Brian Maguire returned from Aleppo intent on painting the reality of what he’d seen in the Syrian city, writes Alan O’Riordan.
The ever-increasing complexity of the Syrian war, and the difficulty this presented for news reporting, was crystallised during the Syrian army’s final assault on east Aleppo, between late 2015 and early 2016, which ended with Damascus reestablishing control and tens of thousands of people being evacuated, mostly to areas held by the Assad regime.
The Syrian war has been the YouTube war. And thanks to this, Western viewers saw a steady feed of compelling first-hand reports of people inside the besieged enclaves of Aleppo — places too dangerous for Western journalists to go.
We saw daily the devastating and deadly results of the Syrian-Russian bombardment. Yet this was an incomplete story. This was reporting from the front line mediated and approved by the jihadist armed groups who controlled the areas under attack, and the lives of those who lived there.
What was seen was not untrue — people were killed, people went hungry, the sick lacked medicine, bombs were dropped without discrimination on residential buildings. But it was inevitably a selective view. It hid the intractable tragedy of this war for Syrians — that there are no good choices, few if any good actors.
As Amnesty international wrote the same year: “Armed groups operating in Aleppo, Idlib and surrounding areas in the north of Syria have carried out a chilling wave of abductions, torture and summary killings.”It’s a long way from the peaceful, grassroots reform protests of 2011, so despicably and violently put down by the Assad regime.
It was into this complex territory that the artist Brian Maguire went, both physically and metaphorically, for War Changes Its Address, his series of paintings based on his visit to Aleppo last spring.
The paintings are a first-hand account of the devastation of war. They are, in that sense, mute witnesses to atrocity. Being in a room with one of his large canvasses is an invitation to see another dimension in what has become a sadly familiar landscape of urban destruction.
Seeing these shells of buildings reimagined as art, outside of the context of daily news bulletins, is to reconsider them, to empathise, to imaginatively engaged with a scale of the loss that sometimes is easier to ignore.
Of course, you can’t escape the complexity of Syria easily, as Maguire found out amid criticism of statements he made in the run-up to this and a previous show, where he criticised Western media coverage, or quoted people he’d met and the difficult truths they had told him.
As we meet at IMMA, on the eve of the show’s opening, there is something of a controversy is brewing. The Wicklow-born artist would later release a statement affirming he is “not a propagandist”, and that these “paintings are in now way political or partisan but demonstrate the aftermath and futility of war and the destruction of civil society”.
For now, he appears careful and somewhat cautious. I mention to him his quoting of a young female student who had told him: “The Syrian Army saved us.”
“I may not have been as clear as I should have been,” he says, “but this is the truth. It’s what I heard… but it’s a bit of a rough f**king truth for someone who has fled Assad, maybe is living here, God knows if they have a job or not, or what is being done for them. For that person to read that, out of context, is provocative. When I said it, I wasn’t thinking of that person. Maybe I should not have said it, but it did happen. She was real. She was a young master’s student.”
He reflects on the point for a while as he walks through the gallery’s rooms. He then continues: “I heard someone tell me something she heard in Lebanon and I’m beginning to see the wisdom of it. ‘In Lebanon,’ she said, ‘someone would tell you a story on Monday and it’s true. They would come along on Tuesday and tell you the opposite, and it’s also true. That’s the problem. There is no fixed truth.
“So what do you do? I went and looked at the result of the battle. And here it is. I’m hoping it will focus people’s mind on what aerial bombardment and tunnel bombs do. I’m not trying to change the world, I’m just trying to see it.”
Maguire’s urge to artistically bear witness has taken him far and wide: to the violent Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, the favelas of Brazil, to South Sudan, into jails in several countries, including Ireland, where he painted portraits of loyalist and republican prisoners.
“I know sectarian conflict,” he says, “the complete tragedy of that, how the local conditions determine what young men will do. I’ve been around conflict. I’m not saying I’m an expert on anything, other than painting, but I know that when you make a portrait of somebody you show respect for them. When you make a portrait of a city, you show respect for a city. These paintings are acts of respect, they are not determining why it happened. I’m not qualified to determine how or why it happened. This is very difficult territory. It’s easy for me to say media gives a false view, but it’s not my job to do that. There are enough journalists around.”
So what does a painter bring, if we allow Maguire simply to speak from that position?
“You can’t make images with digital information. I have to physically go and talk to people, be in the space, wherever that is, be it South Sudan, Juarez, Syria… It is necessary to go there. I wanted to make something that would show the destruction, but which would also be very beautiful and which will hopefully last.
“The work might last for the next generation, but that is for the next generation to decide. If these pictures survive, it says someone here in northern Europe paid attention to something that was happening in the Middle East, and recorded that, not as propaganda, or political work, but as artwork.
“You have a professional life and you have a life as a citizen,” he adds. “No doctor brings his politics into his treatment room. So all I’m asking is you give me the same space. I’ve always left my politics outside prisons. How else could you work with the UDA, the UVF and they shooting each other in that feud in 99? I was trusted by both sides.”
In Mexico he worked with the women victims of violence, but still did a workshop in the local prison.
“I don’t know if it’s compartmentalisation or whatever. But my personal experiences are hostages to fortune. I know that.”
The Aleppo show opened on Friday to a packed gallery. A man was seen crying before the largest of the paintings. A sad sight, but one that attests to the success of Maguire’s work.
Brian Maguire, War Changes Its Address: The Aleppo Paintings is at Imma in Dublin until May 6