conducting further interviews for a second stage of the project that will appear in the new year, excavating this design element not only as part of architecture but as part of life. 

Structures of Impermanence is at Warehouse421 until Sunday, December 29. More information is available at www.warehouse421.ae