What You Don’t Know About Tammam Azzam And The Syrian Revolution: An Exclusive Interview With The Artist

By sheer coincidence, the very day I interviewed the Syrian artist Tammam Azzam, his digital artwork “Freedom Graffiti”; had gone viral on the #Twittersphere, earning coverage on virtually every major news syndicate worldwide. Yet he confided in me that he was unhappy with the press’ interpretation of the piece, which features Klimt’s iconic painting “The Kiss” superimposed onto a bombed out Syrian building’s bullet ridden wall. He sat chain smoking cigarettes and drinking black espresso on a simple wooden bench in the Dubai sunshine, the phone inside ringing off the hook with collectors and auction houses queuing for a numbered print of “Freedom Graffiti.” He had not yet sold the original piece and had still to decide how many numbered prints to produce.

freedom grafitti by tammam azzam

Syrian Museum-Freedom Graffiti by Tammam Azzam. Image courtesy of Ayyam Gallery, Dubai

We met outside of the Ayyam Gallery (which both represents and employs Tammam) our backs pressed uncomfortably against the concrete wall, the dusty air smelling of car grease from the surrounding auto shops in the industrial area of Al Quoz, where a new gallery opens practically every week in the flourishing Alserkal Avenue complex. He insisted on making me coffee himself and I took it gratefully with both hands, as is customary for a guest in the Arab world.

He sat chain smoking cigarettes and drinking black espresso on a simple wooden bench in the Dubai sunshine, the phone inside ringing off the hook with collectors and auction houses queuing for a numbered print of “Freedom Graffiti”.

I’d attended the opening of Tammam’s exhibition, “Syria” earlier in the year and had expected the artist’s demeanor to match the heavy mood of his work. In fact, Tammam has little boy dimples, an easily earned smile, and comes across as shy bordering on sweet. He is self-conscious about his English, speaks quietly and carefully, and prefers not to write without the help of a translator. He hates to be recorded during interviews with journalists and only let me use a Dictaphone weeks later, the fourth time we met.

danna writes tammam azzam

The artist Tammam Azzam. Image courtesy of Ayyam Gallery

“Syria” used Ayyam’s extensive two level space to display painstaking documentation of each major uprising in the revolution, three series in all. A backdrop wall was painted the intense crimson of red roses and made to look like trickling blood, the surrounding room laid out with digital works of school children pointing to fighter jets, bloody butterflies, bombed out buildings, and other visual markers of the past year’s events. Tammam had saturated these images in surprisingly bright, cheerful colors—neon pinks and greens, poppy orange, deep sapphire blues—to juxtapose the destruction of the past with unabashed hope for a positive future. “The Syrian Museum” series (which includes “Freedom Graffiti”) was displayed up a flight of industrial steel stairs on the second floor of the gallery and interestingly, did not get nearly as much attention at the opening.

“Syrian Museum-Goya’s the 3rd of May, 1808” by Tammam Azzam. Image courtesy of Ayyam Gallery, Dubai

The first thing Tammam wanted me to mention in this article is that “what is taking place in Syria should never be called a war. It can only be called a revolution.” Secondly, “Freedom Graffiti” is not a throwback to the 1960’s protest song, Make Love Not War. He doesn’t believe that loving over fighting is possible at this point in Syria. Here is what Tammam was thinking when he created the now famous symbol of the Revolution: “I want to bring attention to the destruction of Syria. I hope that people can rebuild their neighborhoods and make love after this is over. I imagine that after the war ends, when the peace loving civilians can go back home, people can make beautiful things together.”

As we spoke, various artists from the area (many of them Syrian) passed by to say hello in Arabic or share a cigarette and a joke, the women with big naturally curly hair and gold hoop earrings, the men with wild beards, everyone dressed in paint splattered t-shirts, black jeans and scuffed leather shoes. On weekends some of them get together with Tammam and his wife to talk about politics and smoke shisha—the traditional Arabic water pipe—in someone’s modest garden. The Dubai of record-breaking skyscrapers and glamorous Loboutin-clad women seemed worlds away.

“Laundry Syria” by Tammam Azzam. Image courtesy of Ayyam Gallery, Dubai

Here are some facts that the mainstream press has not seemed to mention about Tammam Azzam: He is 32 years old. His father is a beloved, prolific author of modern Arabic literature. His childhood was a simple and happy one in a rural village, but he lost his innocence at age 18 when he first visited Damascus and learned that his government was a cruel dictatorship.

He proudly showed me a book of his earlier works, which include an intriguing mixed media series titled, “Dirty Laundry” for which Tammam collected scraps of old clothing from Damascus’ residential streets, then reproduced wash lines on canvas.

Tammam only first touched a computer keyboard in 2001—he simply didn’t have access to one until then. He is formally trained in drawing and painting—which he speaks of with the sentimental reverence of a father about his firstborn son—but entirely self-taught in conceptual art and graphic design. Ironically, “The Syrian Museum” was the series that at last brought him significant international attention, and now the world recognizes him as a digital artist. He proudly showed me a book of his earlier works, which include an intriguing mixed media series titled, “Dirty Laundry” for which Tammam collected scraps of old clothing from Damascus’ residential streets, then reproduced wash lines on canvas.

“We’ll Stay Here” by Tammam Azzam. Image courtesy of Ayyam Gallery, Dubai.

When the Revolution broke out he was called up for duty to the Syrian army but refused to fight, and took his wife and young daughter to Dubai, abandoning his studio and all his materials in Damascus. In order to support his family he works as a graphic designer for Ayyam. He only began creating art on the computer out of necessity after arriving in Dubai less than two years ago without any paints or the money required to buy some. He wants to go back to painting and mixed media but can’t find an affordable studio space in Dubai large enough to accommodate the broad canvases he prefers.

“I imagine that after the war ends, when the peace loving civilians can go back home, people can make beautiful things together.”

He is quick to clarify that although he does not believe in revenge, he will never be able to forgive the dictatorship for its devastation of communities and lives. Until peace comes—and he does believe it will—Tammam Azzam has vowed that in his own one-man protest, all the art he creates will be dedicated to reminding the outside world about the reality of the Syrian Revolution. If you want to speak to him yourself you can find him outside the Ayyam Gallery, sitting on a sun-drenched bench, drinking black espresso and smoking cigarettes.