Artists recreate Syrian crisis in visual concert
Combining their musical and visual artistries, artists Kinan Azmeh and Kevork Mourad brought the hope and despair of the Syrian humanitarian crisis to Brandeis students and visitors with their performance piece “Home Within” on Nov. 4.
The performance projected Mourad’s live drawing on a screen behind Azmeh as he played his clarinet, allowing an auditory-visual relationship to form and develop in realtime before the audience.
Syrian clarinetist and composer Azmeh wrote and performed the music for the performance, and Syrian-Armenian artist Mourad showcased his technique of “spontaneous painting” to combine live drawing and music, according to the event brochure.
The performance presented a complicated mixture of live and prerecorded elements. Mourad’s drawings, created in real-time, were occasionally taken over by animations, sometimes bringing elements of the drawing to life and other times blurring and washing away one piece in preparation for the next drawing. Azmeh’s clarinet playing had the same interplay between his live music and prerecorded music featuring other instruments. The show also allowed for improvisation by both artists at certain points, ensuring that every performance of their tour is unique.
Mourad’s drawings were simultaneously abstract and architectural, featuring faceless figures, chaotic swirls and smudges, buildings and cityscapes. His technique is a combination of line drawing and intentional smudging, made possible by the paint he invented for the process.
In his pre-concert talk, the Boston Globe classical music critic Jeremy Eichler set the stage for the performance with a discussion of music as it relates to memory and exile. He offered his own belief as to why literary and visual artists are so drawn to and inspired by music, explaining that music “can communicate deeply without the semantic specificity of spoken language.”
Mourad echoed this idea in the discussion after the concert, describing the inspiration for this piece, which has been performed across the world. “The Middle East,” Mourad said, has been “a place for storytelling for centuries. …We are modern-day storytellers.”
With this piece, the artists hope to share the events of the crisis in Syria “in a poetic way … from the people’s point of view” in order to continue the Syrian tradition, Mourad said.
Azmeh continued this idea, explaining that “Home Within” does not try to capture the entire Syrian experience, but rather the artists’ personal emotional experiences throughout the revolution and its aftermath. “Making art is an act of freedom,” he said, connecting the artists’ own self-expression in this piece to “why people went and started the uprising in the beginning … to express their opinions.”
Azmeh and Mourad began “Home Within” in 2012, a year after the Syrian uprising began during the Arab Spring.
“This project started from an optimistic perspective,” Azmeh explained, but as the humanitarian crisis worsens, Azmeh admits this piece is also “inspired by … a human tragedy, which continues to unfold.” The piece thus grapples with a mix of hope and pessimism.
Mourad’s drawings — especially their architectural components, which combine Armenian Christian, Islamic and Jewish visual traditions — are an attempt to recapture the tolerant city of his youth, he explained. A century ago, Syria accepted and welcomed Armenian refugees, allowing them to maintain their culture while simultaneously becoming Syrians and creating a world in which mosques and churches coexisted, according to Mourad. “I thought the whole world was like that,” Mourad said of his childhood in Aleppo.
Today, seven million Syrians have left their country, according to Mourad, and he does not think they will all go back. Even when the crisis finally ends, “It’s going to be a different country,” he said.
For Mourad, then, “Home Within” is a way to express his thankfulness to the Syria of the past and to ensure people remember the country’s generosity and tolerance.
The challenge to find hope amid this tragedy is reflected in the title of the piece’s last movement, “and we are all optimistic.” While Mourad finds comfort in chronicling the Syria of his childhood, Azmeh looks to the country’s future.
“What brings me hope is that Syrians now are willing to discuss real topics,” Azmeh said. “This is a huge progress that came at an incredibly high price. … It is a society that decided not to sleep anymore.”
The event was presented by MusicUnitesUs, the Rose Art Museum and the University Departments of Music; Fine Arts; and Creativity, the Arts, and Social Transformation. Visitors to the Rose Art Museum can see Mourad’s exhibition “Immortal City” until Jan. 21.