It's a gray evening in Berlin and Fadi al-Hamwi opens the door to his apartment. Cigarette in hand, he offers a glass of whisky before sitting down to detail his life in the visual arts. “I think what interested me, in the beginning, was to create something that has no function,” he explains.
Born in Damascus, Syria in 1986, al-Hamwi spent a portion of his early career grappling with how to best express himself while butting heads with professors at his city's Academy of Fine Arts. “At that time, I was discovering what art means,” he says. “Before that, it was kind of coming in abstract feelings because I wasn’t really surrounded by art."
His schooling was a clash of principles: the conservatism of Soviet-born academics versus students eager to break with customs and traditional practice. Early thoughts of becoming an interior designer or architect were quickly abandoned in favor of painting, much to his parents' dismay. “You're having this argument or conflict between two different generations, and of course, it relates to the system that was leading the whole country,” al-Hamwi explains.
Al-Hamwi’s desire to “be more provocative” was catalyzed by Syria's changing socio-political landscape, leading to a series of works he loosely describes as “dark sarcasm.” During his studies, his work bordered on the personal and dangerous as he abandoned white-wall galleries in favor of large-scale murals across dilapidated buildings. “I remember it felt good to have power,” he says. “I got working on surfaces and not just the canvas.”
While his early work was technically challenging, it was met with disdain. “After seven years, I can talk about it now,” he laughs. “I was trying to link these figures in 3D places but many professors were against it as it was a bit out of the context of the academy."
The figures were eventually collected as a series called "Society Minus 180º." Imagery that wove together abstract figures would prove influential on later works that incorporated animal and human forms. "When you're living in a country and something's happening, you feel like your voice needs to be more direct, tougher," he explains.
Al-Hamwi's eye became fixated on the world of X-rays, using chalk and pastel materials to explore "hidden brutality," albeit without recreating violent scenes. In 2010, the year before the Syrian government's crackdown against a social uprising exploded into a brutal, ongoing civil war, he graduated. "I don't know what happened but I was seeing all this subtle static," he says. "You feel like just getting out of the country if you can."
Shortly afterward, he left for Beirut in Lebanon, where his work with forms, sculptures, and installations continued.
Al-Hamwi's fellow artist and friend Hiba al-Ansari also left Syria behind as it was disintegrating. She's somewhat fatigued as we meet, having just returned from Japan, where she completed a residency through the Goethe-Institut, the German government's prime vehicle for language learning and cultural exchange abroad. "Visiting Japan was different," she says. "The place is farther than any place I have ever known. It opened up new spaces to test the relationship with myself and with places."
Born in Libya, she relocated to Syria at age 12 and, much like al-Hamwi, wasn't interested in visual art at first. Her father, a tailor, served as a primary influence. "I used to watch him every day working with his hands, using many elements, such as fabric and wood," al-Ansari says. Upon moving to Syria, she soon started to observe her surroundings. "Perhaps this helped me to view the new world as a child who moved to a new place," she says. "It created a sense of curiosity, to be in touch [with things] and monitor visual details.”
She started honing her skills in drawing and sculpture before switching to oil painting upon enrollment at Damascus' Academy of Fine Arts. Post-graduation, her work started touching on the macabre, mirroring the tension brewing in the country.
"In 2010, I worked on coffins for my first exhibition in Damascus," she says. "I met with a group of women and I recorded their stories. It was an attempt to briefly describe the suffering of Syrian women in a complex piece of work that uses women’s sleepwear and coffins."
Opting for other mediums such as photography, al-Ansari later started examing live bodies for her series "The Slaughterhouse."
"It was to express a harsh period of my life and our lives as Syrians," she says, "the period during which the number of victims was skyrocketing and violence was dominating all aspects of our reality."
"In wake of the Syrian revolution, I was forced to leave my country and travel to Germany, which created a distance between me and my real world and all my feelings and emotions I carry within towards Syria," she reflects. She arrived in Munich, where she got a masters in sculpture at the city's Academy of Fine Arts. "Maybe the exile helped me reproduce and describe the pictures in my imagination."
As she ventured into public installations, the imagery of decaying forms remained at the forefront of her work. "It was one of the harshest experiences I ever witnessed," she notes. Onlookers would watch as al-Ansari hung children's dresses from sheep legs outside collapsed buildings. "This caused some problems in the city, the people of which have never seen flesh hung on debris as a work of art."
Later works were more overt in their portrayals of the war, particularly her "Monsters" project, which addressed ISIS' brutal part in the country's collapse. "I obtained masks from a market in al-Riqqa, the bastion of ISIS back in 2013," she says. "I decorated the black masks with beads so they looked closer to oriental dancing suits. Then I sewed the masks on a satin background so they resembled the old traditional covers in my country."
Her intention was to tackle the "masked people" that had taken over vast chunks of Syria and Iraq, something she attributes to the growth of intense religious fanaticism in the region.
Now settled in Germany, both al-Hamwi and al-Ansari are getting to grips with a country that is still acknowledging its own violent past. "I was searching for new soil to put down roots," al-Hamwi says of his move to Berlin. "You discover a lot of things about questions that maybe you have asked before but never experienced much."
As for al-Ansari, her studies kept her grounded, as did working with new materials and collaborators. "It gave me a larger sense of responsibility towards my work and what I can present," she says.
Fadi al-Hamwi and Hiba al-Ansari exhibited together for the first time in East of Elsewhere's While You Were Sleeping in July 2018. Fadi's work can next be seen at East of Elsewhere at The Others Fair in Turin, November 1-4.
Next, here's everything that went down at BAPE's XXV anniversary exhibit.