The Syria Biennale is not a 'refugee biennale'

Arts Cabinet sat down with artist and founder of CoCulture, Khaled Barakeh, in his studio in Berlin. Having left Syria in 2008 to continue his study of art in Europe, Barakeh eventually ended up in Berlin in 2015 where he responded to the dispersal of many Syrians over the world with the founding of CoCulture, an institution that works to address the vast challenges faced by displaced creatives and cultural producers across the world. Now in its fourth year, CoCulture is shortly launching the SYRIA Cultural Index which will create a network of Syrian artists, creatives, and art professionals world-wide. Also in the making is the first Syrian Biennale which will be a mobile biennale, changing city with each edition with the aim of connecting local, Syrian and international artists and creatives.

Georgia Beeston (GB): Could you start by telling me about your own background as an artist?

Khaled Barakeh (KB): I studied painting and drawing at Damascus University quite a long time ago. After that, I went to Paris visiting friends. While it was there, I went to the Palais de Tokyo and I didn’t get that much of it; the art scene back then in Syria was more of a local, commercial scene and we didn’t have connections to contemporary art. I didn’t understand what the whole exhibition was about, I didn’t understand any of the contemporary art basically. I had this artistic shock having come from the middle of nowhere in the Damascus suburbs, so I decided to come back to Europe which I did in 2008 when I studied at Odense in Denmark for my first masters, and then at Städelschule, where I did my second masters before ending up in Berlin in 2015. My first connection with art, however, started years before that with calligraphy through writing and learning. During my three years in the army, they assigned me the role of painting the president’s portrait; I did this for a long time and that is how I became an artist. Before that, I didn’t have that much experience in painting, I was more into calligraphy.

GB: And how did CoCulture begin?

KB: CoCulture started in 2015 during the so-called “refugee crisis.” I like to call it the “European crisis” because the refugee crisis was and is still happening, while this was a crisis for Europe. Since I came to Europe before many Syrians came here as refugees, I had been asked by many institutions to nominate or recommend Syrian artists. I always ended up nominating people whose work I knew, which I thought was unfair because there were so many artists in Syria whose work was unknown to me. As a way of democratising the opportunity, I came up with the idea of trying to get data or basic information about where the Syrian artists ended up. My initial idea was to create a Google doc, with simple questionnaires to send to my friends who would then pass it on. One thing led to another and, as the project grew, I thought about how to respond to this big catastrophe and the fragmentation of Syrian culture. As we live in this post-digital or digital age, I thought: why not have something online which can maintain our cultural activities? As the project got bigger, I wrote the project proposal on Facebook and tagged everyone I knew. It reached someone working at the Ford Foundation who eventually granted us the fund. I thought it was important to have an institutional fund which we named the Syria Cultural Index back then. We opened a bank account in Germany and founded an association to be our legal umbrella. We ended up waiting about four months for the money to arrive without either side knowing where the money was until we realised our correspondent bank had rejected the money because the initiative included the word “Syria”- which is pure discrimination! In the end, we were forced to change the name and chose CoCulture instead of the Syrian Cultural Index. Once CoCulture came into existence, we started organising different projects.

GB: So, the Syria Cultural Index is an online platform for Syrian artists and creatives. Is it transnational or more Berlin-based? Can any artist from Syria join?

KB: CoCulture focuses on Syrian artists in exile, artists under threat in general, and minorities and their representation in the art world, while the Index is an online platform for all the Syrian cultural practitioners, not only artists. We are starting with visual art, but the idea is to also include musicians, filmmakers, etc.

The Syria Cultural Index is for Syrian artists and creatives who have a level of professionality. We do have a criteria to join but we are making sure it is inclusive so as not to exclude people. We were thinking of how we can maintain a level of professionality in the presentation of the Syrian art scene without being the ones to judge who is an artist and who is not. Therefore, we have a very basic criteria: if you have graduated from an art institution or have a CV with exhibitions that you have done, or you have made some sales out of your artwork, you can automatically become a member. Those who have none of these, possibly because they are very young and don’t have a lot of experience, can tag three members in the network who then have to confirm them. We give the power to the artistic community, because we don’t want to be the gatekeepers. If you still make work that doesn’t match the criteria and you don’t know anyone —for example if you live in a small village in the middle of Syria but you are still a good artist— there is also a tri-monthly jury to look through the problematic profiles. Again, we don’t make the decision; we hire people to do judge and they look through the profiles and decide. If you get rejected, you have the opportunity to apply again in 6 months. The idea is to include and not exclude people, while maintaining a professional level.

GB: When is the Syria Cultural Index launching?

KB: The plan was originally to launch this July but since we have just moved into a new space, our projects have been slightly delayed. We now hope to launch the Index by the end of the year.

GB: The Syrian Biennale will come off the back of the Syria Cultural Index, is that right? And roughly when will it be launched? Who will be included?

KB: We are now funded by the European Culture Foundation to aid the development period of the concept. Currently, I and Nadim Samman are leading the research phase of the project. By the end of the year we should have the concept ready and then hopefully we will fundraise for the next year. Our aim is to have the first edition in 2021. The Syria Cultural Index will support the Biennale with its database because by then we will know who is living where, so it will be easier to plan.

It is important to mention that the Biennale is not a “refugee biennale”. It is a Syrian national biennale like any other in the world. It will include Syrian artists as well as artists from the host-country because we want to create a connection between the newcomer Syrian artists and Turkish artists, or Lebanese artists etc. It will also include international artists. I think it’s important to mention because a lot of time if I don’t say it, people get this image of a bunch of Syrian artists talking about refugee issues. I’m trying to turn away from the whole fetishization of this narrative to create our own.

GB: Yes definitely, that was going to be one of my next questions- recent biennales tackle the idea of migration in quite a specific way. By creating the Biennale, are you trying to eliminate this idea of the refugee artist? Is it trying to discuss migration?

KB: No. Not in the sense that we ourselves are planning the narratives to discuss. Of course, by default these topics will be included. But the Syrian experience is a universal one. Now when we talk about refugees, the first thing that comes to our mind are Syrians. It’s a similar issue when we talk about the “refugee artist” that many people think of when we try to explain Syrian artists, but it’s important to remember that not every Syrian is a refugee. We have 18 million Syrians; some are still living in Syria and there are artists there too. So, it does not mean that every artist is an exiled artist or a refugee. Undoubtably we are going to talk about this within the topics that the Biennale will feature, but I will not interfere with this.

We have two approaches when deciding the topics for the Biennale; we will either have an open-call where the curator can apply with a specific topic which can then be agreed upon by the committee. Or, another way is that the committee themselves hire or commission a curator who will then come up with topics. Of course, migration or climate change are big topics, there are so many things happening at the moment and so many radical things happening as well, I think we also need to think radically and propose something radical in the topics. This won’t be necessarily from a Syrian point of view, but more from an international one. What’s happening in Syria now is connected to the climate change believe it or not, its connected to whose sitting in the White House- everything is so interconnected I don’t think we will go only through a Syrian lens.

GB: Absolutely, and it think in the art world people are so quick to associate one artist or the other with a particular narrative. I remember while living in Beirut that many Syrian artists struggled to even rent a studio space for the sole reason of being Syrian, while Lebanese artists exhibiting in the West would automatically have their work associated with the refugee crisis just because of their nationality. It seems as if everyone is being put into boxes.

KB: Yes, and that is exactly what we want to do; to deliver another narrative. I think creating something big can have a larger echo than just making one project here and there- it is a way of breaking the stereotype about the Syrians, the artists themselves, and the refugee crisis.

GB: And so, you’ve chosen Beirut, Istanbul and Berlin as the first three cities- is that right?

KB: I chose these three cities as study cases, it’s not where the biennale will necessarily take place first. It is only for research because each of the countries have completely different geopolitical situations. We wanted to study the challenges and obstacles of doing a biennale in an Arab country, or in Turkey, or Europe. Of course, the Biennale will change its location according to the general atmosphere towards Syrians. Now for example, there is a huge campaign in Lebanon against Syrians organised by Michel Aoun. I never experienced a racist country as much as Lebanon. We talk about the States, and about Europe and the right-wing here, but nothing is comparable to some of the Lebanese. I’m not talking about the country in general, of course, but specific groups and the organised campaigns that they are doing against Syrians. If the situation continues, I don’t know if it will be possible to do the Biennale in Lebanon because you need the cooperation of the government and with institutions etc. So, for we are going to each of the three cities and navigating the general atmosphere to see who we will work with and how we will organise it. Will we, for example, be competing with the biennales already in place? Or, are we doing it in parallel? There are so many things to explore and this is exactly what we are doing at the moment in the research phase, to come up with answers to these questions.

GB: Where do you imagine the first edition in 2021 to be held?

KB: I can’t say anything now. At first, I really wanted it to be in Beirut because that was the first stop where many Syrians first fled to. But it obviously might not happen, so maybe it will be Berlin.

GB: You’ve already mentioned a bit about the funding you receive, is the German government involved in any way?

KB: No. As I mentioned before we were lucky to have the support from Ford and their belief in what we are doing. At the same time, we are trying to create an ecosystem, so we don’t have to rely on one financial source alone. We are trying to question the institution in general; how cultural institutions work and how they seek funds. It is currently done in a very specific way that it is not questioned enough. I don’t come from a cultural-management background, I am a visual artist. The necessity led me to establish an institution. I’m trying to think of everything from my own perspective and questioning everything at the same time. Like, how can we maintain an institution if there are no private or public funders. What kind of asset do we have? I don’t want to own anything myself; I want it to be collective.

GB: It seems like CoCulture does so much to socially-engage with society. Could you tell me a little bit about the new initiatives, Giving Spaces and Support the Supporters, that you are starting?

KB: Since we managed to institutionalise the initiative, we now have the legal umbrella and the workforce to have more projects and to try and shape the institution itself. We keep trying to create programs to reflect on our institutional aims while at the same time reflecting on the situation of the Syrian community.

Support the Supporters is the story of CoCulture. The idea is to assist an artist in exile or under threat and living outside of their country, specifically in Germany, who has an idea for an initiative that supports the community, but they don’t know how to initiate it. Say you want to create a cultural centre but you don’t know the German system or how to apply for a fund: you come to us, submit an application, and if we like the idea and it matches our vision then we will support you by professionalising your idea. We are trying to help the artists to create their own initiatives because the whole idea of CoCulture is how we build the agency that creates initiatives instead of waiting for initiatives to be created to match our needs. What we are trying to do with Support the Supporters is let the community think of their own problems and creative ways to find solutions.

The other part is a fellowship program for artists forced to flee their country because of their work, whether that be because of social pressure or by threat by their government. At the moment, we have a Libyan artist, curator and cultural manager, Tewa Barnosa. She has an institution in Libya called Waraq and because of her work she fled Libya and came here. Now we are hosting her for one year and are thinking of ways we can work together.

The other project is Giving Spaces. In the north of Syria, there is a traditional way of building houses with clay. We are combining this technique with a method developed by Iranian-American architect Nader Khalili of building eco-domes. In Giving Spaces, the idea is to have people coming from different parts of not only Syria but Yemen, Libya; places where war has affected the people and their housing situation. We plan to invite them to Berlin where we will build a model together. Then, they can go back to their countries and spread their knowledge and teach their communities how to build it. When I was in Rwanda, I saw how house-building was used to rebuild the community; bringing the oppressor and the victim together. A big part of war is also the reconstruction companies. The regime destroys an area and then their companies come in and rebuild. Like in Syria where big companies are waiting in a queue to rebuild the country. So, by supporting this method you are trying to change this narrative. It is part of another project called Design of Necessity which is more of an artistic project but still connected to CoCulture. The idea is drawn from the experience of people living in different parts of Syria where the whole area was blocked by the regime with no electricity or gas coming in. These people started designing their own survival objects. For example, when there was no gas, people would get a satellite dish, cover it with mirrors and then when the sun hits you can use it to cook. I’m copying these models with the aim of documenting what they did, while also using it as a social project. I’m inviting different people, some refugees or Syrians, to come and produce the work with me to give them a little bit of support and to give them a bit of dignity. I know a lot of people who are now getting this social support and they hate it; they just want to work.

Georgia Beeston
Editorial Contributor, Arts Cabinet
Berlin, 13 June 2019