Basharat Bashir

Najah Al-Bukai: Artist in Exile

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“People might not look at a graphic photograph taken of a horrific situation, but when it is an artwork people react differently. They do look at it and feel compassionate about the subject of the artwork,”.

Born in 1970 in Homs, Syria, Najah Al-Bukaiis a Syrian artist who lives and works in France. Member of the agency of artists in exile,Al-Bukaifaced the worst horrors of state brutality as he was arrested several times between 2012 to 2015 in Damascus. As a prisoner Al-Bukai witnessed the terrible scenes of torture in Syrian government’s notorious detention centers. He was lucky to survive thanks to the countless efforts by his wife Abir Jassoumehwho never gave up on him and managed to get him out of the prison. Along with his wifeAl-Bukaimanaged to escape to Lebanon and arrived in France in 2017. He started making drawingsin an attempt to cope with the horror and trauma of his time in prison. In his drawings he illustrates the gripping torment he experienced in Syrian detention center.

Al-Bukai worked as an accomplished artist before the civil war broke in his country. He studied successively at the Beaux-Arts in Damascus and then at the Beaux-Arts in Rouen. He later joined International University for Science and Technology in Damascus as an art faculty.It was during his time at International University for Science and Technology that he was arrested for the first time.Al-Bukai took part in peaceful protests in a number of Syrian towns to bring a political change and demand for rightsof Syrian people.For his active participation in protests, his name was on the wanted list of people. He was arrested while travelling to work, handcuffed and blindfolded and taken to the detention center where he faced most horrific torment. He witnessed the most inhumane condition of prisoners whosescream’s still haunt him. Although he himselfsuffered multiple broken bones and temporary hearing loss he kept his hope of freedom alive.

Al-Bukai finds art as one and only way for him to live with such horrific memories piled up in his mind. In an article published in New York Times Aida Alamiwrites,it is the only way he knows of coping with the traumas he witnessed, and suffered, in Syria’s torture further mentions thatAl-Bukai had long thought his photographic memory was his greatest asset, allowing him to recreate scenes on his sketch pads and canvases days, months and even years after he witnessed them. But now, after he has survived two stretches in the Syrian government’s notorious detention centers, his sharp memories only serve to haunt him.

Al-Bukaidrawings illustrate the horrific images of torture and physical and psychological abuse. He was agonized in most vicious ways possible, from starving him for days to electrocuting, hanged from his hands for hours and beaten mercilessly. He also witnessed the torture of other detainees who shared his fate and were tortured to such an extent that many could not survive and many went into permanent paralysis. To live with such memories and to act normal after witnessing such gruesome incidents is not less than a miracle. In an article published on VOA Al-Bukai was quoted as saying, “Drawing my experience relieves me from my nightmares, and this continues to develop as a healing method,” he had also said that his goal is not to document the events but rather to use drawing as a mechanism to heal from the physiological wounds and trauma he sustained during his time in the prison.

In his drawings, some prisoners hang by their hands and others undergo other forms of torture, all while their cellmates eat their meals calmly, desensitized to the displays of inhumanity around them.

Al-Bukai family were among the first to join peaceful protests that started in 2011. Although his father who worked in an oil refinery in Homs, kept himself away from any political affair but, Al-Bukai participated in peaceful protests. He believed that freedom and democratic values would prevail. He used to film videos of the protests and post them on the internet.

In 2012, when protests were mounting the Syrian government intensified its crackdown leaving many Syrians displaced. Al-Bukaiwho worked as a professor of art in Damascus at that time started volunteer work to deliver aid packages to the besieged areas in the countryside.The police had searched and burned his mother’s house and he was later arrested and forcedinto gruesome torture and abuse. After his wife bribed her release Al-Bukaiwent into hiding at an acquaintance’s house in Damascus. After some time, the frustration of being confiscated he attempted to cross over to Lebanon and was arrested for the second time on the Syrian-Lebanese border and was taken to the same security branch where he was kept two years earlier.This time Al-Bukai found it more horrific and malicious as it was two years ago. The prisoners were abused and forced to watch and even participate in the torture. He was kept there for 70 days before they transferred him to Damascus’ central prison in Adra town, northeast of Damascus.

In the article mentioned earlier Al-Bukai shares the most horrifying memory that resonates in his drawings time after time. He describes the memory of detainees carrying the bodies of those who died under torture. The image is reflected in many of his drawings as well. He was quoted as saying, “I was observing everything and making art in my head,” he said it about his time in a crammed cell, where prisoners had to take off their clothes because of the unbearable heat.“It is a personal therapy that allows me to evacuate,” he said about his work. “The whole time I was in hell, I tried to not see nightmares. Instead, I forced myself to see beautiful dreams.”

Al-Bukaivisualizes the memories of the time when he was in prison and re-creates the visuals to release the traumawhich otherwise consume people.His drawings are a visual record of suffering that prisoners go through in detention centers. In his depiction of prisoners one can feel the torment as some are drawn hanging by their hands and others undergo other forms of torture,while their cellmates eat their meals calmly, desensitized to the displays of inhumanity around them. The article further adds that he still remembers the smell of rotten flesh, the screams of other prisoners and how, horrifically, he and others grew accustomed to it all. He is quoted as saying, “We heard the screams of those who were tortured, the cracking of their bones, and we heard their moaning as they were slowly dying, and we hoped that they die sooner so they finally could have some peace,” .

Al-Bukai has taken his art as a therapy to continue his life filled with traumatic experiences and drawing from memories became a fundamental part of his life.“Once you live through this experience, it will stay with you. I cannot stop the images of what I saw from appearing in my mind, and drawing these images over and over again became an obsession. Drawing helps me in healing and coping with the pain,” Al-Bukai is quoted as saying.Adding that,“the detainees who went through similar horrors tend to talk about their experiences repeatedly, but after a while, those who listen to them get bored of the repeated stories.For the tortured detainees, silence is a black box in memory. I talk through my drawings,”

Al-Bukai, travels across France to raise awareness about the horrors of the detention centers. His drawings become the main source for his audience to feel and understand the complexity of human suffering by the hands of tyrants. Through his work Al-Bukai tries to awaken the sense of responsibility among people to make a collective effort to eradicate such centers and cruelty on which such institutions stand.   Al-Bukai is hopeful that one day autocrats will be defeated and he will return to his home country and live in peace.









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