Looking at Crisis Through Art

The Near East Foundation started in 1915, then known as Near East Relief, to help Armenian refugees in the 1920s recover from a horrific crisis, the Armenian Genocide. To financially back the recovery work taking place at that time, NER implemented advanced promotional campaigns to encourage Americans to donate clothing, food, and money. To spread the word and rally support from the masses, NEF reached leveraged the work of well-known artists and actors of the time, likechild actor Jackie Coogan, actress Aileen Pringle, and Polish artist Theodor Wladyslaw Benda who designed the Give Or We Perish Poster (1918). These artists joined NER’s cause by either serving as the face of fundraising campaigns or creating empathy-evoking art in support of helping to raise the attention and money needed to assist refugees in Syria, Greece, and Armenia. The mass media advertising campaign that was developed and shared across the United States was unprecedented and truly remarkable given it was taking place at the turn of the 20th century.

Today, the need to address crisis and social unrest through various art forms continues. Art, in all its forms, still serves as a powerful tool to shine a light on the work of organizations like the Near East Foundation, its history,  and the plight of the people it continues to serve today. In this spirit, NEF Board member, Shant Mardirossian, produced a documentary film named, They Shall Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief that was released in 2017. Written, directed and co-produced by George Billard, the documentary film details the unprecedented humanitarian efforts of thousands of Americans who saved a generation of orphans and refugees during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian Genocide – memorializing the story of the founding of the Near East Foundation over 100 years later. The film serves as an important reminder of the role ordinary citizens can play in responding to humanitarian crises taking place thousands of miles away. A reminder that becomes increasingly important as turmoil continues to unfold in the Middle East today.

The Syrian refugee crisis today is considered one of the worst human tragedies of the 21st century. Syrians now comprise one of the largest groups of refugees worldwide, making up 32 percent of the 16.5 million refugees under the mandate of UNHCR. More than 5.6 million Syrians have fled the country as refugees, and 6.1 million are displaced within Syria as internally displaced people.  Like all major crises in history, art is being used as a medium to raise awareness about the refugee crisis and to evoke humanity in a situation that often feels too overwhelming to process for those following it from hundreds of thousands of miles away.

Following, are some examples of these artistic endeavors and the impacts they’ve had on those who experience them.

Home Within

A 60-minute audio-visual performance, Home Within is a powerful collaboration between Syrian composer/clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and Syrian-Armenian visual artist Kevork Mourad. In this work, art and music develop in counterpoint to each other, creating an impressionistic reflection on the Syrian revolution and its aftermath. Rather than following a narrative, the artists document specific moments in Syria’s recent history and reach into their emotional content in a semi-abstract way. The keystone of the project was the single sound-image piece, A Sad Morning, Every Morning released in March 2012. Home Within has toured North America and Europe in efforts to raise awareness and funds for Syrian refugees.

We reached out to Kinan Azmeh and Kevork Mourad and interviewed them about their collaboration on their piece Home Within and other projects that reflect the refugee crisis in the past and today.

Kevork Mourad (Visual artist)

Mourad was born in Qamishli, a town in northeastern Syria. Of Armenian heritage, he received his Master of Fine Arts from the Yerevan Institute of Fine Arts in Armenia, and now lives and works in New York City. With his technique of spontaneous painting, where he shares the stage with musicians—he has worked with many world-renowned musicians, including Kinan Azmeh, Brooklyn Rider, Ken Ueno, Liubo Borissov, and Issam Rafea. 

As a visual performer, he is an active member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, with which he has performed around the world, (and with whom he appears in the documentary The Music of Strangers). He has performed at the Lincoln Center Atrium, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Rhode Island School of Design, Harvard University, the Festival du Monde Arabe de Montréal, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among others.

Here is our interview with Kevork Mourad:

What is the story of your grandmother and grandfather? Were they separated after the genocide?
I used the story of my great-grandparents in my theater piece Lost Spring because the story is fascinating and I wanted to explore the way we pass on our history to the next generation. My great-grandfather was a baker in Urfa. One day the Turks took him away and slaughtered his two sons and his wife’s sister. My great-grandmother left bereft of all she loved, was taken in by an Arab family for whom she worked as a servant. One day she heard a group of Armenians making their way to Aleppo. She left the stew on the fire and ran to join them. She arrived in Aleppo, starving, and approached the first bakery she saw to beg for some bread. The man who opened the bakery door was her lost husband. They started a new family and had two girls, one of whom was my grandmother.

How does your experience as a Syrian from Armenian descendants inspire your work?
I am very much influenced in my work by my Syrian and my Armenian heritage. The calligraphy, the art, the sounds, the colors, and the architecture of the city I grew up in find their way into my work. I think a lot about the effect of place on my work and the idea of what we carry from one place to the next since my ancestors were displaced and I myself am an immigrant to the United States. I am also very much influenced by the idea of cultures living together and pulling wealth from each other since it was with such gratitude that my ancestors installed themselves in the Syrian culture that welcomed them.

What was the key element that you were adding to the image in Israel in Egypt production?
For Israel in Egypt, which is based on the story of Exodus( Which is a biblical composition that recounts the exodus of enslaved Israelites from Egypt after God rains down a series of plagues upon that land to punish its pharaoh), I wanted to talk about the idea of how history repeats itself, referring to the Armenian genocide and to the refugee crisis today.

You mentioned in one of your interviews that a philanthropist sponsored you to come to the United States, can you tell me more about the experience?
Jill Hofmann worked and works for the International Red Cross. In 1998 she was working in Armenia, trying to help with housing Armenians still displaced by the 1988 earthquake. I was introduced to her by a friend and we became close friends. She ended up offering me a place to stay at the back of her little house in Santa Cruz, California, fronting me the money for the ticket and helping me obtain a visa. Her unparalleled generosity helped me get my start in the United States. A year later I had moved to New York and began my life as an artist in the United States. She remains an integral part of my family and is like a grandmother to my daughters.

Can you tell me about your collaboration with Sato Moughalian?
Sato and I have created two shows together, curating musicians into a full-length show, with me as a visual artist: Dark Eyes, New Eyes. This piece based on Master Peter’s Puppet Show was commissioned by Eric Jacobsen and The Knights, and I am excited to present it with Sato and the Perspectives Ensemble.

I know your wife is from Armenian descendant as well, can you tell me about your experience teaching her Armenian and creating a new project with her?
My wife, singer and writer Anaïs Tekerian, is half Armenian, and she learned Armenian from listening to me and my communication with other Armenians around us. She is a member and co-founder of the Armenian a cappella trio Zulal. She and I have created several theater pieces together; the last two, Lost Spring, and the work-in-progress The Island of Sighs is based on Armenian stories. Lost Spring was performed in the States, Germany, and France. The Island of Sighs was presented in a residency at the BRIC in Brooklyn. We work very well together. I obviously work visually and she thinks narratively and musically. We find that we share the same ideas and artistic goals in our projects, and marrying our different media is very satisfying.

Kinan Azmeh(Clarinet, Composer)

Azmeh’s purely distinctive sound across different musical genres has gained him international recognition as clarinetist and composer. Kinan was recently named composer-in-residence with Classical Movements for the 2017-2018 season. Kinan has been touring the world as soloist, composer, and improviser. His compositions include several works for solo, orchestra, and chamber music; film, live illustration, and electronics.  He serves as artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Players, a pan-Arab ensemble dedicated to contemporary music from the Arab world. Kinan is a graduate of New York’s Juilliard school as a student of Charles Neidich and of both the Damascus High Institute of Music where he studied with Shukry Sahwki, Nicolay Viovanof, and Anatoly Moratof, and Damascus University School of Electrical Engineering in his native Syria.  Kinan earned his doctorate degree in music from the City University of New York in 2013.

Here is our interview with Kinan Azmeh.

When was “ Home Within” was created? And what was the inspiration for?

The cornerstone of Home Within was a short composition titled, A Sad Morning, Every Morning, which I composed for the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising. It was composed and released in March 2012. Our main goal was to document our feelings at an incredibly crucial time in Syria’s recent history and to honor those who perished in search of a better Syria.

What do you believe the role of artists is in preserving and presenting history?
There are two main philosophies about art, one suggests the role of the artist being a documentation of the time, another school of thought suggests that it is the artist’s role to recreate the work in the most idealistic way. My personal philosophy is that you create art to experience complex emotions that you don’t have the luxury of experiencing in real life, emotions that are too complex to describe with words. I think this is where art is at its best. Art cannot be a sole reference for history but it certainly gives us an incredible window to understand the past and the future.

What do you see as the parallels between the Armenian genocide and the Syrian refugees’ crisis today?
I don’t like to compare tragedies if anything we need to learn from tragedies that they should never happen again, and so far it seems that humans have not learned that.

What gives you hope for the people of Syria?
I continue to think of the individuals, I know so many people who are very concerned and who are very proactive in regards to what is going on in Syria today, and these are people who are not even affected by it. This continues to bring me hope. Yes, on a political level, the world has abandoned Syria and the Syrians, but I try to keep my optimism alive by looking at individuals and how pro-active people can be. We owe it to ourselves to hold on to the optimism in using spite of the dark realities on the ground.

After 7 years of war and conflict in Syria, what are the things that you think artists can do today to change the world perspective of the refugee crisis?
I don’t think artists should change what they do according to a political climate, this either happens naturally or it does not. The opposite is true, artists should dig even deeper into why they do what they do. The most important for me is that artists keep their honesty and integrity during times of crisis. You can do an art project inspired by a tragedy, but it is also equally powerful to create a simple love story.  One needs to remember that the real issue is not about changing the image of refugees, but the attention should rather be directed to WHY these people became refugees in the first place.

Damascus and Aleppo are the oldest inhabited cities in the world. What are your memories of both cities? How do you feel after all the destruction that is happening in them today?
I am not able to answer questions about feelings, I make music to express these feelings that are too complex to express in writing. Syria is home in all its cities and its people, it is not only about memories. Some people say home is where your memories are, some say home is the place that offers you the most. For me, home is the place you want to contribute to without having to justify it.

How were you inspired to do the art and music that you are doing today? Did you feel you want to be in solidarity with your fellow artists and musicians in Syria?
I am proud to be one of many Syrian artists both in Syria and abroad who are actively creating. It is inspiring to see the artistic outburst that came out of Syrians (both inside and outside) in the past few years. If anything it is for me a confirmation that making art is an act of freedom by default.

How did you feel when you visited the Zaatari camp?
It was a confirmation for me that everyone can help in some small way. Also, I learned a great deal form the strength and resilience of my countrymen and women living there.

What emotions do you experience every time you perform?
I feel I am the most powerful man in the world. Making music is an act of freedom, and it is incredibly empowering.

What part of your show is affected by the Syrian/Armenian folklore or culture?
I don’t like to isolate the elements, this project is inspired by Syria and Syrians, with all the complexities and diversities. I like to think of my work as work that is inspired by multitudes of traditions, but by no means limited by them.



By: Nada Odeh