They embrace each other passionately. With their eyes closed as if to cherish the moment, one extends their arm over the other out of love and perhaps protection, while the other hand gently cradles the other’s head. Are they two women or two men? It doesn’t really matter as the title implies. Simply Love is what the artist, a Syrian activist and former prisoner inside Syria’s infamous prison system has given to this etching. It was this work that caught my eye at Art Scene Gallery in Beirut’s Achrafieh district when I visited just before Christmas. Beauty trumps pain it seems to say, and from that moment I’ve been fascinated by Rebieh’s story.
Azza Abo Rebieh. Self-portrait. 2017-2018. Courtesy of the artist
Born in 1980 in Hama, Syria, Rebieh graduated from Damascus University from the Faculty of Fine Arts (Etching Department) in 2002. Her graduation project won a prize at the Ostrobothnian Museum 2002 Youth Engravers Competition, Vaasa-Finland. She subsequently won numerous awards, including the first prize in the Annual Youth Exhibition in Damascus 2006 and the third prize in Color of Damascus Exhibition 2005, Italy, curated by The European Commission Delegation. Her work has been exhibited in Damsacus, Beirut, Paris, Rome, Istanbul, Sofia, Uzice, Barcelona, Vaasa, London and Chicago and has been acquired by The British Museum, Atassi Foundation and countless others.
In September 2015, Rebieh, a woman from Syria’s educated middle class, found herself unexpectedly in prison. Sharing a small room with many women, mostly illiterate and arrested at random, the artist became their voice. “My experience at the prison was very hard,” she says. “I stayed in a small room with many women and I had to face a lot of difficult emotions. It was an experience that has also left me with something powerful. I have to record all of this because it is a responsibility for me to tell everything that I have gone through and witnessed for new generations. There is a statement that says that history is written by everyone who wins. I want to change this statement. If everybody recorded what they did and told the truth then we can be against this statement."
Azza Abo Rebieh. Why Do they not give her epilepsy medicine? You are out of time, no one knows that you are in this place.
2017-2018. Courtesy of the artist
There were no mirrors in the prison and so Rebieh’s art became a means for the women to see themselves. “I am not a leader for the women [in the prison],” she says. “They are my leaders. They are my friends. They are very kind and have beautiful souls. They asked me to draw them also because there were no mirrors. So I drew them and made little sketches. They have always stayed in my mind even after I was released.”
Black and white with expressive lines, shadings and shadows, Rebieh’s work is a heartening example of artistic prowess. “I was influenced by the great Francisco Goya, the Spanish artist who made The Disasters of War series after the war in Spain.” The artist had an interest in Goya even before the war took place in Syria. “Goya is always on my mind. If his ghost ever visited Syria he would see my art.”
Rebieh was released in 2016 and she went to Lebanon, where she currently lives. “It’s important that we write the history that we live from our memory so that the art can be a document in order to record what we live in an artistic way because art never dies,” she says. In 2017 she won an art residency in Spain to study Goya and in turn paint the ghosts of her country’s past. Yet the Spanish government denied her a visa. In 2017 she had a solo exhibition in Beirut at 392rmeil393 gallery, which was supported by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. To this day she continues to create art about the women she met in prison. In February 2019 she was in invited to Paris by L’Ecole des Beaux Arts for a conference on how art can serve as a form of resistance and resilience.
Azza Abo Rebieh. They beat her until she miscarries. Samar. 2017-2018. Courtesy of the artist
“Yes, art can offer a beautiful message even there is a lot of suffering inside the artwork,” she tells me. “It is a journey and you can see the journey inside the artwork. Truth also has a face—even if it is painful. There is also beauty here.” When Rebieh draws or engraves she knows that she is recording a part of history. “I am recording the story of what happened but also I think every time about the technique and how I would like to produce a beautiful artwork and how I can create gradations between black and white. In one of my artworks I sought to separate white from black—something I also lived through. I always think about the technique to produce art beautifully. This is what I want to transmit to people. It touches them because it really comes from my heart.”
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