The visceral hideousness of a ruined country has now reached the art world, as the Syrian Civil War rages on in Julie Mehretu’s staggering tableau.
The first time I heard about the Civil War in Syria was around 2011, after being asked to give a speech in front of my church for a youth conference. This conference, intended to unite the youth of the Orthodox Christian faith, had members from the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian and Ethiopian churches. I recall my attempt to create common ground amongst this culturally diverse audience in the form of greetings to every individual church in their lingua franca. When it came time to greet and welcome the Syrian Orthodox Church, I asked that we all take a moment of silence and bow in prayer for the countless lives lost and the country’s war-torn state. It wasn’t until years after, though, that I came to fully comprehend what exactly was taking place and the complexity of this armed conflict.
Epigraph, Damascus by Julie Mehretu goes beyond its role as an architectural drawing to an artwork with deep historical and political significance. “Story maps of no location” is how Mehretu once described her work. The artist and urban landscaper has now taken on the role of a social activist in a way, as the work compels the viewer to question the state of Syria, specifically Damascus as it pertains to the ongoing civil war. The print is photogravure using sugar lift aquatint. It is a layered piece, and at its base are the architectural drawings of the capital city of Damascus. The layers then added onto it are tones done in etching followed by gestural, calligraphic brushstrokes.
Holistically, Epigraph, Damascus represents the mutilation of the war-torn country and, on more micro levels, it narrates the disfigurement that has been imposed on not only the landscape, but the people of Syria.
The brushstrokes are done in a way that range from long, continuous lines to smatterings of brief, choppy segments. The effect is that of a storm obscuring the landscape, infusing chaos and turbulence in the otherwise quiet sparsity of a scene devoid of signs of life. Framings of interlocking, though disjointed, architectural forms are masked by varying gradations of darkness that smudge, splatter and drip down. The large piece is divided into six pieces, almost interrupting its fluid movement.
Although bold in assertion, Mehretu leaves viewers with the space to imagine what is now left, and what is to be of Damascus. One thing remains true, these gaps in the artwork are a signifier of a change in direction for the future of Syria’s capital.
Syria has been in a civil war for the past six years, as different groups attempt to gain power over the country. One group is the Syrian military, who fights to defend the current president, Bashar al-Assad. The other is a rebel group, fighting to remove the president from power. The third and final group is known as the Islamic State. IS had taken over large parts of Iraq and then moved into eastern Syria. In the chaos of the war they were able to gain land and power there too.
The multilayered work can be seen on many levels; holistically, Epigraph, Damascus represents the mutilation of the war-torn country and, on more micro levels, it narrates the disfigurement that has been imposed on not only the landscape, but the people of Syria.