11th Aleppo International Photo Festival
For update, see foot of page…
Syria: a Culture of Peace in Time of War
“Art and culture do not need a visa to bring nations to meet each other.”
ANY ARTIST, GALLERIST OR FESTIVAL ORGANISER in the West who feels life is tough; spare a thought for Issa Touma, the founder and director of the Aleppo International Photography Festival (AIPF), Syria.
The 11th AIPF was due to open on 15 September. The venue was to have been new but the date is the same every year, a fixed star in the cultural constellation.
The festival was the brain-child of Issa Touma, a self-taught photographer who has achieved an impressive record of innovative cultural development. Back in 1992, he established the first photography gallery in the Middle East. In 1996, he opened Le Pont Gallery and, year later launched AIPF, which is said to be the first event in Western Asia to focus on contemporary international photography.
As it grew, Le Pont broadened its support for the arts, hosting the Women’s Art Festival of Syria in 1999 – an event featuring music, dance, theatre and visual art – which it has continued to present ever since. In 2009, Le Pont helped to found the New Line Art Organisation with the aim of encouraging the knowledge, practice and appreciation of all modern art forms in the Middle East. Before the war in Syria, these initiatives drew an annual audience of 25,000 visitors.
IN MARCH THIS YEAR, Issa Touma co-founded Art Camping, a peaceful movement running week-long workshops for young refugees displaced by the Civil War. The aim is to help them develop their creativity and imagination and, through them, to bring a little hope and happiness to the wider society.
“In time of war, some choose to become a hero, some try to make more money and exploit others, everyone thinks they are right,” says Issa Touma, “but we choose to give beauty and a smile through art.” *
Based in Aleppo, Art Camping is a free space where young refugees can turn imagination into art.
11th Aleppo International Photography Festival
PLANS FOR THE 2012 FESTIVAL WERE AMBITIOUS, with a new venue in a former power station and 48 local and international artists to present some 870 works. When they began work a year ago, no-one imagined that by September Syria would be in the grips of civil war and Aleppo at the heart of the conflict. With the post office closed, and mobile telephony and internet links cut for long periods, it became nigh-on impossible to proceed. On the ground, printing and framing services had all-but closed down. No-one responded from the power station, their planned primary venue for 2012. These specific challenges were exacerbated by a larger demographic problem, as Syrians fled the countryside to take shelter in the increasingly crowded city centre.
Who, facing such calamitous events, would not throw in the towel and abandon the festival? Not Issa Touma and his colleagues. They persevered, and Issa’s assistant Victoria maintained contact with the artists from her base in Armenia, forwarding the information to Aleppo whenever temporary communication could be re-established. Every year without fail the festival had opened on 15 September. And on 15 September 2012, a ‘symbolic opening’ was staged at Le Pont Gallery where 40 images from the festival were presented to stand – for now – for the festival as a whole. There are still hopes that the festival will be seen in full. If not in the buildings of Aleppo then online, and the organisers are working now to present the festival at their website and via FaceBook.
WHY PERSIST? Why, given the chaos raging around them, does Issa Touma push on to realise the 2012 festival? He is clear and visionary in his response:
“Today at the festival opening, people were relaxed and happy… Today the festival gives a message to everyone, which is: whatever happened in Syria, the photo festival will not stop. Every 15 September is our date to bring together images made by international and Arab artists to meet the Syrian audience.
The festival gives a message about the survival of civil society.
While many have left the country, we chose to stay. In this time of bloody news and death, we still believed in life and peace and love … Every day when we walk out of our hidden corner to see cultural activity, it’s a new victory for life, for art and for culture. It’s the best proof that war cannot win.” *
ALEPPO IS ONE OF THE OLDEST continuously inhabited cities in the world. It has been a cultural centre for the past eight thousand years. The International Photography Festival of Aleppo and Art Camping are currently the only international artistic meetings places operating in Syria.
You can view the Aleppo International Photography Festival exhibits on their FaceBook page here.
For information on Art Camping go here.
For information on Le Pont go here.
Update: A Message from Issa Touma
THE ARTISTS planned to participate in the 11th Aleppo International Photography Festival are:
A. Okhi Irawan, Abby Robinson, Alessia Scena, Alex Bocchetto & Valentina Abenavoli, Alexandra Demenkova, Alina Kisina, Allan Fernandes, Amanda Rivkin, Amit Chakravarty, Anil Eraslan, Anna Aseeva, Bent Hedeby Sørensen, Carlo Bevilacqua, Cath. An, Corinne Silva, Darek Fortas, Diego López Calvín, Eleanor Benette, Eric Bouttier, Erin Muvehil, Fernando di Sisto, Fie Tanderup, Giacomo Brunelli, Ishola akpo, Jacqueline van der Venne, James Whitlow Delano, Jean-François Pirson, Jean-Marc Caracci, Katharina Mouratidi, Khaled Hasan, Liu Jinxun, Luca Sidro, Marcin Andrzejewski, Mariam Amurvelashvili, Marwen Trabelsi, Mohamad Manjoneh, Monica Anselment, Nouh Hammami, Nathalie Kardjian, Nathalie Daoustvia Karen Irvine, Nseabasi Akpan, Ploutarcos Haloftis, Roger Bruce, Saikat Mojumder, Sean McAllister and Victor Sloan.
* While this is expressed as a direct quotation, the text has been edited slightly from the original for grammatical clarity.
Images (from the top):
The ‘symbolic opening’ of AIPF on 15 September 2012 (image © AIPF)
Issa Touma, founder and director of AIPF (image © AIPF)
Young refugees at Art Camping in Aleppo (image © Art Camp)
SarKiss Rshdouni with a rubbing made at Art Camping (image © SarKiss Rshdouni)
An image from the 11th Aleppo International Photography Festival © Jacqueline van der Venne