Installation detail, Koblenz, 2020.
2020 — ongoing, mixed media installation
MUTE is an adaptable, site-specific public art installation in the form of a demonstration that moves across political and geographical intersectional contexts. Capturing the momentum and magnetism and political power of demonstrations in Syria in 2011, the 49 figures are dressed in the ordinary clothes of Syrian activists living in diaspora that were collected through an open call. Recalling the tactics protestors used to avoid capture by state security forces in Syria, the figures’ clothes are dark colors that allow individuals to blend anonymously into crowds. The heads were decapitated and reconstructed to look inside the bodies bringing back all the memories, traumas, and anguish, turning the faces into horn-like openings that screamed everything that had passed and maximizing the voices one day muted. The hands are also missing, leaving holes at the wrists of arms upheld in protest against the torture, killing, and absenteeism of people. Swinging between stillness and motion co-exist, these protestors are frozen in postures that evoke demonstrations' physical tension and emotional intensity.
The motivation for MUTE was born after 2015. The newly arrived Syrians shifted their protests to German streets using the same words and gestures they had developed in the peaceful protest movement that began in Syria. This was a way to find one’s bearings and belonging in European space and to build a community in exile. However, since the context was different, these protests of "others" were an ordinary sight for the passersby drawing little curiosity or attention, which kept to their paths without glancing at the protestors who were shouting in a strange language. The idea behind MUTE began from that moment.
The collective movement of Syrians on German streets asserted a connection between here (Europe) and there (Syria), as well as between the past and the present. Faithful to this spirit of connection, MUTE opens, in each of its installations, a relation between the memory of protest in Syria and its present surroundings. Like the repertoire of protest it instantiates, MUTE is mobile: the figures can be transported by van and installed in new contexts. And in each new setting, the protestors wordlessly enact a relationship to the place and its politics, as well as active connections with local activists and communities.
MUTE outside the Higher Court in Koblenz
1st and 2nd of July, 2020
The MUTE first public appearance was a demonstration outside the Higher Court in Koblenz, Germany. The historic trial was the first time any Syrian regime official was held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. During that time, a curfew was still in effect because of the Covid pandemic.
On the 23rd of April 2020, the first international criminal trial on war crimes and state torture in Syria began in Koblenz, Germany. The Higher Regional Court in Koblenz charged Anwar Raslan and Eyad Al-Gharib, two former officials of President Bashar al-Assad’s security apparatus, for crimes against humanity. The two perpetrators had come to Germany a few years earlier in search of asylum, after having announced their defection from the Syrian regime. In early 2020, concurrently with the trial, many countries around the world imposed measures forcing millions of people to remain at home and to adhere to the guidelines of social distancing because of the spread of the COVID-19 virus. These measures that restricted the movement of individuals and all forms of social gathering prevented activists and the families of detainees and the disappeared from attending the court proceedings.
Provoked by these difficult circumstances and to make Syrians’ ongoing struggle for justice visible, MUTE was placed on the grass outside the courthouse in full view of the courtroom windows while the trial was happening.
The action was inspired in part by Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts that followed Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. It instituted a community-led justice system where – in recognition of the vast number of crimes committed, which would have taken some 200 years to process through the legal system – laypeople were authorized to participate in jurisdiction. Though controversial, the Gacaca courts nonetheless empowered ordinary people and communities to engage with questions of justice in the aftermath of mass violence. Rwandan Minister of Justice, Johnston Busingye, gave advice to the Syrians, whose country is witnessing a genocide similar to the Rwandan situation, calling on them to rely on their own judicial system to achieve justice and not to wait for the international community's move. Therefore, MUTE has evolved into an alternative and parallel trial space outside the official court.
sought to open a translational, community-focused space and cooperated with Syrian activists and families of the forcibly disappeared for this community participation. On the second day exhibiting in front of the Higher Regional Court in Koblenz, MUTE
was joined by by Families for Freedom
and the Caesar Families Association
. Both organizations advocate for the rights of individuals detained, disappeared, and tortured by the Syrian regime and other parties involved in the conflict. By sharing images of missing family members and personal histories, members of these two groups created their own testimony, which could not be shared within the strict confines of the ongoing trial. For a fleeting moment, the silent demonstration was granted a face and a voice and provided stories of Syrians to passers-by near the venue, as if they were pulling the story out of its chains. And they send it out into the open again!
Supported by Studio Khaled Barakeh, and The Syria Campaign, in cooperation with the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Adopt a Revolution, Families for Freedom, and Caesars Families Association.
Adam Broomberg, Thomas Lohnes, Max Eicke, Guevara Namer, and Khaled Barakeh
MUTE in front of the German Bundestag in Berlin
21 March 2021
MUTE appeared for the first time in Berlin, a city that hosts one of the largest populations of Syrian refugees in Europe. The installation happened on the 10th anniversary of the Syrian Uprising and as a response to the German ministers of the interior's decision to lift the ban on deportations of Syrians.
In 2021, a political decision was taken in Germany to lift the ban on deportations of Syrians who committed crimes or are suspected of plotting terrorist acts – although the German legal system has proved crimes against humanity committed, and still, by the henchmen of the Syrian ruling power, which should not be a partner for deportations but a case for international justice. No one should be deported to a torture state, justice is not served by sending criminals like Eyad AlGharib or Anwar R. to Syria. They should be tried within a fair, independent justice system. The silent demonstration was a reminder that, if the Koblenz trial is one first step toward justice, deportations to Syria would only echo hundreds of steps in the other direction.
One of art’s roles in activism is to incite people to continually question what seems settled and obvious: including the idea of justice that the Koblenz trial represented, the protest tradition that began after 2011 in Syria, as well as art’s role in public life. MUTE did not simply repeat protest actions that began over a decade ago, but also drew attention to the ongoing need for activism and critique as Syrians’ struggle for justice continued within a new social and political context. Indeed, the benefits that these peaceful practices, which Syrian activists and artists have brought with them into the diaspora, could bring to German political culture have yet to be acknowledged. Yet, as MUTE shows, the artistic-activist tradition promotes the peaceful questioning and critique of a democratic society’s institutions and norms, including legal ones, by the communities those institutions represent.
Supported by Studio Khaled Barakeh, in cooperation with Vision For Syria, Families for Freedom, and Adopt a Revolution.
Photos credits: Guevara Namer, and Khaled Barakeh
MUTE at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin
12 November 2021—16 January 2022
Directed and curated by Nyabinghi Lab, MUTE
was part of the Landscapes of Liberation
exhibition presented at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien in Berlin.
This exhibition takes the history of Barackia (1870-1872), an independent free state founded over 150 years ago by migrant workers and disenfranchised urban dwellers in Kreuzberg, as a starting point to explore decolonial urbanism, resistance and solidarities. How are demands of equality interrelated with self-determined spaces in the past and present? How do free communities become laboratories for creative and visionary forms of collectivity? How can urban dwellings be designed in solidarity and equity? Barackia‘s seemingly local history is being intertwined with movements and self-determined spaces across five centuries in Berlin and beyond.
MUTE was erected outside Bethanien during the opening of the exhibition to celebrate the resilience and resistance of Kreuzberg's historical movements. It opened a constantly evolving platform for individuals and activists to explore their common ground and to imagine what new forms of political understanding and community they can generate together. This openness is rooted in the memory of the Syrian protest in 2011. Inclusive, MUTE mobilizes this past as a living resource to affirm the principles of dignity and justice in Europe today and to collectively enact practices of solidarity and intersectional understanding.
Performance, Joseph Roach notes, draws “on the idea of expressive movements as mnemonic reserves, including patterned movements made and remembered by bodies, residual movements retained implicitly in images or words (or in the silences between them)” – silences that the MUTE figures would later embody in their immobility. How do the mnemonics of protest transfer and transform as their actors move and assert meaning in new spaces, and as the politics around them shift? If the momentum of Syrians’ protest could translate, what might its horizons be?
Curated by Nyabinghi Curators:
Nathalie Anguezomo Mba Bikoro, Tmnit Zere, Saskia Köbschall
Photos credits: David Christian Egert, and Thabo Thindi
MUTE in front of the Danish Parliament in Copenhagen
20 June 2022
On the UN World Refugee Day, the MUTE demonstration was outside the Danish Parliament at Christiansborg Slotsplads in Copenhagen.
As the number of refugees worldwide reaches the tragic milestone of 100 million people, the MUTE public installation uses its silent protest to remind all who will listen: oppression and human rights violations enacted by dictatorships drive the wars, displacements, and terror that continue to force so many from their homes and safety.
We stood in solidarity with all refugees and displaced peoples globally. Asylum is not an issue restricted to any one country or continent, as the devastating plight of Ukrainians – with two million people becoming refugees in only two weeks -- has recently shown. MUTE remembers the oppression that led to the Syrians’ mass displacement, including to their current European homes. It reminds audiences that refugees are made: driven out of their homes and communities by acts of violence and persecution that the international community must act to prevent.
MUTE demanded an end to the forced deportations of all refugees and vulnerable persons from Denmark or any other country. These communities endure the constant threat of being returned to countries where they face the risk of arrest, torture, or death. These threats are compounded intersectionally, as women and children in particular face distinctive forms of forced disappearance and gender-based and sexual violence. Syria is not a safe country for the return of refugees, a necessary truth that MUTE re-asserts at the heart of public space in Denmark. It takes up the creative legacy of the Syrians’ protest, and invites Danish voices to join them, in reminding governments that the right to seek asylum is inviolable – and that they should comply with it as they are obliged to.
Supported by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Amnesty International Denmark, and ActionAid Denmark.
Photos credits: Khaled Barakeh
MUTE in front of Maria Church in Copenhagen
23 June 2022
presented in front of the Maria Church as part of Khaled Barakeh’s Design of Necessity
exhibition on siege and resilience in Syria.
The MUTE demonstration continues the historical momentum that began in Syria when the people rose up to claim their freedom and dignity. It also reflects on the story of an abandoned people who were left to fight for freedom on their own. Beginning in 2011, the Syrian regime suppressed popular assemblies and demonstrations in ways described as barbaric, medieval, and most horrendous since the Holocaust: besieging cities and towns; shelling them with barrel bombs to inflict mass casualties; arbitrarily detaining, torturing, and killing tens of thousands of activists as well as random citizens; and not even shying away from using chemical weapons against them. And the world did not act. And so oppression continues today.
These acts of protest in raised, among the most ordinary of individuals, extraordinary questions of politics and identity: what to do, now, in a new geographic and cultural setting, with the intimate memories and political momentum of 2011? Must they belong to another place, relegated to the past? The collective movement of bodies onto Europian streets to shout practiced words and slogans asserted, without need for explanations, the connection between here (Europe) and there (Syria), as well as between past and present. Perhaps even calling protest a memory in this setting closes down too many possibilities at stake in the protestors’ gestures. For as they carried their repertoire of dissent with them, they set it into motion in the present and performed, with the body, new continuities in time and space.
Supported by Studio Khaled Barakeh, in cooperation with Maria Projektet
Photos credits: Khaled Barakeh
MUTE at Roskilde Festival
27 June 2022 At RE:ACT Human Rights Area,
1 July 2022 In front of the main stage (The Orhang Stage)
MUTE continued its demonstrations at the Roskilde Festival, which strongly focused on the art and activism of the 2022 edition of the festival.
With 130,000 visitors, it was such an exceptional stage and interesting experience to reach out to people in a country that is the first among other EU countries to claim that Syria is safe, and to purpose sending Syrian refugees to deportation and asylum centers after revoking their residency permits, where they face indefinite detention and a constant threat of expulsion from the country!
It is in the spaces between MUTE’s immobile figures that a limitless range of individuals can meet, discuss, grieve, claim and even name the MUTE figures, make demands, recognize solidarities, and more. The spaces of silence between the protestors become sites where new ways of knowing and living can come into being. After the viewers of MUTE disperse, and the artwork is disassembled, these connections are carried with their owners across Europe. They are a silent reminder of the fates of countless people across the world who live under dictatorial and totalitarian regimes and whose voices are ultimately ours.
Supported by Studio Khaled Barakeh in cooperation with ActionAid Denmark, and Rapolitics
Photos credits: Khaled Barakeh
MUTE at the Culture Night in Copenhagen
11 October 2022
For more than 27 years, Culture Night has been one of Copenhagen's most well-attended cultural events. On this night, activists organization Action-Aid invited everyone to a community gathering in the name of unity and solidarity in the backyard of Fælledvej in the middle of the neighbourhood of Nørrebro.
The MUTE installation brought Syria’s artist-activist tradition to several locations around Europe in mute recognition of the tragedy that years of artistic creativity and resilience did not manage to persuade the world to stop the suffering of Syrians; to stop the killings, torture, and forced disappearances; or to intervene against the racism faced by displaced Syrians.
Supported by Studio Khaled Barakeh and ActionAid Denmark
Photos credits: Khaled Barakeh