A large missile incubator stands in the middle of the room that Akram Swedaan uses as his studio. In a few days, he will completely transform the weapon of war into a work of art with the strokes of his paintbrush.
Born Akram Abo Alfoz in Douma, eastern Ghouta, Swedaan, a self-taught painter, has made a name for himself in the last three years by transforming the remnants of shells, missiles and bullets he collects from the street in “defiance of the death plaguing Syria.”
“Painting on instruments of death is no easy task,” Swedaan said, giving Al-Monitor's reporter a tour of his studio in al-Bab, in Aleppo’s eastern countryside. “It is not by coincidence or by sheer necessity that I use shells and missiles. Both are tools for killing. Rather, it is my attempt to convey a message to the world that the Syrian people love life and do not deserve such death and suffering. I convey that the Syrians can find life amid death and destruction and turn their sadness into art.”
Swedaan started using missiles and shells as canvases in 2014 while still in Douma, which at the time was under the control of the armed opposition and under siege by regime forces employing air and ground bombardments.
“I've been painting and drawing since I was a kid,” Swedaan told Al-Monitor. “I loved drawing scenes of the old Damascus, streets with jasmine trees, as well as Damascus motifs.” While in Douma, he started the series “Painting on Death,” in which he painted Damascene and Oriental motifs against mostly bright backgrounds.
In April 2018, Swedaan left Douma after a grueling Russian-backed government siege of more than five years against eastern Ghouta. Arriving in al-Bab, he began working on “The Returnee,” a series about his dream of returning home no matter how long it takes.
“The paintings and the art pieces from ‘The Returnee’ are not that different from ‘Painting on Death’ in the sense that they both focus on the will to live,” Swedaan explained. “But the works in ‘The Returnee’ series are more nostalgic, longing for home and the city of Douma in particular.”
Swedaan’s work is characterized by dark and sad colors, drawings of his comrades killed in Douma and inscriptions such as “O homeland, my beloved,” “Jasmine of Peace” and other expressions reflective of the longing for peace, home and life. The figures he paints on the missiles are of people who have died or have been detained or displaced.
“The Returnee” aims to draw attention to the plight of displaced Syrians from Douma and elsewhere. One piece in the series is a Russian cluster incubator, or bomb tank, covered with the names of the Syrian cities and towns whose residents have been displaced due to operations conducted by or backed by the Russian military.
Swedaan cites dates and specific events to highlight the plight of the Syrians. For the International Day of the Arabic Language, Dec. 18, 2018, Swedaan wrote the following in Kufic, one of the oldest calligraphy forms, on an empty incubator for a Russian-launched missile: “No to displacement, yes to home, no to arrest, yes to freedom, no to terrorism, yes to peace, no to murder, yes to life.”
“These missiles kill Syrians and their children, demolish their houses, displace them and destroy [infrastructure, hospitals and] schools,” Swedaan said. “On these missiles, which I turn into art pieces, I write or sketch the disastrous consequences of their attacks. I also [paint] the names of the Syrian detainees in the prisons of the Syrian regime and those persecuted and displaced.”
For Valentine's Day this year, Swedaan used ammunition to commemorate the occasion. “On Feb. 14, while the world was celebrating Valentine's Day, and Syria still suffered under war, I turned a collection of empty bullets into a red [bouquet], expressing love and life,” Swedaan noted.
“One of the unique pieces that I made was a drawing of Damascene motifs against a black backdrop on a cluster missile incubator for the 8th anniversary of the Syrian revolution, March 18, and writing at the bottom ‘Revolution persists until victory,’” he said.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Swedaan created “Ramadan Cannon” from an empty 23-mm machine gun shell. Muslims fire a cannon each day during Ramadan to signal the end of fasting. This past Ramadan (May 5–June 3) was the second Ramadan he had spent away from Douma.
Abu al-Ala al-Halabi, a human rights activist in Aleppo, told Al-Monitor, “Despite the tragedies Swedaan has suffered under displacement, he continues to document the revolution and the war in Syria. His works pay homage to his homeland and the artistic heritage of his country. He proves that art and beauty can resist guns, death and destruction, and he conveys hope, with art, to the suffering Syrians.”
Somewhat unusual for a painter, Swedaan is reluctant to part with his works, saying they are too personal. “I received an offer to sell some of my work, but I refused,” he said. “I cannot sell the works that have become a testament to the most difficult stages of the Syrian revolution. I want to show my work in international exhibitions, but that is not possible at the moment.”
Photographs of Swedaan's works and of him at work have been shown in exhibitions in Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Qatar and the United States.