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Syrian pop artist depicts suffering with 'black comedy'

By Catriona Davies, CNN
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Thu September 27, 2012
The banana represents a sensitive person who is suffering from the nails sticking into him, said Oussama Diab. The artwork is called "Human Being." The banana represents a sensitive person who is suffering from the nails sticking into him, said Oussama Diab. The artwork is called "Human Being."
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oussama Diab is a Palestinian artist living in Damascus
  • His exhibition "In The Name of Freedom" opened this week in Dubai
  • Paintings were all created in Syria during the civil war

(CNN) -- As bloody unrest has raged around him, artist Oussama Diab has been formulating his own response to Syria's civil war -- through art.

Diab, a 35-year-old painter born of Palestinian parents in Damascus and still living in Syria's capital, has a new exhibition of works he has created this year.

His exhibition "In the Name of Freedom" opened September 17 in Dubai. Diab says he was unable to get a visa to travel to the United Arab Emirates, so he had to remain in Syria.

In a telephone interview Diab said his new works "are inspired by what's going on across the Arab world, politics is in everything."

"My artwork reflects not only what is happening in Syria but what has happened in all the Arab world. One of the artist's duties is to follow the problems, the worries, the suffering and present it in his work.

I am always living in worry and I have fears living here.
Oussama Diab, artist

"The fact of living inside the situation makes me able to show it better. I can talk about all the suffering that has happened here and also on the other side of the world," he added.

Diab said he had lost someone close to him in the conflict that has divided Syria since March 2011, but would not give any more details.

"I am always living in worry and I have fears living here," he said. "Without referring to who is doing it, all the bloodshed is not easy to handle, so it affects your mood."

While Diab's work does not directly reference to the civil war in Syria, the themes of war and dreams of a better future are featured in his pictures.

One shows a child with a gun superimposed over a barcode. He said it showed how children are the victims of those who deal in weapons for their own ends.

Another work shows a woman with her head replaced by balloons, which Diab said represented the nice ideas in her head.

Diab has been represented by Ayyam Gallery, which has branches in Damascus, Dubai and Beirut since 2007 when he was one of 10 winners of a competition to find emerging artists. His first solo show was in 2009.

Diab's work is described by the gallery as pop art and graffiti-inspired paintings against nondescript backgrounds, giving a symbolic interpretation of current events.

Also on Inside the Middle East: Syrian artists fight Assad regime with satire

One of the artist's duties is to follow the problems, the worries, the suffering and present it in his work
Oussama Diab, artist

Among the works is "Human Being" showing a banana with nails driven into it. Diab said the banana represents a person suffering from the pain of the nails. Another work shows an altered version of Michaelangelo's "Pieta" sculpture in which Jesus Christ wears a keffiyeh, intended to show him as a Palestinian martyr.

"Like Charlie Chaplain, I'm representing a black comedy so it makes you smile and it gives you grief at the same time," Diab said of his work.

Much of his work reflects his identity as a Palestinian who has never been to his homeland.

"My work is based on the idea of country," he said. "All countries around the world should be sacred. I hate the situation in Syria because Syria should be sacred as well. I don't want the country to be ruined.

"Because I live without a country, it makes me feel closer to people who are suffering here. I feel their suffering and it affects me too. It makes me closer to understanding their pain."

Diab's said he feels his identity split between his Palestinian heritage and his parents' adopted country.

"I never had the chance to live in Palestine, so I feel like the country is an illusion," he said. "My parents didn't come to a strange country, but one where they could speak the same language. The idea of country is sacred to me. Syria is my second country, but I would love to be in my other country."

Also on Inside the Middle East: Images of Tahrir: Egypt's revolutionary art

Diab visited Dubai for the opening of the Ayyam Gallery a few years ago, but said he has not been able to get a visa to visit since.

Sally Othman, gallery manager of Ayyam Damascus, said artists in the city were continuing to work during the unrest, but there are fewer exhibitions.

"The gallery is running as normal because we have our artists based here, but as far as exhibitions, it's hard these days because people are not going out," she said. "We had two workshops with four actors working live in the gallery before Ramadan and we are going to do something similar soon."

"In the Name of Freedom" runs at Ayyam Gallery, DIFC, Dubai, until October 30.

Follow the Inside the Middle East team on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, producer Schams Elwazer: @SchamsCNN, writer Catriona Davies: @catrionadavies and digital producer Mairi Mackay: @mairicnn.

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