Belonging: Lost Voices at Coburg House

Hussain Akrad’s art presents a shattered impression of humanity, combining a lurid, dream-like sense of displacement with vividly focused images of a harsh and destructed reality.

Currently displayed at Coburg House is his latest collection – Belonging: Lost Voices – which illuminates his experience of conflict and displacement from his home in Darra, Syria. Having graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Damascus University in 1973, Hussain had worked as an arts teacher in Daraa for over 30 years when his home and studio were destroyed by missiles, making him one the millions displaced by war in Syria. Now, aged just over 70, Hussain has begun a second life in Edinburgh, although he has continued to document his experiences of war through his art.

There is a sharp contrast in the different styles of painting on display, with a clear split between the realistic and the more nightmarish, impressionistic landscapes. For instance, a clearly recognisable Edinburgh scene – a glossy white house, titled ‘A House in Edinburgh’ – is juxtaposed by pair of acrylics glaring out from the back wall of the small studio. Simply named, ‘The Arab Spring’ and ‘The Arab Spring 2’, the pair show unsettling fragments of human form blurred into one another, suggesting a strange sense of unity in the face of shared horror. The first of the series has a burnt out, orange tone conveying subtle but heart-wrenching despair. In contrast, the second is permeated by a deep red which shifts from recognisable forms like animals and faces into undefined smudges, perhaps reflecting the bloodshed and turmoil which followed from the early hope of the Arab Spring.

At the other end of the adjacent wall was another piece, this one much simpler in style, which also resonated. You’d recognise the image: for quite some time in 2015 it was everywhere, before, all too quickly, shock gave way to acceptance and we let ourselves forget it. Hussain names the harrowing portrait, ‘Aylan, the Syrian Boy’ and it shows the figure of the poor little boy who lay face down on a beach in Greece, after he drowned trying to reach safety in Europe. The distinctly recognisable moment incapsulates the agonising reality of war and displacement which seeps from picture to picture throughout the exhibition. It invites from the viewer despair and anger but also opportunity to reflect and react.

The exhibition is wholly relevant to our contemporary political climate. Prejudice against immigrants was a major factor in the referendum results four years ago and now, with the most right-wing government in generations, it appears that the popularising of this rhetoric in public discourse has fortified intolerance and discrimination. The recent developments in child reunification law testify to this.

Hussain’s art engages clearly with themes of displacement, loss and suffering and is a timely reminder of immense damage they cause. I dare you to look at this art and not come away with an earnest desire to do better, to be more accepting, more tolerant and more compassionate. In these moments of increasing political hostility, our consumption of art this powerful cannot be passive. We owe it to the strength of artists who provide these important testimonies to be more purposefully engaged, both in our viewing and our actions.

Belonging: Lost Voices is open 08 & 09 Feb at Coburg House.

Image: David Bishop Photography

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