ART AFRICA, issue 09.
Alone on a wall towards the end of ‘A Lens on Syria’, Russian photo-journalist Sergey Ponomarev’s exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, was an image taken on 15 June 2014 of a shopping centre in Homs, which the accompanying label noted had been built but never opened. Under a thin band of evening sky, a grey expanse of buildings took up most of the photograph. All the outer walls and windows had been bombed away, leaving a partly-collapsed, rubble-strewn concrete skeleton. The only sign of human presence in this space of aftermath hung down part of the ruin: a banner three stories long showing a waving Bashar al Assad superimposed over a Syrian flag, advertising his campaign for re-election as President in a poll held that same month. The banner was also a sign of his regime’s successful campaign to re-take Homs from rebel control, completed in May 2014, shortly before Ponomarev visited.
The grim irony of the placement of this sign of both ‘victory’ and sham democracy in an environment of such total destruction – with stories of brutality, death and exile implicit – made the photograph stand out. Ponomarev and his curatorial collaborators heightened this effect by making it a linchpin of the exhibition, at the end of a sequence of 24 large-format colour images of life in government-controlled Syria and immediately before a slideshow called ‘The Exodus’, which was presented in a darkened black-box gallery. This incorporated 40 still images of Syrian refugees shot predominantly in Greece and the Balkans with short textual narratives of their journeys.
Sergey Ponomarev, Lesbos, Greece, 27th July 2015, from the series The Exodus. © Sergey Ponomarev, image courtesy of IWM.
Ponomarev produced the images in the show for The New York Times, capitalising on his status as a citizen of one of Assad’s major allies to gain access to the parts of Syria controlled by the State. Few foreign photographers have had such a high degree of access. The exhibition began with a room of images of ‘normal’ life continuing – despite the war – in Damascus and other cities under government control. These reflected Syria’s religious diversity, though not its economic disparities. The photographs showed middle-class people in orderly social spaces – worshipping in church, congregating in bourgeois cafes, shopping – all of which could easily function to reinforce the regime’s claim to legitimacy. But moving into the second and third rooms, it became clear that Ponomarev was intent on undercutting that narrative. The presence of violence in the form of physical destruction gradually moved from outside the images, to the periphery, to the centre as the physical presence of people in the photographs moved in the opposite direction, culminating in the photograph described above, with its affect of aftermath and human absence. What coalesced, in the testimonial affect of the photographs and their accompanying wall texts (often speaking in Ponomarev’s own voice) was a narrative of scepticism about the regime’s claims, culminating in a slideshow that invited acknowledgement and empathy for the refugees – whether fleeing Assad, or ISIS, or opposition groups, or the entire congeries of factions and external backers engaged in a complex and intractable war.
Empathy, sympathy and engagement in understanding the complex of causes and effects of the war in Syria are obviously different things. In Britain’s public discourse about this ongoing human catastrophe these qualities have waxed and waned – a process that seems inseparable from how its victims are made visible in photographic images. When pictures of the drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi circulated in 2015, even the reflexively racist newspaper The Daily Mail broke off, briefly and hypocritically, from labelling Syrian refugees as potential crypto-jihadists to acknowledge the desperate state prompting them to flee. A heart-rending image of a dead child is hard to parse in any other way. Ponomarev’s photographs told knottier stories and reinforced (albeit for a more limited audience) a more complex set of narratives around Syria – surely useful at a time when Britain is undergoing a prolonged paroxysm of insularity – the political effects of which include a relatively widespread sense of denial about the country’s responsibility to help refugees.
Sergey Ponomarev, Homs, Syria, 15th June 2014, from the series Assad’s Syria. © Sergey Ponomarev, image courtesy of IWM.
Alongside Ponomarev’s show was another small exhibition, ‘Syria: Story of a Conflict’. Curated by politics scholar Christopher Philips, it revolved around an eight minute multimedia presentation across multiple screens, giving an account of the war and its historical background using diagrams and archival footage. The installation melded an aesthetic of documentary reportage, complete with voiceover and ominous background music, with slightly dubious effects designed to reference shattered glass and burning. This was supplemented by a handful of objects (including the model of a barrel bomb) and a series of panels bearing profiles of particular Syrians impacted by the war. These took care to strike a demographic and political balance in line with the major point of the exhibition, that the war in Syria is above all a “war of narratives.”
Social history museums are institutions structured around narrative. In the IWM’s case its foundational story concerns the First World War. The museum began to collect object and stories from WWI in 1917, based on a recognition that the then-ongoing war represented a new paradigm of conflict in scale, complexity, technology and the extent to which it reverberated across the home front – including in the Empire. The museum’s mandate was later expanded to cover WWII (it has a powerful gallery on the Holocaust) and subsequent armed conflicts involving Britain. Despite its name, the IWM has almost nothing to say about wars of the colonial frontier, imperial expropriation of land and genocide, or liberation struggles. They fall outside its mandated purview, as they fall outside the core narrative of Britain’s ‘own’ history taught in its schools and recirculated in its discourse about national identity.
Whatever the limitations of its mandate, the museum does not shy away from telling other stories about conflict, particularly through its contemporary programme. Such exhibitions are often boldly critical, such as artist Edmund Wilson’s War of Terror, also on view in mid-2017. ‘Syria: A Conflict Explored’ (under which both exhibitions discussed above were badged) launched a new strand of programming called Conflict Now, to coincide with the museum’s centenary. Conflict Now seems designed to revivify the museum’s narrative focus – however much it functions as a revolving supplement to the better visited permanent galleries. Together the two exhibitions about Syria showed an admirable willingness to ask complex questions about ongoing conflicts without offering pat summaries, but more importantly they helped to widen the museum’s sense of which conflicts and whose stories of war are important to tell.
Edward McDonald-Toone is a scholar focused on the relationship between geopolitics, art and museums. He is currently researching the representation of the Middle East and the Arab world in exhibitions of modern and contemporary art.
Sergey Ponomarev, Damascus, Syria, 24th August 2013, from the series Assad’s Syria. © Sergey Ponomarev, image courtesy of IWM.