In war-torn nations like Syria, it’s not uncommon for artists, journalists, activists, and intellectuals to be pushed underground, forced to opposed ruling powers anonymously and in hiding. Interestingly, these days the “underground” can be found in the most public space there is: Facebook.
This weekend, on Sunday, Sept. 29, the Jersey City-based Mana Contemporary arts space will debut “Syria: A Silenced Scream,” an exhibit by the Syrian arts collective known as “The Syrian People Know Their Way.” The show will be the first time work by the underground collective, which formed in February 2011, will be shown in the U.S.
“It’s about 12 to 15 people who work under extreme anonymity,” said Tyler Waywell, director of Mana’s Middle East Center for the Arts, who curated the exhibit. “They are all of Syrian descent and are working both in Syria and outside of Syria. They communicate via Facebook. What they do is, if someone has an idea for a [protest] poster, they propose it, writing on the group’s private message board. Then someone within the group will design an image, post it, and the other members of the collective will comment. And when they feel that it’s ready for [the public], they’ll post it on the group’s Facebook page.”
The collective, whose work is highly critical of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, currently has more than 20,000 followers on Facebook and the pro-democracy group has become very popular among people who speak Arabic.
And while the collective members are not – as far as anyone knows – formally trained artists, they have received attention from the international arts community. For example, Waywell noted that the group won a first prize award at the 2012 Ars Electronica, a prestigious design competition held each year in Austria. The group’s work has also been exhibited in Copenhagen, London, and Israel.
Still, the group’s work, Waywell said, remains largely inaccessible to people beyond the Arab world because of the language barrier.
For the Mana exhibit, Waywell, who speaks Arabic and who was a Middle Eastern studies major, was tasked with sifting through thousands of protest posters created by the Syrian People Know Their Way, identifying more than 250 for the exhibit and translating them into English.
The posters were then organized into several themes – such as nonviolence, international intervention, connections to other human rights struggles – and compiled into six books that form much of the basis of the Mana exhibit.
Throughout the process, Waywell received input and guidance from the collective, but had to communicate with them through a trusted intermediary so members of the collective could shield their identity.
“Our hope in exhibiting this work to an American audience is to present something that they haven’t seen before vis-à-vis the conflict in Syria,” said Waywell. “So much of this conflict has been defined by You Tube videos and the extremely graphic images captured by citizen ‘journalists.’ But American audiences don’t have an opportunity to engage or ask questions of the Syrian public. So, we’re hoping that an American audience sees this work and gains a new perspective they wouldn’t get from a You Tube video or by watching the news.”
Five other exhibits make their debut
“Syria: A Silenced Scream” is just one of six exhibits that will open at Mana Contemporary on Sunday. In addition to that exhibit, Mana will also present “Carole Feuerman: The Golden Mean”; “Pop Culture: Selections From the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation”; “Magic of Light,” a collaborative series of works by filmmaker Shoja Azari and painter Shahram Karimi; “Voices from the Interior,” a mixed media exhibition of works by Palestinian women; and an exhibit of artistic furniture and bronze sculptures by Ilana Goor.
For the opening on Sunday, Sept. 29, Mana will be accessible to the public from 1 to 6 p.m.
The Carole Feuerman exhibit, which features her hyper-real sculptures of female swimmers, also marks the debut of Mana’s outdoor sculpture garden. The garden will be expanded in the coming year.
Mana Contemporary is located at 888 Newark Ave., one block beyond India Square. All of the exhibits, including “Syria: A Silenced Scream,” will be on view through Nov. 16. A few of the other exhibits will be on view through Dec. 28.
Mana Contemporary will be a stop on the Artists’ Studio Tour and will be open on Saturday, Oct. 5 and Sunday, Oct. 6 for the tour weekend.
There is no admission fee for the exhibits.
For more information, visit www.ArtManafest.org.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.