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

I wrote the following article for Mvslim.com about the life and work of Adnan Samman: Adnan Samman is a talented up and coming visual artist and musician from Hama, Syria. He left Syria at a young age and has moved from country to country ever since. His best known works use imagery from the past to tell stories about the present. I recently had a conversation with Adnan to discuss his work, his life story, and what to expect in the future. This is what he had to say:

How old were you when you left Syria and how much does Syrian/Jordanian culture influence your creative process? Do you have anyone or anything specifically that you consider a major influence?

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. It was around that time that I started looking into colleges back home in Syria. Studying in Syria was the only option for me. So I went back to look around and decide which university I should join. 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 or radio. There’s a very ambitious art scene in Jordan that has helped me a lot. Artists here are very approachable. Seeing artists here and in other countries, like Lebanon and Egypt, flourishing gave me that push that I needed to go down a more serious path. I’m not sure if I have major influences to be honest. Anything can influence me. Music, TV shows, the news, stories of my friends, taxi drivers’ stories, many things!

Has art been a life long passion for you or something that you took up recently; and how did you first get into it?

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.

You are leaving Jordan soon. So what’s next?

Yea, I’m leaving Jordan. Life here is becoming harder each day. There are many restrictions and it takes forever to get things done, if ever. 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 and I’m kind of doubting my plans at the moment. AFD is getting into the German parliament this year. The German parliament hasn’t had a right-wing party since the 1940’s. The hate speech towards Muslims and refugees kind of makes Europe similar to the Middle East in that aspect. Some sort of conversation has to start in Europe; and I’m really rooting for Muslims to speak up against all the accusations and negative stigma. But yeah, I’m most likely going to be Europe; Austria to be more exact.

How has the war in Syria affected you personally?

The war has dramatically affected my life. It completely changed it I would say. 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, yet 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 blurry. One of the worst things about war is being away from the ones you love. My girlfriend and I met online 4 years ago and we still have not personally met yet. We tried but the visa and travel restrictions that resulted from the war forced us to be in different countries, unable to meet. We’re still fighting for this very simple right. 

So you are both a visual artist and a musician. Is there one that you prefer more as a form of expression?

I don’t have a preference. They complete each other in a way. If I don’t make music, I somehow won’t be able to sit down and start making visual work. And visa versa. Writing music is a lot like painting or collage making. One thing about music is that I really tend to love it more when I’m doing it with other people. Making music alone never appealed to me as much as making it with a band. But with visual art it’s the opposite.  

A lot of your collage work features images from the past and invoke a feeling of nostalgia. They also remind me of times of war and political turmoil… your latest series on Hashem El Madani, for example. Do history and political turmoil play a major role in what you choose to create? 

So, 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. And sometimes it’s just storytelling. 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 different story.

Where do you see yourself 5 years from now and what would you like to accomplish?

I’d like to be able to make a living off of what I love to do. You know, not many people get to call their passion a full time job. 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.

Can you discuss some of the themes for your series 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. I kind of wanted to capture the tendency that people have to reflect on life before the war rather than actually acknowledging the war itself. Overall, the concept of youth seeking haven in nightclubs and dancing the misery away as a way to either cope or stay in denial has been the subject of most of my work.
My Hashem el Madani series pays tribute to the Lebanese civil war. It attempts to shed a new light on those days. 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, if any?

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!

For me, your art feels very personal. Even if I don’t know the people in the photos, it makes me empathize with whatever they may have been going through at the time. 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, a lot of my 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. The art itself chooses that! In fact, the series that features Hashem El Madani’s photographs was completely improvised. I wanted the people in the photos to choose their own colors and feelings. This is why it’s arguably my most varied series to date. The people in the photos inspired me to make what I did. This is what they wanted, and I delivered! I know it sounds crazy, but yeah, sometimes the art leads the way. I learned to trust my final products because I know that I’ve done my best to have them look the way they do.

How long does it take you to create a collage? Some other artists I’ve spoken to have said that they enjoy the creative process more than the end result. Can you say the same for yourself or would you consider both equally important? 

Depends! Sometimes it takes a couple of hours; sometimes days. I improvise a lot. So the process is pretty much the biggest and most fun part of my work. I enjoy how I end up surprising myself. It’s never boring. I love witnessing my collage grow from nothing into this one big piece full of different scenery and people. The end result may not be as fun to me as the viewer, considering that I’d already spent hours and days with that piece. Unlike the viewer, who only gets to see the outside beauty of the piece; the creator gets to see beneath all that polish and realize how much work it took to make it happen.

It shows that the war in Syria has an effect on your collage art. What about your music, does your music reflect the current situation in Syria as well?

I think both my art and music naturally show signs of the Syrian crisis even if I don’t intend them to. One music blogger stated that he felt some sort of dreaminess and hope in a music piece that I actually did not write about the war or Syria at all. So it’s interesting that my work gives those vibes, as many people have told me.
Some of my music has been clearly and publicly been released as a response to what’s going on in Syria. Last year, I collaborated with European musicians from Germany and Italy and we wrote a song about a refugee. It alluded to the Levant region a lot, particularly Syria. But again, most of the time, I’d rather stay silent about the meaning of my work and observe what others see in it. That’s the beauty of it.

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

You can read the full Mvslim interview here: http://mvslim.com/meet-adnan-samman-a-young-artist-using-nostalgia-to-address-the-syrian-crisis/

To see more of Adnan Samman’s work visit his website here: https://adnansamman.wordpress.com/

Written by Bijjan Sadegh Shirvani

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