A decade of war has made Syria neither accessible nor alluring. Once known for its historic buildings, ancient artefacts and rich culture, a relentless conflict has wreaked widespread destruction, leaving more than half of the country's basic social infrastructure non-operational.
Beyond headlines and news reports, most of the country has been closed off to the wider world for years. Yet, while physical access to the Mediterranean country remains restricted for many, a digital art series by Syrian artist Rayan Rahal provides an opportunity to discover parts of its living environment.
The online exhibit, Sur-Urbans, on show at P21 Gallery in London, is an "emotional" exploration of informal settlements in Syria’s capital, Damascus, where Rahal now lives. Born in a small village in the suburbs of Swaida, a city in south-west Syria close to the border with Jordan, Rahal was 12 when the crisis began and “ate up my teenage years,” he tells The National.
It was during that lost age that he first picked up a camera, a moment he still remembers vividly.
“The first photo I took was when I was 16 years old. I was interested in photography and in my surroundings, which was a small and calm village back then, and since then I kept taking photos of everything that I found interesting,” says Rahal.
This outlet also helped him find a safe form of expression in a country where public critique or protest were violently quashed.
“Voicing my opinions, participating in discussions, and raising questions about a cause that I care about were my main motivation. As a visual person who can’t always express himself verbally, my focus became on transforming and visualising everything I feel and think of. “How would that thought look like?” is a question that can represent my journey with art.”
A graduate of architecture from the University of Damascus, Rahal’s academic training has strongly influenced his career as a photographer and digital artist, which has already seen him hold exhibitions in Switzerland and Canada. Studying buildings reconfigured his "perception of spaces and places", as evidenced by Sur-Urbans’s focus on the impact of Damascus’ living conditions on residents. Surrealism and his own experience living in the capital city for the past five years were, he says, the main inspirations.
“Living in these places gave me the chance to have a very up-close look and experience within the living conditions presented in ‘SurUrbans’. The exhibition became a visual representation of the thoughts I had about these spaces, reflecting the complexity and chaos in a surreal way.”
Before the war, the urbanisation of Damascus was driven by a massive expansion of informal settlements, often marginalising communities blighted by insecure property rights and conditions, poverty and limited access to social services. Many of those communities were at the forefront of the protest movement against the Bashar Al Assad regime.
Rahal wants to “shed light” on the informal communities which, he says, have always been considered “outcast societies” in the hope of opening up a dialogue around them and “give an alternative perspective”.
The digital images in the exhibit act as a documentation of the various layers of the city as well as the “feelings” existing within them. A more focused view of these communities can be explored through the virtual reality room Rahal created for Sur-Urbans for audiences to “embody the experience of living in these places” through detailed image and sound.
It is, he tells me, both a form of digitally preserving parts of Syria’s physical past while possibly inspiring its future.
“I think informalities can play a huge role in the reconstruction phase in Syria by learning from the buildings’ techniques and social qualities, they just need to be improved in some aspects to have a good local architecture that is fully inhabitable,” the 23-year-old says.
“I want to be a part of making this place better, shedding light on the important issues with my art and suggesting logical solutions that respect the inhabitants of Syria and of these places.”
While art may not be an obvious preoccupation in a country ravaged by war, Rahal sees it as his means of contributing and expressing his hopes for Syria’s future.
“Art has played a huge role in documenting all the situations we have been through," he says.
"At first glance, one might think that art has no significance at a time where essentials like safety, water, or food do not exist. But … art has played a huge role in documenting all the situations we have been through. I think it can be an archive or reference for future developments plans, ones that consider what Syria should be from its inhabitants’ perspective.”
Sur-Urbans runs until 7 January. For more information see here.