Nadine Elali

A home away from home

Art Residence Aley acts as refuge for Syrian artists

Mwafak Mkalad
Art Residence Aley
Raghad Mardini
Robin Bahhi and Farah Azrak
Art Residence Aley exhibit

A secluded young artist paints profusely by a grass lawn. He weaves bold colors on the canvas, moving his brush in dramatic strokes from one end to the other. He pauses occasionally, stepping back and gazing at his work. There is an empty space on the canvas and he appears troubled by what or how to fill it.


“He has been like this ever since he first arrived here at the residence,” says Raghad Mardini, a Syrian art and social philanthropist. “He came from Syria some 10 days ago and has been immersed in painting. He says little, but paints a great deal.”


Mardini runs the Art Residence Aley (ARA), a project that offers a residency for young Syrian artists and commissions their work during their stay. Every two to four weeks, two new Syrian artists have the opportunity to live and work at the residence in the mountain town of Aley, with all materials and living requirements provided for them for free.


Robin Bahhi and Farah Azrak are two Syrian artists who have just arrived from Damascus. They work with different mediums, but have joined forces to work on a screen dance project during their stay at the art residence. In an interview with NOW, Bahhi, a multidisciplinary artist whose main focus is filmmaking, explained that he will dedicate his time at the residence to better understand the art of screen dance.


“The art form is relatively new,” he told NOW. “It is a hybrid art between dance and video making/filmmaking. However, it’s not a video of a dance performance, nor is it a performance done for the camera. It is a relationship between both artistic mediums.”


“Before filmmaking, an actor would dramatize on stage to express a tragedy,” Bahhi explained. “When the camera was introduced, it opened new horizons and tragedy could be expressed differently, in a series of shots for example. Same goes for dance: first it was designed for stage, and now, as the camera is being introduced to it, there are new horizons to explore and discover.”


Azrak, originally a fashion designer, has years of dance experience under her belt. Before she arrived in Aley, she had traveled to the United Kingdom to further her education and career away from home.


“I met Robin one month ago after I returned to Damascus,” she told NOW. “Together we decided to apply for the residency to take some time away to study this new art form.”


“Dance is an internal journey for me,” she continued. “Everything around me was changing, but dance kept giving me a sense of continuity. Screen dance is not a full choreography, but a series of movements that can be divided, and their relation to the director, to the camera, to the dancer, to time and space. To better understand it, one needs to break down the dance into a series of movements, and through this I am rediscovering the body, how its expresses itself, its capacity to have its own particular language. I am learning how to enter deep inside and project an honest core feeling without any barriers.”


For artists like Azrak and Bahhi, the residence serves as an atelier where emerging talents can express and create freely, Mardini explains. It is, moreover, a chance to escape their problems and focus on their art.


The residence is set in a 200-year-old barn which Mardini leased and restored in 2011, soon after the Syrian uprising began. It boasts a cozy living area with a fireplace and sofas that turn into beds at one end, as well as a kitchen and bathroom at the other. Outside the barn, a large garden and a hundred-year-old walnut tree play host to visitors.


“Our story is the same as that of the walnut tree,” Mardini recounts. “When I got here, it had dried up; the owners thought it was dead and wanted to cut it. But I felt it was not dead, that it was sick and sad because no one was taking care of it. I decided to take care of it, just as I decided to take care of this place. And as the tree flourished, we did too.”


To Mardini, it is during these difficult times that Syrians need to produce art. The world now associates being Syrian with being a refugee, with deaths and destruction only, she says. But “by producing art,” she continued, “we show that being Syrian is also about being resistant and capable of creating life in the midst of deaths.”


“The community aspect of the experience is very important too,” Mardini explained. “The artists meet with visitors and take part in regular community gatherings. They feel the support of being together.”


During the project, artists are also connected to galleries around Beirut in order to help them network for after their residency ends. In return, each artist leaves behind one piece of their art at the end of their stay, creating a collection that Mardini hopes will transform the stable into a museum of Syrian art.


Canvasses and sculptures of all sizes already sit on most surfaces of the space. Three of them belonged to Mwafak Mkalad, the third artist currently at the residence.


“It is hard for me to express myself in words, which is why I paint all the time,” Mkalad told NOW. “I am painting images of people who resonate with me after spending 25 years inside Syria.”


“I am also learning a lot from my stay here,” he says. “I have discovered that life will go on, that I can’t remain sad and idle. I want to draw all the time, but I am not thinking of who will see the work, who will judge it, or who will buy it. I am only trying to stay true to what I am feeling.”

Syrian artist Mwafak Mkalad paints at Art Residency Aley. (Image courtesy of Art Residency Aley)

"By producing art, we show that being Syrian is also about being resistant and capable of creating life in the midst of deaths.”