This Self-Taught Syrian Artist's Work Represents Non-Violent Resistance

The Arab Spring enabled Sulafa Hijazi to speak out against the military-regime using art.

by Alice Rowsome
Jul 24 2017, 6:30pm

Photo via Sulafa Hijazi.

One picture depicts a ferris wheel where soldiers shoot each other. Another depicts a man in pain on his back giving birth to a rifle.

These are Syrian artist Sulafa Hijazi's comments on the violence that is ravaging her country. She grew up in Damascus under the Assad regime. At school, she wore an army uniform and learned to fire weapons. From early childhood, the regime harnessed its people and then used them as tools of oppression. It's an idea that she reflects in one of her drawings in which a human head is used as thread to sew a military jacket.

In 2011, the Arab Spring enabled Hijazi to speak out against the military-regime. Her illustrations challenge violence, the military and toxic masculinity. They are unapologetic.

Graffiti by 14-year-olds in Daraa and their subsequent arrest and torture set the Syrian revolution into motion six years ago. Cartoons and comics by groups like Comics4Syria, or Alshaab alsori aref tarekh (The Syrian People Know Their Way) and Kartoneh then proliferated. Sulafa Hijazi refleced on the value of this creative revolution to VICE Impact as war continues to ravage Syria.

VICE Impact: How did you become the first female director of animated films in Syria?

In general, animation in Syria is not a big industry, so I taught myself. At first, I worked with my brother who did dubbing and then we started the first satellite channel for kids in Syria.

The kids sector was really ignored in Syria. The educational system was really bad and there was very little entertainment for kids. Even though 60 per cent of people in the Arab world are under 16 years old and 22 countries speak Arabic, most of the entertainment for kids was coming from outside of the Arab world. There was nothing to reflect their culture. That's the gap I wanted to fill.

I worked on different series for kids, some on globalization and others on identity. I did a series for kids with Al-Jazeera that looked at political education. I also did some on environmental awareness too.

Hijazi's piece depicting Syria soldiers firing at each other on a ferris wheel. (Photo via Hijazi)

The illustrations in your series 'Ongoing' are not for kids. How did the Syrian revolution transform your work?

When the revolution started in 2011, I discovered that it was also a personal revolution for myself and for a lot of people. We could question taboos and start saying things that we were not able to say before. I quickly started to post drawings online about topics I would not have had the courage to cover before. For example, one of them is called 'Masturbation'.

For a female artist to show a man masturbating to an Arabic audience would not have been okay before. But because there was this social revolution, I -- and other artists -- were able to bring lots of taboos into the open.

Hijazi's piece depicting masturbation. (Photo via Hijazi)

As artists, social media was a really helpful platform to showcase our art outside of the censorship of the state-sponsored news outlets.

Although, I had worked with Iraqi refugee children in Syria and for all these other social causes, I suddenly felt like I could say more. The revolution helped me to break the social, political and religious boundaries of my work. I was suddenly part of this collective non-violent creative resistance.

What do you think was the value of this creative revolution?

After forty years of growing up depressed in a militarized society, we [artists] needed to speak up and break taboos, constructs and hollow icons like the President Bashar Al-Assad. It was important to create a collective movement to break these sort of holy images whether religious or social or political.

But even though the revolution did not obtain its political goal, our art and the revolution has changed people inside of themselves. It encouraged young people to discover themselves. To be open. For example, lots of Syrian young people can now speak more openly about their sexual tendencies. They can say, 'I am gay or lesbian' now. That was forbidden before.

Also, before 2011, women would accept being in abusive relationships. But the revolution empowered women and many began to acknowledge their rights. Now, when they come to Germany for example, they can say: 'Okay, I have the right and I can ask for a divorce.' These things were not socially acceptable before in Syria.

Hijazi's piece depicting a man giving birth to a rifle. (Photo via Hijazi)

Drawing inside Syria, the risks were huge. How did you protect yourself?

I had a good relationship with digital art because of the kids' animation I was doing before, so most of my images were digital illustrations. It was safer. You can remove a file from your computer. You can hide a file. It is very flexible. Had they been physical; the drawings would have represented heavy and dangerous evidence against me.

Hijazi's piece depicting a human head sewing a military jacket.

What was your work process?

When I started making the illustrations, I was not thinking about the audience itself. It was just part of the things I wanted to say. It was a personal process. Suddenly, I realized that the images had a great impact. Lots of people started sharing them. This was important because the media itself was not sharing the whole picture about the situation in Syria. The opposition was solely represented as extremists. But this wasn't a true representation.

As artists, we felt a responsibility to reflect the real situation. We thought, if we distribute our drawings then we can show that there are people that want democracy in Syria. There is a moderate opposition, which is not an extremist one. We wanted to show the world the positive voices and the messages of the revolution. Showing the revolution through the eyes of those wanting democratic change was important to me and I felt the responsibility to do it.

(Photo via Hijazi)

Motherhood and masculinity are recurring themes in your illustrations. How are they affected by war and violence?

Women are clearly victims of war. As a woman, inside Syria, I started to feel a lot of aggression and anger towards men. I have started to feel sorry for men too. In war, they are handed these overloaded concepts of honor and toughness and masculinity and told that it is not acceptable for them to cry or show their feelings. They are aggressive towards each other and a lot is expected from them: protect their families, their honor, their land but achieving all of these things in a warzone is not realistic. So I see it differently now. They too are victims.

The interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Check out some more of Hijazi's work below.

(Photo via Hijazi)
(Photo via Hijazi)
(Photo via Hijazi)
(Photo via Hijazi)
Hijazi's new series, "Animated Images," will be exhibited as part of the Shubbak Festival at Rich Mix Gallery, London, July 6-29., and is about how the violence and attacks are shared via social media and the role social media plays in stereotyping collective identity.
arab spring
Impact Equality