Layali Alawad: ‘You Can’t Look at a Painting of Mine and Say, “Oh, This is Syrian Art”‘

Layali Alawad is a Syrian artist who has lived in Aachen, Germany since 2014. She has a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Damascus and participated in many exhibitions and workshops in Damascus. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree and is set to graduate in October 2020. In this series of interviews with Syrian writers and artists in Berlin, Alawad talks about the Syrian cultural community outside of Berlin, as well the Syrian art community in Germany more generally:

By Mari Odoy

When did you begin your career as an artist?

Layali Alawad: I’ve been doing art since I was very young. My father is a sculptor, so I was always around art, and when I was 13 or 14 I decided that I wanted to study art. I tried a bunch of different fields in school, and I started looking at architecture, but decided that I only want to be an artist, and so I began that journey of focusing just on that.

How is your experience as an artist in Germany versus in Syria?

LA: Society is very different in these two places. In Germany, there’s a huge emphasis on the arts in schools for young children and arts education, and in Syria there isn’t as much of that. This isn’t the case in all of the schools, but the majority of schools. We learned about European artists a bit when we learned about art — but there’s definitely more education here. I’ve been here for five years. I graduated from university in 2013 in Syria, and in 2014 I came to Germany. So I haven’t lived in Germany as a “real” artist for that long. I did small exhibitions during my studies, but I’ve begun my artistic journey a lot more here.

In your experience, is there a strong Syrian creative community in Aachen and in Germany generally?

LA: Yes, there is. Here in Germany, there are lots of artists and writers. I’ve participated in many exhibitions that specialize in artists from Syria. There are lots of exhibitions like this in Cologne, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Dresden. And there’s a bunch of great Syrian writers in Berlin. There is definitely a Syrian cultural movement in Germany right now. 

Why do you think there is an interest in Syrian art specifically?

LA: I suppose because Mashreqi cultures are different and interesting. Many Europeans are intrigued by Mashreqi cultures and art because they represent a completely different environment. But I think there’s an increase in interest in Syrian works in particular because of the war and the political circumstances. Syrian art is being shown and released all over the world because people are interested.

Are there opportunities for you to work together with other Syrian artists in Germany?

LA: There aren’t many, but there are some opportunities. There are lots of people trying to make networks, like Khaled Barakeh, making social ways to connect online as Syrian artists or writers or musicians. There aren’t many, but a few do exist.

What’s your opinion on different labels for your art? Do you call your work “Syrian art”?

LA: I do not want to say my art is Syrian art, or German art. I lived in Syria, I live in Germany, I could live wherever — but all artists are just people. As an example, I only paint and draw women. I call them “Syrian women,” because I lived in Syria, in the same way I might be drawing German women if I was raised in Germany. 

Because I come from the environment of Syria, I include different elements from my upbringing in my works, as well as elements of different Mashreqi art. I do this because I came from Syria, but not because I want this to be considered Syrian art. There’s an artist in Egypt who does almost the same thing as me, focuses on portraits of female characters. You can’t look at a painting of mine and say, “Oh, this is Syrian art.” Instead, you must look at the description and see where the artist is from. 

Tell me more about the fact that you only paint women, and the influence of gender on your work.

LA: I am a woman, so I want to depict women — and it depends on the woman, but in the period of the war in Syria, I felt like women were affected so much more than men, and I wanted to express that. 

As a woman in Germany, there aren’t many difficulties to being a female artist, and there is lots of equity between men and women. There are more difficulties in general if you’re an artist in Syria, and if you are a woman. In Germany, I don’t feel these same difficulties. There is opportunity if you are a Syrian woman, or a woman in general from the Middle East, to present art that people are interested in seeing right now. 

In your opinion, is there a pressure to present yourself as “Syrian” or a “Syrian refugee” in different exhibitions?

LA: First of all, I don’t like the word refugee. I don’t like to label myself a “Syrian refugee” in that way; there was a war in my country, and almost every country in the world participated in this war. I don’t need this label in my life here. But I am a Syrian woman; when I was three my family returned to Syria and my family is Syrian, my entire life was in Syria, so of course I am Syrian — I don’t identify as German. 

I’ve never felt there’s an extra difficulty here because I’m Syrian; here in Aachen there are so many nationalities and such open-mindedness. Of course I’ve met prejudiced people in other cities in Germany, but not here — and these types of prejudices are everywhere, even among Arabs, and among Syrians. But the good people will always outnumber the bad.

Seven more talks about Syrian writing and art in Germany:

Caroline Assad: ‘In Germany, Literature Is Very Much a Business’

Fady Jomar: ‘I Hope I Will Survive When This Interest Ends’

Yamen Hussein: ‘You Will Always Have This Role of the Victim’

 Yassin al-Haj Saleh: ‘We, As Syrians, Are Allowed to be ‘Witnesses’

Yasmina Jraissati: ‘For Now, It’s the Syrian Wave’

Ramy Al-Asheq: We Need ‘A Place We Can Represent Ourselves’

Khaled Barakeh: ‘I Want Us, the Whole Community, To Own It’

Mari Odoy is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota’s Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department researching modern diasporic Syrian literature in translation.