Calling Things by Their Real Names: Anonymity and artistic online production during the Syrian Uprising
Author: Charlotte Bank
Note on transliteration of Arabic names and titles: Throughout the essay, I have used the spelling of collectives or groups that these use themselves. This might not always follow academic linguistic standard rules. In case of the poster collective Alshaab alsori aref tarekh it is in fact misleading. In case of personal names, I have used either the preferred spelling of the artists (if they have expressed one) or the one most commonly used internationally.
“We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity“. (Hanano)
These words, written in 2012 by activist and blogger “Amal Hanano” (a pseudonym), express very poignantly the feeling of emergency that lies at the heart of much of artistic expression that came out of Syria during the first year of the uprising:To finally be able to openly name the sufferings that Syrians had been subjected to under 40 years of quasi-dictatorship and not be forced to veil all critique with elaborate metaphors.
In this article, I will discuss a number of works and initiatives that appeared online during roughly the first year of the Syrian uprising (2011 – 2012). These include individual artists’ activist videos and platforms (e.g. Facebook groups) that have used anonymity in order to speak out against regime violence, advocate for peaceful change and call for civic freedom. I will also discuss the considerations undertaken by artists for and against using anonymity as a strategy.
As in most authoritarian contexts, artists (painters, sculptors, film makers, writers, theatre makers) had been subjected to an ever-vigilant censorship, forcing them to think carefully about every step they take in their work, lest they overstep the non-written rules. As has been widely noted, it is characteristic for artistic and cultural production within authoritarian contexts, in Syria and elsewhere, that the rules for what can be said and what cannot are deliberately left undefined. Thereby a climate of insecurity for artists is created that turn them into their “own secret police” (Cooke 20, Wedeen 110, Calirman 2 – 3, Wallach 76). As most Syrian artists saw themselves as strongly committed to their society and regarded it as their duty to work for its improvement through their art, they sought ways to circumvent censorship and “speak truth to power”. This was the case with painters such as Louay Kayali, Fateh Al-Moudarres and Youssef Abdelke as well as with film makers like Oussama Mohammad and Mohamad Malas. In order to do so, they resorted to using elaborate metaphors and symbolic language, of which the multi-layered visual language of many Syrian films is one example. That this did not mean an end to artistic creativity is illustrated in the ironic words by film maker Mohamad Malas: “censorship is a gift because it forces one to look for new and more interesting structures through which to speak” (Porteous 209).
With the beginning of the uprising, these concerns seemed to be gone. Finally, it was hoped, Syrians (artists and ordinary citizens) could start talking frankly about their grievances and suddenly, a way out of the political stalemate and societal change seemed possible. The internet became a major site for discussions around questions such as citizenship and personal freedom. During the first months of the uprising, a community (or communities) developed online that consisted of amateur creatives, bloggers and “citizen journalists”, each participant eager to use the newly found freedom to make his or her point clear. Professional artists joined in later and began creating and uploading works related to the unfolding events. Each of these was a statement against the state’s violent response to the protests and a call for a free society in Syria. However, many artists were faced with a dilemma and risked paying a high price for their outspokenness, either in terms of threats to their own safety or to the well-being of their families. Consequently, many chose to hide their true identities behind pseudonyms or collective identities.
Information and activism: The rise of the “citizen journalist” and artistic online activism
The Syrian uprising started in early 2011 following a number of incidents of police violence. One of the best known (and the one usually credited with triggering the uprising) was the arrest of a group of teenagers on charges of having written revolutionary graffiti on walls in the town of Deraa in southern Syria. As news of the arrest and torture of the youngsters at the hand of the police became known, citizens of the town descended into the streets to protest the police’s brutality. They were met with violence by the forces of order which again led to more protests in other cities (Lundgren-Jörum 11).
In the months that followed, protests and the violent response by the forces of order became the lived reality of more and more Syrian towns and cities. The regime justified its violent reactions by the claim that it was fighting “armed terrorist gangs” that had “infiltrated” the country and who were the initial perpetrators of violence (Lundgren-Jörum 20). In order to keep control of the narrative, the government banned foreign journalists from entering the country and forced those to leave who were already inside. As a consequence, both Syrians and the international public were left wanting of clear information about the ongoing events. Soon, local activists and so-called “citizen journalists” started taking over the task of reporting and documenting the uprising as it unfolded. They began using internet platforms such as YouTube as what might be termed “informal news channels”. Their videos served simultaneously as eye witness accounts, documentation, coordination of activities and activism for the causes of the uprising (Boex149). Due to these blurred lines, they were not unproblematic as reliable sources. However, for a long time they were the only sources of information about ongoing events in Syria and thus used by Syrians and international audiences alike (Al-Ghazzi 436 – 437).
From early on, creative expressions of civil dissent appeared alongside the documentation-oriented material, mostly produced by amateurs and ordinary people-turned-activists. This aspect underlines the initial character of the Syrian uprising as a broad, popular movement, rather than a movement led by intellectuals. The material was often quite inventive, humorous and displayed an almost exuberant enjoyment of making fun of the discourse of the regime, even when faced with extreme violence. A short video produced by an activist group in Homs might serve as an example. It was subsequently titled The Funniest Clip in the Syrian Revolution and shows an “undercover reporter” visiting a group of “terrorists” armed with weapons made out of vegetables that they proudly display (Funniest Clip) 1.
The video satirized the regime’s claim that the uprising was led by armed gangs at a time when protests were still peaceful. While such videos might lack cinematographic refinement, they serve to remind us that the Syrian uprising in its early days was a movement carried along by the hopes of common people; they are what film maker Hala Alabdallah in 2012 called “the people’s auteur films” during a panel discussion at the Berlinale Film Festival.
It took some time before works by professional artists started to appear online. When asked about the reason for this lapse of time, a number of artists expressed feelings of having been overwhelmed by the events on the streets. According to them, the courage of activists and the creativity of the protestors carried more weight than their individual art projects. But in the second half of 2011, videos by individual artists and collective artists’ projects started to became more and more numerous.
One of the earliest artistic activist videos was Conte de printemps (Mohamad Omran and Dani Abo Louh, 2011). It was uploaded in autumn 2011 on several online platforms by the artists, both of whom were and are living in France. With its outspokenness, the video differs strongly from works dating from before the uprising in the way it clearly denounces the violence perpetrated by the Syrian regime. But the work is also different from pre-uprising works in terms of techniques applied. It interweaves documentary footage with animated drawn paper figures. Starting with glimpses of drawings of individual figures, it moves on to a drawing of a group of people lying on the floor who start rising up, one by one. They grow into a crowd of people dressed in different attire that links them to a variety of social classes and segments of Syrian society, a factor that stresses the broad basis of the uprising. After 1.50 minutes, the drawn figures disappear, leaving the screen to real-life footage taken from the protests on the streets. Several sequences are placed in superposition, stressing the simultaneity of the protests in many places at the same time and also the resulting chaos when the protests were met with violence. The sounds of shooting and shouting are heard. At 2.19, the real-life images stop and the drawn figures reappear, but now they are being crushed by a giant, naked real foot. One of the drawn figures remains standing upright, only to be thoroughly crushed by the foot. After a short interval, the drawn figures begin to rise up again, crumbled and dishevelled looking, yet in defiance.
With very simple means,Conte de printemps tells the story of the hopes of the Syrian uprising, hopes that refuse to be crushed (or at least did so for a long time during the earlier phase of the uprising). The video makes use of found footage, something that was not very common in Syrian video works before the uprising but that became quite common partly due to difficulties of filming outside with visible equipment. Just as with the amateur videos, Conte de printemps was produced fast, using the simplest technical equipment. It does not attempt to hide this fact and thus bear witness to the urgency under which it was produced. 2
The artists took the deliberate choice to publish the video under their own name. As Dani Abo Louh explained during an interview with me, this choice was only made after long considerations. The artists weighed the risks to their personal safety and that of their families very carefully against their perceived need to declare their solidarity with the protestors openly. As the case of the pianist and composer Malek Jandali had shown in July 2011, members of families living inside Syria could be attacked as “punishment” for actions by those living outside Syria. After Jandali (who is based in the USA) had performed at a rally in support of the Syrian uprising in Washington, his parents were attacked and beaten up in their home in Damascus (Parents beaten, Freemuse). But the situation was particularly dire for artists living inside Syria. In July 2011, the folklore singer Ibrahim Qashoush, whose song Yalla irhal ya Bashar (“come on, Bashar, get out”) had become famous and been widely sung during protests was killed, his body dumped in a river and his vocal chords had been torn out (Protest singer, Freemuse). A month later, in August, a group of thugs that were close to the regime beat up the cartoonist Ali Farzat, broke his hands and left him bleeding on a road side near Damascus (Ali). In both cases, the attackers had made sure to leave a clear message about why the artists had been targeted by destroying their “tools” of dissent. So when film maker Ossama Mohammed received threats after having denounced the government while taking part in activities at the Film Festival in Cannes in May the same year, he had very good reasons not to return to Syria and remain in France, where he has been living since (Boex 148).
But despite these undeniable risks, many artists saw it as an integral part of their activism to publish their works under their own name, even from inside Syria. One such example is the Facebook group Al-fann wa-l-hurriya (“Art and Freedom”), initiated by the visual artist Youssef Abdelke. While the group appeared as an open space where anybody could upload a piece, it was in fact a curated project where the admins kept the final decision as to what would appear on the site in their hands.The name of the group refers to a movement started in 1939 by the Egyptian poet Georges Henein who, after meeting André Breton gathered a group of artists and poets to advocate for artistic freedom (Naef 82). Abdelke’s initiative was started with the aim to position itself against the repression of basic freedoms in Syria and take a stand against the ongoing violence and to “chronicle all works of art that deal with this current moment” (Matar 241). Many artists whose works are featured on the page were already working as artists prior to the uprising and many were living outside Syria or have been forced to leave the country due to their commitment to the uprising. Youssef Abdelke continues to live in Syria, despite being arrested in July 2013 (Al-Amin), defiantly declaring after his release a month later: “I believe that my detention is only a small drop in the struggle of the Syrian people to restore their right to live in dignity and justice, and establish a democratic state.” (Khalil-Sweileh, Omar al-Sheikh).
Anonymity as a choice
As outlined above, creating and disseminating critical works while using one’s own name entailed considerable dangers for artists, for themselves as well as for their families. For this reason, many artists chose to use a pseudonym or work together as collectives while keeping their art and the messages conveyed clear and outspoken. As expressed in Amal Hanano’s words, they chose to “encode” themselves, rather than their art as had been the case prior to the uprising.
The video LIBERTé (“Philip Horani”, 2011) was uploaded on social networks by a young artist using a pseudonym. It follows a similar narrative as Conte de printemps, but includes the person (or rather the hand and arm) of the artist. It starts with the artist’s hand tracing schematic outlines of human beings in brown colour on a white background. The action is fast-paced and set to rhythmic music, thus conveying a mood of energy and urgency. About 10 seconds into the video, the background starts to become increasingly transparent, real-life images of large crowds appear while the fast painting action continues. After about 30 seconds, the sound of protests is added with crowds chanting the slogan “the people wants the fall of the regime”, which had been the carrying slogans of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in late 2010 and early 2011. All the while, the artist continues to paint his figures, the group grows increasingly dense and a banner is added with the word hurriya (freedom) in Arabic script. About half way through the video, the action, the music, and the protest sounds are halted and we hear only the sound of heartbeats and breathing. After this, the mood of the video changes, we see the hand of the artist throwing drops of red paint onto the painting and in the background sounds of shooting and people calling out in horror are heard. The painted figures are wiped out by red paint and the entire surface is then taken over by the Syrian flag, painted by the hand of the artist. Finally, the two stars of the flag take on a flower-like appearance, possibly pointing towards the “jasmin revolution” of Tunisia as a sign of hope. 3.
Like Conte de printemps, LIBERTé attempts to tell the story of the uprising in a few iconic images and sounds: the crowds protesting, in both cases rendered with the help of drawing and photos, chants and calls for freedom as well as the sounds of shooting and cries of shock.
For the artist, the choice to use a pseudonym was taken pragmatically as a means for safety. He did not attempt to hide the fact that he was using a pseudonym, writing at the end of the video: “It could be created by: Philip Horani”. After leaving Syria first to Georgia, then to Belgium, he started using his real name, Abdulla Omari, also expressing the wish that his real name be given alongside with his pseudonym if the video was shown at festivals or events.
Some artists chose to abandon the idea of individual authorship altogether and create works collectively. The aim of the collective “Alshaab alsori aref tarekh” (“The Syrian People Know Their Way”) was to create posters for the Syrian public space that deployed a different visual language than the omnipresent laudatory posters of the Assad family that celebrate their “extraordinary achievements”. One member of the group explained: “…we had the desire to rid the country of the heritage of ugly Ba’ath Party propaganda” (Tahhan 34). The work of the group inscribes itself into the tradition of political posters and its members give much attention to the aesthetic design of the posters, something that shows in the many references to works by international artists and to historical and international political movements and activism, while also commemorating particular events and figures of the Syrian uprising (Bank 74 – 77). Insisting on a process of collective creation, the final design of each poster was arrived at through discussion and analysis among the members of the group and afterwards uploaded to their own Facebook page and made available as print-on-demand through the group’s Flickr account. That the posters were printed and subsequently carried by protestors during demonstrations testify to their positive reception by the Syrian public (Tahhan 36).
During the final months of 2011 and beginning of 2012, a satirical video series of 13 episodes appeared on YouTube that told different fictional episodes of the life of Bashar Al-Assad:Top Goon. Diaries of a Little Dictator (Masasit Mati, 2011 – 2012). The characters were represented by finger puppets and the series satirized the narrative and discourse of the regime. The president (called “Beeshu”) was presented as a feeble person speaking with a characteristic lisping, who was prone to nightmares, always fearful and in constant need of consoling by one of his thugs. Top Goon was created by a group of artists, theatre makers, and journalists calling themselves “Masasit Mati”, after the straw used for drinking maté tea. The project was organised in a tightly collective manner with all content decided upon through a process of common consensus similar to that of “Alshaab alsori aref tarekh”. The declared aim of the group was to change the Syrians’ perception of the regime and “break the barrier of fear and remove the god-like aura around [the president]” (Halasa, Zyiad, and Tahhan 14). Each episode starts with a theme song that begins with “Beeshu” declaring: “I am not insane” and the presentation of the main characters: President of Syria: “Beeshu”, “Rose of Damascus”, the regime thug: “Shabih” and “the peaceful protestor”.
In the first episode, Beeshu’s Nightmares, “Beeshu”, suffering from nightmares about protestors, wakes up at night and asks incredulously “Why do the Syrian people not love me anymore?” (a reference to the many images and posters with declarations of love for the president that were to be found widely around Syrian towns before the uprising), “why do they want to put me on trial?” and “Why do they want to topple the regime?” (Top Goon 1). He goes on to declare: “I swear to God I haven’t killed as many as my father did in Hama” and deplores the nightmares that have not left him for so many months. The president’s shouting calls his thug onto the stage who tries to calm him down as best as he can and makes “Beeshu” fall asleep by singing a lullaby full of “consoling” confirmations. He is called back soon after by another nightmare that needs comforting by insisting that “99 percent of the people are with you” (a reference to the common practice of elections in Syria showing around 99 percent of support for the president). 4.
This set the tone for all the following episodes of the series. “Beeshu” appears consistently like an immature, capricious child, whose whims has to be followed by everybody around him and who regularly starts crying if he feels himself misunderstood or not properly celebrated. In episode 11, he even declares his “Defection from the criminal Syrian people” and vows to “persecute the entire Syrian people” and “clean up Syria” until the country “reverts to Assad’s Syria” (Top Goon 11). 5.
With the above mentioned aim to “break the barrier of fear”, the series set out to dismantle common myths surrounding the regime. The aim was to allow the spectators to see the president in a new light, to laugh about him, to see him as a puppet. Accordingly, some people starting using the name “Beeshu” as a nickname when speaking about Bashar Al-Assad (Halasa, Zyiad, and Tahhan 14).
The collective projects discussed above all have a very clear conceptual and aesthetic approach; they were born out of ideas shared by the individual group members. A collective project that appears less consistent aesthetically is “Abounaddara”, a project begun before the uprising in 2010. It is a more loosely organised, but still curated, collective project that gathers professional and amateur film makers. From the early days of the uprising they began uploading a short video every Friday (the day mainly used for protests) as a comment to events related to Syria (Boex 151 – 152).The films offer a large variety of genres, from documentaries over interviews to very personal essays. Likewise, they vary greatly in the visual languages applied. As such, they offer a diverse image of Syria and the thoughts of Syrians about the uprising, but this diversity also makes the project appear less coherent and somewhat lacking of a clear visual profile and consistent conceptual identity.
The artistic and creative works mentioned here have either been made individually or collectively, anonymously or stating the author. As strong declarations of solidarity to the ideals of freedom, citizens’ rights and non-violence, they have found their audience in the semi-public, informal sphere of online networking forums, where they have been widely shared. This allowed artists who had been forced underground or out of the country to share both an artistic dialogue and a commitment to the uprising. And it also enabled artists to engage with their audience in ways that had not been possible before the uprising. Before, art viewing was confined to a few, restricted spaces, such as galleries, foreign cultural centres and a few festivals that had started to appear during the last years of the 2000s decade.
But especially for critical, independent videos, the possible venues were very scarce. Before the uprising, such works were often shown during private, informal screenings among wider networks of friends. In this way, these events were somewhat reminiscent of the exhibitions of unofficial art in private homes in the Soviet Union. Their reach should not be under-estimated, although they remained limited to artistic and intellectual circles and did not reach the wider public. However, I would argue that they were of great importance to lay the foundations for the practice of critical, committed video and the sharing culture that has become so important since the beginning of the Syrian uprising.
The projects discussed above all use the Internet and social online media as an alternative space for communication. This happened at a moment in history where Syrians felt most urgently a need to communicate, but any public space like streets and squares proved too dangerous. Here, the Internet provided a semi-official space for exchange, activism and testing of new modes of social interaction, maybe even a “third space” in which to imagine new societal models. It provided spaces to interact in a way that was unimaginable before the uprising. Due to the strict control exercised by the regime, activists in Syria did not have the possibility to develop modes of collaboration and develop an expertise with the new technology in the same way activists in e.g. Egypt could (Khamis, Gold, and Vaughn 6). But the way the online space has been used also tells something important about the fears and worries of Syrians, inside and outside of the country. They were faced with the existence of the so-called “Syrian Electronic Army” (the Syrian regime’s cyberwar activities) and online bullying being a constant and very real threat that did not limit itself to the virtual space (Khamis, Gold, and Vaughn 7, 9). Thus, the choices for close monitoring of group activities (as in the case of the Facebook group “Art and Freedom”) and anonymity become understandable. In this climate, choosing anonymity became a rational choice for many artists who wanted to speak their minds but were not prepared to risk their own safety and that of their families.
While serving such practical ends, anonymity also had other side-effects. The abandoning of authorship allowed for wider audience identification with the art. It also allowed non-artists to project their own thoughts into the works and thus created a climate of open sharing and exchange of ideas while keeping artists and public at equal eye level. As those works could potentially have been made by “anyone”, the dividing lines between artists, activists and ordinary citizens were blurred, leading to a new level of solidarity between the different actors of the uprising. Artists could finally engage directly with their audiences and move out of the elitist circles that artistic and cultural production had up till then been restricted to. They thereby came closer to the above mentioned ideal of an art that was “committed” and at the service of society.
It might be discussed how many people were actually reached through such online spaces dedicated to artistic and creative production. But regardless of their actual reach, the works served a number of important purposes: As declarations for peaceful resistance and civic engagement and statements against violence, they were produced with a sense of urgency, with the need to get a message out fast. This makes them truthful expressions of the mood of the early phase of the Syrian uprising. It also seems to give the spectator an immediate access to the artists’ inner emotions. For some artists, this, together with the wish to act as voices for those who could not speak any more, was particularly important. The US based artist Khalil Younes expressed it in the following words: “Not being able to do anything to stop the massacres and the killing, the only thing I can rely on is what I do best – to not only express myself but to articulate the emotions of those who really don’t have a voice anymore because they were killed, jailed or have fled the country” (Halasa 18).
At a time where Syria is witnessing hitherto unimaginable levels of violence, destruction of cities and historical sites is widespread and peaceful activism has been entirely marginalised, keeping these ephemeral voices alive becomes vitally important. They testify to an early moment of the Syrian uprising and are expressions of hopes that were shared by many Syrians, artists and non-artists alike: Hopes for peaceful change, for personal freedom and for a life in dignity.
I would like to thank the Swiss National Fund whose funding allowed me to undertake the research for the present essay.
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“Philip Horani”. LIBERTé (2011), https://vimeo.com/45661752
Masasait Mati: Top Goon Episode 1. Beeshu’s Nightmares(2011) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5RifYxWr-4
Masasait Mati: Top Goon Episode 11: Beeshu’s Defection (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pE05tdgfoE4
Omran, Mohamad, and Abo Louh, Dani. Conte de printemps (2011) https://vimeo.com/30585735
The Funniest Clip in the Syrian Revolution (unknown activists, 2011) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkDjmO-eWE4
About the Author
Charlotte Bank is an art historian and independent curator, living and working between Geneva and Berlin, formerly based in Damascus (till 2011). Charlotte’s work is focused on modern and contemporary artistic practice from the Middle East with a special emphasis on the independent contemporary art scene since 2000 in its global context. Charlotte curates exhibitions and video and film programs across Europe and the Middle East and is a member of the curatorial team of the Visual Arts Festival Damascus, an independent art festival launched in 2010 in Damascus that now exists as a nomadic platform for artistic exchange. Charlotte is a member of the Sinergia research project “Other Modernities: Patrimony and Practices of Visual Expression Outside the West” at the University of Geneva.
- The Funniest Clip in the Syrian Revolution (unknown activists, 2011) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SkDjmO-eWE4 ↩
- Omran, Mohamad, and Abo Louh, Dani. Conte de printemps (2011) https://vimeo.com/30585735 ↩
- “Philip Horani”. LIBERTé (2011), https://vimeo.com/45661752 ↩
- Masasait Mati: Top Goon Episode 1. Beeshu’s Nightmares (2011) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W5RifYxWr-4 ↩
- Masasait Mati: Top Goon Episode 11: Beeshu’s Defection (2012) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pE05tdgfoE4 ↩