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Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart

DATES October 13, 2018 through January 13, 2019
ORGANIZING DEPARTMENT Special Exhibition
  • Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart
    This exhibition recounts the changing stories of refugees in Syria over time—then and now—and places their differing experiences, a century apart, in a global context.

    Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart
    is curated by Ayşin Yoltar-Yıldırım, Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art, Brooklyn Museum, as part of the Arab Art & Education Initiative.

  • Refugees’ Discovery of Raqqa Ceramics
    Around the turn of the twentieth century, Circassians, an ethnic Muslim group living in the north central Caucasus, left Russia, hoping to escape military conscription, forced religious conversion, and the imposition of the Russian language. The neighboring Ottoman Empire settled over three hundred families within its borders, in Syria. About fifty of them were placed around Raqqa, then a minor outpost.

    Raqqa had been, however, a prosperous city in medieval times under Muslim rule, from the eighth century onward. A rich ceramic industry had flourished there. But its prominence abruptly ended when Mongol invaders destroyed the city in 1265. In the sixteenth century, Syria came under Ottoman control, but Raqqa remained an outpost, and the city’s once magnificent buildings continued to deteriorate over many centuries.

    When Circassian refugees came to Raqqa at the turn of the twentieth century, the Ottoman government permitted them to search for bricks in the ruins of the old city, to build houses. They unearthed not only medieval masonry but also ceramics. Soon the ceramics were traded by local dealers, who sold them at higher prices in Aleppo, igniting a digging frenzy.

    Despite attempts by the Ottoman Imperial Museum to stop illicit digging by conducting its own excavations in the area in 1906 and 1908, the rush continued. Indeed, soon after the legal excavations ended, spectacular finds were uncovered. Many of them are now among the prized ceramic holdings of major European and American museums. The group in the Brooklyn Museum was acquired as early as 1906, through Azeez Khayat, a dealer from Syria based in New York. The imperfect shapes and the acquired iridescence of the glazes of the ceramic objects, which were most likely found scattered over the kiln sites, were not seen as impediments to their acquisition.
  • The Syrian Dealer Who Sold Raqqa Ceramics to the Brooklyn Museum
    Azeez Khayat (1875–1943), born in Tyre (Sur) in Lebanon (then part of Ottoman Syria), came to New York as a young immigrant through Ellis Island in 1893 and became a United States citizen five years later.

    Using the small collection of ancient glass he had brought with him, Khayat managed to attract a few collectors and start a life as a dealer in Lower Manhattan, on Rector Street, in the neighborhood known as Little Syria. On repeated trips to his homeland, he was able to bring back many more artifacts—ancient glass, coins, seals, and ceramics, often excavated by his own workmen—and sell them in a gallery he opened first on West Eleventh Street and later at 366 Fifth Avenue, opposite the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Many notable U.S. museums acquired important objects through him.

    Toward the end of his life, after a long and successful career in art dealing, Khayat left New York and went to live in Haifa, purchasing a large stretch of land on the beach and turning it into a popular resort, known as Khayat Beach. Two of his daughters continued to run his gallery for several decades in New York.
  • October 18, 2018 The Brooklyn Museum examines connections between the historical and modern-day plights of refugees in Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart, which features highlights from the museum’s collection of thirteenth century Syrian ceramics alongside work by the contemporary Arab artists Ginane Makki Bacho, Issam Kourbaj, and Mohamed Hafez. The juxtaposition between these works highlights the ongoing struggle to find home during tumultuous times and the commonalities between refugees throughout history. Syria, Then and Now: Stories from Refugees a Century Apart, on view October 13, 2018, through January 13, 2019, is curated by Ayşin Yoltar-Yıldırım, Hagop Kevorkian Associate Curator of Islamic Art, Brooklyn Museum, as part of the Arab Art & Education Initiative.

    Seventeen medieval Islamic ceramics are on display in the exhibition. These artifacts were originally discovered around the turn of the twentieth century in Raqqa, Syria, by Circassian refugees, an ethnic Muslim group that fled Russia looking to escape forced military service, religious conversion, and the imposition of the Russian language. The refugees who settled in Raqqa near the ruins of the medieval city were permitted to search through the rubble for bricks to build their new homes, leading to the discovery of these intricately decorated glazed ceramics, which became sought-after collector’s items in Europe and the United States.

    While Syria once gave shelter to refugees, it is now a country of turmoil that many seek to escape. Today, Raqqa has become synonymous with ISIS, the terrorist group that until recently has claimed the Syrian city as the capital of its new Islamic state. The ongoing civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS have forced many to flee the country, a struggle that is the focus of the three contemporary artists whose work is also on view.

    Ginane Makki Bacho is a Lebanese artist based in Beirut whose work explores the violence of war and ISIS, as well as the trauma experienced by refugees trying to leave by boat. Her Refugees sculpture series (2016–2018) visualizes the harrowing experience refugees face once they make the decision to leave their homeland. The artist uses scrap metal to make her sculptures, a material that emphasizes the degradation of civilization and conveys the physical and emotional loss experienced by refugees.

    Issam Kourbaj is a Syrian artist based in Cambridge, United Kingdom. His work focuses on the suffering and high mortality rate faced by Syrian refugees as they try to escape their war-torn country. Included in Syria, Then and Now is Kourbaj’s work Dark Water, Burning World (2017). Made from discarded bicycle mudguards and extinguished matches, Dark Water, Burning World is inspired by ancient Syrian vessels and deals with the way present-day Syrians attempt to escape their homeland.

    Mohamad Hafez
    is a Syrian artist based in New Haven, Connecticut. His work aims to humanize the word “refugee” and contextualize the Syrian war and its effects. Hafez has two works in Syria, Then and Now: Damascene Athan (2017) and Baggage Series 4 (2016). The former, a mixed-media installation portrays elements of life in Damascus, Syria, before the start of the country’s civil war. The latter, another mixed- media installation that grows out of a vintage suitcase, is a physical manifestation of the traumas refugees carry with them upon leaving their homes. By combining contemporary art with antique suitcases, Hafez draws connections between today’s Syrian refugees and America’s history as a nation of immigrants.

    Each artist tells a different story, but in the end each calls upon our common humanity for compassionate attention to refugees’ precarious situation worldwide.

    Syria, Then and Now
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