Artists across the Arab world and in the diaspora have been instrumental in capturing the violent events that have followed the Arab uprisings: namely the conflict in Syria, the refugee crisis during the ISIS invasion of Syria and Iraq, and the ongoing protests in Iraq and Lebanon. Hrair Sarkissian, who was born in Damascus in 1973 and who now lives in the Hague and in London, has been emblematic of these figures who have tried to represent the region's pain and suffering.
"My work is about trauma, and how we go though all these things – how we look back and what we learn," says Sarkissian, whose art is the subject of an exhibition at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, curated by Omar Kholeif. "It's more about feelings than about politics. That's how I like to connect with the audience. That they feel something when they look at my work."
Even on the scale of artists tackling difficult subjects, Sarkissian's work stands out. His first major piece was the photography series Execution Squares (2008), which shows the sites in Syrian cities where public hangings used to take place. With Homesick (2014), he addressed the fighting itself, and what it is like to experience the conflict from a distance. He built a mock-up of his parents' home in Damascus, and then smashed it repeatedly. The two actions are shown on separate video channels, such that his blows never reach the house itself, and it appears to crumble of its own accord. In Final Flight (2018), he was inspired by the extinct species of northern bald ibis, a bird whose migration path was between Palmyra in Syria and Ethiopia, in a metaphor for the Syrian refugee crisis.
His artworks are all rooted in his own life, starting with a personal memory, or facet of his biography. Unlike most artists, he didn't go to formal art school until much later in his career. His parents, who are Armenian, continued the tradition between Armenians and photography: in the Ottoman era, because many Armenians worked as chemists and goldsmiths, they were among the first to operate photography studios, which required specialist chemical training.
Sarkissian's father was the first to open a colour lab in Syria, Dream Colour, in 1976, and Sarkissian went to work there after graduating from high school. (He made an artwork about that time, too: Sarkissian Photo Centre, 2010, a series of photographs.)
After he had learnt as much as he could at the lab, he applied to art school, winning a place at the prestigious Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. He moved to London after graduating.
Since then, his work has tracked the progress of conflict in the region, in which cuts of deep violence are hidden underneath apparently quotidian or objective images. The 14 images in his series Execution Photographs, a selection of which is on view at Forth Worth, appear to be large-plan views on to the Syrian cities of Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo. They are full of the details that make photographs visually and historically interesting: a tiled fountain in Latakia, with six spouts no longer gushing water, in perhaps an indication of the city's falling fortunes; an impressive clocktower in Aleppo, presiding over a less impressive car park, with two semi-ornate lampposts. It is empty, the light is thin. It's what's not in these images that counts. These are sites of former executions.
"I photographed them at 4.30 in the morning, when the sun comes up," Sarkissian says. "This was the time when they used to set up the wooden platform for the execution to take place. They would leave the bodies hanging until 9am or 10am, so everyone can see them on their way to work or school. This is what happened to me. I was 11 years old and on the way to school. I saw three hanged bodies on one of the squares near my father's shop. Their eyes were wide open and they were topless, and covered with paper sheets. On the sheets was written their names, their dates of birth, their punishment and what they committed as a crime."
As Sarkissian's work has developed, he has moved farther from photography, but has retained the art form's idea that the land itself can bear witness to what has happened on it. In another life, he might have simply been an archaeologist, excavating the earth for lost histories. Even his non-photographic work, such as Final Flight, for which he 3D-printed the skulls of the extinct species of the northern bald ibis, is rooted in a connection to the land.
Sarkissian will be the subject of a major show, also curated by Kholeif, next year at the Sharjah Art Foundation, and the work he is producing for it takes digging for clues literally. It's a series of seven episodes focusing on abduction, when a person has been kidnapped because of police violence, civil war or dictatorship. The family waits for their return, not knowing if they are dead or alive. He has spoken to 11 families so far – mostly mothers – and asks them about the last place they saw the person kidnapped.
“It started from the idea of being in my parents’ house, when my parents were no longer there,” he says. “How would I live in the space? People are waiting for the person to come back, or for their remains to come back. How do they live with this phantom?”
Sarkissian will develop another work as a sound installation, of the noise of forensic archaeologists digging in the ground – which is close to how the idea began in his mind. He was inspired by the excavation of mass graves in Spain, part of a generational reckoning with the Franco period. But, he says, "Somehow, this project also started with me."
"When I was young I went to Deir Ezzor – the biggest mass grave of Armenians, and formerly a pilgrimage site for Armenians. It has now been bombed by ISIS. There is a hill called Margadeh. It's just a basic hill, but once you start digging with your fingers, pieces of bone start to appear. This idea stayed in my mind. It was something I could never erase."
For the photography series on abduction, Sarkissian is travelling to eight countries – Lebanon, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Kosovo, Bosnia, South Africa and Spain – to show the global scale of the problem, and interview the family members about their losses. It has not been an easy process: after returning from Beirut, he says, where he spoke to a family whose son had been kidnapped in the civil war, it took him two months to recover. And he says he can't know how the audience will react.
“I find it really hard when somebody looks at the images, and say they’re a beautiful work. I find it hard to put that word to the work. But I have a more important message to deliver here. I can’t restrict people. Curators come and start crying in my studio. It makes it hard. But we have to do it.”
Focus: Hrair Sarkissian will run at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, until Sunday, March 15