Prize-winning Australian stencil artist Luke Cornish, aka E.L.K recently showed his exhibition of Syrian-inspired artworks, ‘Road to Damascus’ at Sydney art gallery Nanda/Hobbs Contemporary. For over a decade, Cornish has created artwork in the public eye that forces the viewer to reflect on their thoughts and actions and the impact their lives have on others.
Turning over the soil on perceptions of race, religion, conflict and the human condition, Cornish echoes the sentiments of American singer Bruce Springsteen, considering it his job as an artist to ‘observe and report’.
Cornish extends his social commentary across borders and boundaries, with his work often taking him to the worlds most troubled and troubling places. In June 2016, Cornish traveled through Syria with Sydney’s Anglican Church Reverend Dave Smith, on his ‘Boxers for Peace’ mission. The life-changing journey brought him insights into the lives and stories of the people he encountered.
Despite the poverty and plight of the war-ravaged civilization, Cornish was able to experience first-hand the hope, generosity and defiant positivity of the people of Syria. Taking these reflections back and pouring them into his work, Cornish was then invited to return to Syria to exhibit the show at the Damascus Opera House.
Set on returning to the country, Cornish set about collecting donations for art supplies in Australia for his work with the children of Syria, but in doing so, found he encountered issues with PayPal obstructing any contributions with the label ‘Syria’ or ‘Syrian’ attached. His visit to the area wasn’t without incident either, as he found himself arrested in the wrong area at gunpoint, without the correct papers for his visit. However, the experience has left him un-jaded as to the warmth and humanity of the ordinary people he met along the way.
VNA: Can you explain a bit more about why you decided to go to Syria?
Luke Cornish: I first visited Syria in May 2014, to do some filming with a group of boxers, who were on a hope raising mission, putting on exhibition bouts with the Syrian Olympic team and workshops with kids. This trip inspired a body of work that I exhibited in Sydney at the start of February this year. The show ‘Road to Damascus’ looked at not only the destruction that six years of war has had on this beautiful country, but also the everyday lives of people caught in the middle, people just trying to get by, living under sanctions, aerial bombardment and regular suicide attacks. A reality they’ve come to accept.
I approached the Australian Consulate-General to Syria to open the show for me in Sydney – he really appreciated the work and its sentiment and offered to set up an exhibition in Damascus. This opportunity has yet to materialize, understandably it’s a very low priority for him at the moment.
VNA: What were your biggest reservations and fears about the trip?
LC: Without sounding too dramatic, you do find yourself mentally preparing for the fact that you might not come back, which is an interesting headspace to be in, looking around the room at all of your stuff before you head to the airport to leave, and realizing that it doesn’t mean anything, at all, its just stuff.
Unfortunately, death could fall out of the sky at any minute in Syria, which is confronting for a few days, but eventually you just accept it and hope for the best, it’s something that’s so far out of your control that worrying about it is pointless. The greatest fear (apart from 24 hours of economy class travel) for me was getting kidnapped by ISIS or one of the other fundamentalist groups, I know my mum loves me, but she’s not dropping $5 million for my safe return.
If you’ve ever wondered why victims of beheadings look so calm on YouTube before their heads are cut off, it’s because mock executions are staged every day on the captive for months before they finally do it. I’d take the mortar hit over that shit any day.
VNA: You raised some money for materials to share with the children while you were over there, what difficulties did you come across with that?
LC: This was an interesting one, I put a call out to friends on facebook a couple of days before leaving, just saying that if they wanted to donate $5 or $10 to buy art supplies for the children, I’d put it to good use. Thinking maybe a few hundred would go far, it got up to $1800 in 24 hrs. Pretty sure I’d look like a massive cunt showing up with $1800 worth of pencils and textas, I bought some supplies and took the rest as cash to dispense in the communities I was visiting. PayPal were very unhelpful in this process, any transaction with the words ‘Syria’ or ‘Syrian’ are flagged, frozen and ultimately rejected (something to do with US policy on funding terrorism, a little hypocritical) and a lot of donations didn’t make it through.
The surprising thing was, once there, especially in the east and center of Aleppo (which looks worse than 40’s Berlin at the moment) the people wouldn’t accept the money. I spent half a day with about 40 kids, drawing pictures, and had the idea of buying the drawings they made, with the view of exhibiting them alongside my own work in Australia at some point. Buying them more so as an act of empowerment, other than just throwing money at them like some privileged white dude from the west. Not for much mind you, 1000 Syrian pounds, the equivalent of maybe US$1, and most of the children still refused they money. Not only are these people proud and strong, but they’re smart, they understand that receiving something for nothing is detrimental to the fabric of their society, becoming an acceptable method of seeking a livelihood, leading to crime. We could learn a lot from these people, they don’t want money, they just want the bombs to stop.
VNA: How was it staying in the hotel you were at? Was it close to the frontline and did you experience any of the violence?
LC: The first hotel I stayed in overnight was in the southern suburbs in Beirut, the area is under Hezbollah control and is across the road from a hospital. A group of guys staying at the hotel were injured Hezbollah fighters returning from fighting ISIS in Iraq, all had limbs missing, one guy had the bottom of his face blown off. I found this very confronting, way outside my comfort zone.
The hotel I stayed at in Damascus was the Biet Zaman in Bab Touma, the old city of Damascus. It’s a beautiful old boutique hotel, with amazing and friendly staff. While I was in Syria, three separate suicide bombings killed over a hundred people, god knows how many more were injured and traumatised, all within walking distance of the hotel. The frontline was less than a kilometer away.
On the Saturday I woke up to someone banging on a drum, boom…boom…boom… over and over. It took a few minutes to realise that it was mortars being fired. Things escalated really quickly that day with mortars and rockets flying into the old city where I was staying and out to Jobar and Douma, rebel held areas. And then the aerial bombardment started, and then reports of Israeli strikes on Hezbollah targets in Damascus. It was hectic. The smarttraveller website said ‘Situations can escalate without warning’ …this is exactly what had just happened.
I stayed at the hotel Riga Palace in Aleppo, pretty much in the thick of the destruction, they were beginning to rebuild as there was no structural damage to the building, cosmetically though, it was wasted. I signed the guest book when checking out, the first entry since 2012.
VNA: What areas and towns/villages did you visit on your trip? What were they like?
LC: I visited Damascus, Aleppo, and Ma’aloula. Ma’aloula is a Christian village in the mountains in the south west of the country, near the Lebanese border. This beautiful little village is one of only three places in the world where Aramaic is still spoken. Once a thriving resort town, Ma’aloula was fucked over hard by fundamentalists in 2013, destroying monasteries and churches, desecrating religious artifacts and beheading citizens that refused to convert, while their children were made to watch. The village is a ghost town now, with most of the residents having left during the fighting, the ones that have stayed are starting to rebuild, though they’re fully aware that their fate is unknown.
Aleppo was incredible, the drive up was crazy, ISIS had control on one side of the road, while the other side is rebel held. Driving into the city itself was surreal, nothing can prepare you to witness firsthand the level of destruction – it’s nothing less than apocalyptic – however this is only a few areas of a big city, some areas remain untouched. One of the things you notice is the noise, a hum throughout the city, as everything is run on diesel generators.
Damascus is busy, very busy, with millions of the internally displaced population resettling in the country’s capital. The people are naturally a little mistrusting of a random westerner they see on the street, but after a smile and an ‘As-Salaam Alaikum’ the guard comes down to reveal a warm and generous people that are tired of a war they have no say in. The history of the city is astounding, it’s the oldest inhabited city on earth, and before the war it was a major tourist attraction, as was the rest of the country. The main thing I notice about Damascus is the young, modern population, the secular society of many different belief structures living side by side.
VNA: Who were some of the most interesting or standout people you met while you were over in Syria?
LC: I met with the son in law of Kahled al Assad, who was the curator of antiquities in Palmyra (an ancient town of historical ruins in the middle of the country) up until it was taken by ISIS in 2014. When they captured the ancient city, he hid the artifacts of the museum, knowing that they would be destroyed by ISIS as part of their policy of eradicating any signs of culture post AD500.
Kahled was given the ultimatum to hand over the artifacts or have his head cut off, he chose the latter. In my view this man is a hero, and it is his story that begun my interest in Syria, a story I’d been following since long before his death. When I visited Palmyra last year with the boxers I painted a stencil of his portrait on the Roman Amphitheatre in the ruins of Palmyra, as the city had been retaken by then. Unfortunately, it was recaptured by ISIS recently and the Amphitheatre has since been destroyed, 5000 years of history demolished. I’m used to having my work destroyed on the street, blown up by ISIS is something else.
I’ve since been in touch with his children, one in France and two in Damascus, who reached out to express gratitude for my portrait. I wanted to re-paint the stencil on paper and give it to them as a gift. I met with his son in law, a respected museum curator in his own right, to pass on this gift, it was a truly humbling experience.
On the last day in Damascus, when the bombs were falling, I met an older lady at the hotel, her name was Rita, and she was a nervous wreck. Rita is a therapist who is doing her best to set up a charity to provide art therapy to traumatised children. She’s doing this with next to nothing financially and absolutely zero assistance otherwise – she makes paint out of sand, flour and food colouring. I took the last of the money I’d raised and spent it on art supplies to donate to her (because once again, she wouldn’t take the money) I can’t begin to understand the stress Rita is under, but her determination to make a positive impact in the face of extreme adversity is infinitely inspirational.
There’s many other stories I could tell, but they’re all quite devastating. These people don’t want sympathy, they want the bombs to stop.
VNA: What was the general response/reaction of the people you met towards you?
LC: I only had one bad experience, but we’ll get to that, every other interaction was very positive, from the children – who were just so appreciative that someone had come to spend time with them, to know that someone cares, and just to be distracted from their reality, even for just a moment – to the shop keepers – who long for a time when foreigners grace their marketplace again – to the everyday people – who see a tourist walking in the street and get a sense of hope that maybe things are returning to normal. I experienced nothing but love and appreciation from the people I met.
VNA: When you were painting on the streets, how did you decide what to paint and where?
LC: I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare stencils, but I asked a little girl who her favourite cartoon character was, and she told me ‘Dora the Explorer’. At first I was surprised the she knew who Dora was, but all the kids know Dora there. Naturally I wanted the stencils I painted there solely to be for the audience of the children, but I also fucking love the irony of putting a stencil of Dora the explorer in east Aleppo, a cartoon character that you would never see, in an area where she is needed most. I guess for me, that is the reason behind wanting to paint in Syria, everybody wants to paint in New York and London and Berlin, but if art is going to change the world, we need to take it to the people that need it the most.
I also painted a stencil of some young Syrian children, smiling and giving the piece sign, as a gift to the children, hopefully to pique the interest of some young Syrian in stencil art, to spark the positive impact this medium has had on my life, but failing that, just to make someone smile for second.
VNA: What were some of the other activations and experiences you had over there?
LC: I painted a stencil at a school in Aleppo, trying to teach the kids basic can control, this was set up through making a donation to the school, in exchange for spending little lunch with the munchkins. Spending forty-five minutes playing with a hundred kids who’ve never known anything but brutal war is nothing short of life changing. There’s a real sense of gratitude and respect.
I painted with a few young boys in Ma’aloula, not so much of an educational experience, but more giving them a can each to cut sick on a wall. We had a great time, these kids have seen shit I can’t even begin to imagine, so seeing how much fun they were having vandalizing a wall made the whole trip worth it.
VNA: You were arrested while over there without the correct paperwork, can you tell us about what happened and some of your thoughts at the time?
LC: I went for a walk in the old city with a young Irish guy I was travelling with, just to take some touristy photos, and we strayed a little to close to a check point with our cameras out (mind you this is the day after two suicide bombers killed 60 people in the area, not far from the checkpoint we were at, so they were on extremely high alert) As two non-Arabic speaking whitey’s, we rolled up and promptly got frog marched down an alley at gunpoint and then taken into a building and up some stairs into a makeshift office.
The hardest part of this was the language barrier, imagine four guys with assault rifles screaming in Arabic, and then one of them pulls out a hand gun, unloads the clip and puts two bullets down on the desk in front of us. We didn’t need to speak any Arabic to know that he was telling us that if our stories didn’t check out they were going to shoot us and put us in a dumpster. This went on for about three hours, until we were put in the back of a truck and driven to an army base outside of the city. The scariest part was that a girl had told me of her brother who had been mistakenly arrested, and held without charge, for two years.
The interrogation continued at the base, going through our phones and cameras, but luckily, we had a translator by then, which put us at ease. After another hour or so they accepted that we were in the country legally and were not a threat, and then we were all best buds. Thank. Fuck.
This was hands down the most stressful event of my boring life, but there’s no animosity, I totally understand that this is war and these guys are under a lot of pressure to keep their people safe – they’re not going to take any chances.
VNA: Do you have any enduring memories of the people and surroundings, aside from the warfare and destruction?
LC: My favorite moment of the trip was when a little girl, around 4 years old, at the school in Aleppo gave me a flower that she’d made out of cardboard, and then a hug and kiss on the cheek. It melted my heart. In such a dark time, she had nothing but love. Also, there is an Aleppan breakfast dish called Moumeyah, made from semolina, honey, butter and cinnamon. No words mate, no words.
VNA: Do you feel you made a difference at all in being there and sharing your artwork and time?
I did make a difference, a very, very, very small difference. But hopefully if enough small people make enough small differences, maybe eventually some of the big people will start making some big differences. One can only hope.
VNA: How do you plan to take your experiences and insights forward?
LC: I’m planning to make a body of work from the experiences of my trip, and tour it through Australia, to put a human face on the effects of this war and raise awareness for the people caught in the middle of this conflict. Everybody wants you to pick a side to support in this conflict, but it’s these people I want to support, the ones that left and the ones that have stayed. As I was saying before, the ones that have no say in how their government fights this war, the ones who have no say in the sanctions that are crippling their lives and the ones who have no say in foreign invaders bent on destroying their secular society; the everyday people just trying to get by.
I’m planning to return at some point this year too, Rita needs help.
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