Meet Adnan Samman – a Young Artist Using Nostalgia to Address the Syrian Crisis

Adnan Samman is a talented up and coming visual artist and musician from Hama, Syria. He left Syria in a young age and has moved from country to country. His best-known works use imagery from the past to tell stories about the present. In the interview he reflected on his work, life story and what to expect in the future.

What age did you leave Syria and how much does your culture influence your creative process? Do you have any major influences?

I left Syria for the first time when I was 10 years old. My family had to leave for a better life in Saudi Arabia. I lived there until I was 17 years old. Unfortunately war hit the country and I had to leave to Jordan. I haven’t been back to Syria since 2010. I think the core of what I do is definitely influenced by the Syrian crisis. The majority of my work discusses war and tries to create an alternative image to what’s shown on TV and radio. To be honest, I have no major influences. Anything can influence me as Music, TV shows, the news, stories from friends and taxi drivers’.

How did you first get into art? And was art always a passion for you or something that you took up recently?

I’ve always been passionate about art. I lost some interest during my years in Saudi Arabia due to the lack of ways to exhibit and share my ideas. That was before all the awesome social media platforms we have now. Luckily though I regained that passion when I suddenly found myself alone in Jordan with nothing much to do. With everything going on in Syria and the lack of social life in this new country, the way I found peace of mind was through making art.

Why are you leaving Jordan soon? And where do you see yourself in five years? 

Each day life here is becoming harder. There are many restrictions and it takes forever to get things done. I’ve been contacting friends in Europe. I’ve been hoping to move, but things are getting darker there too. The rise of far-right parties is alarming to me. The hate speech towards Muslims and refugees makes Europe similar to the Middle East in that aspect. I’m really rooting for Muslims to speak up against all the accusations and negative stigma. But yes, I’m most likely going to Europe, Austria to be more exact. I would like to be able to make a living off of what I love to do. The ultimate dream is to be a touring musician, performing on my favorite stages around the world. I’ve previously exhibited artwork at prestigious places. I’d like to continue that and go even further in 5 years from now.

A lot of your collage work features images from the past and they invoke a feeling of nostalgia. They also remind us of times of war and political turmoil. Can history and political turmoil play a major role in what you choose to create?

I tend to bring elements from the past into my work in order to discuss the present. Sometimes the imagery from the past is happier than what’s going on in the present. Other times it shows that nothing much has changed in some places. I love the soft contrast these old photos introduce to the whole product. When I use them, I’m doing it hoping that they’ll create an alternate scene and bring a new dimension to the work. Basically, my work revolves around mixing different elements into one single mosaic that tells a whole diverse story.

Can you discuss some of the themes for your series as Tonight, People of the Night, Patron, and your latest series on Hashem El Madani?

My Nightlife During War series contrasts visuals of nightlife against war images from Syria. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that in Damascus, many nightclubs stayed open despite all the turmoil that’s going on a few kilometers away. You could enter a nightclub there and literally forget that you’re in a war-torn country where thousands are killed every day. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In Patron, a soldier is overlooking a pre-war Damascus at night. Capturing the tendency that people have to reflect on life before the war than actually acknowledging the war itself was my main goal. My Hashem el Madani series pays tribute to the Lebanese civil war. In that series, I tried to imagine people’s lives and alter the first impression that the viewer gets.

Does your work have a central message that you want people to take away from it or does each series have its own message?

I prefer it when people take away their own messages and relate to the work in a variety of ways. No central message most of the time. And even if I do already have a message or idea in mind regarding a certain piece, I prefer to keep it to myself and observe what others see in it. It’s interesting to see different reactions from different people!

How has the war in Syria affected you personally? 

The war has dramatically affected my life and changed it completely. Having to move alone to Jordan taught me a lot. I got the chance to meet many great people whom I was able to freely share my visions and ideas with. And now, not being able to enter Syria due to military service, I’ll have to find a new place to call home. Who knows what lies ahead? Life turned to a much more exciting and dangerous adventure. My plan was to just settle in Syria like everyone else. Now that I can’t do that, I’m forced to take the road and see what happens! That comes at a price for sure, though I literally don’t know what’s coming next. The future is bleary. One of the worst things about war is being away from the ones you love.

The way that you bring everything together feels like you put your heart into it. Is that something you knowingly do, or is it just part of the end result?

Thank you! To be honest, many work is the end result of an experiment. Some of my most celebrated and loved pieces are actually unintended results. I usually have something completely different in mind than what I end up with. And that’s actually a good thing. In a way the artwork leads me in many cases. I don’t always choose how the finished product looks like. In fact, the series that features Hashem El Madani’s photographs was completely improvised. I know it sounds crazy, but yes, sometimes the art leads the way. I learned to trust my final products.

I want to thank Adnan Samman for this wonderful conversation. All of us at Mvslim and Ummah Art are wishing him all the best.

This article is written by Bijjan Sadegh Shirvani.

Written by Mvslim

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