Design of Necessity honors the resilience Syrians used to survive sieges carried out by the Assad regime, which, aided by its ally, Russia, used starvation as a weapon of war. For no crime beyond political dissent, besieged communities in Syria were deprived of basic necessities like food, cooking fuel, and medical supplies; trapped and even forced to live underground to avoid shelling. These tactics aimed to wear down citizens mentally and physically, forcing them into surrender. The sieges were a major war crime in a protracted conflict that the regime initiated to put down 2011’s popular, peaceful movement for dignity and justice. As of 2022, no independent mechanism has been put in place to investigate the sieges or support their victims’ pursuit of justice.
Today, images of wartime deprivation and suffering are once again prominent in the European media, rightfully outraged by Russia’s invasion and destruction of Ukrainian cities. Across the world, Syrians are expressing their solidarity and support for the hardships Ukrainians are facing. Yet in this moment when Europe embraces Ukrainian refugees popularly and politically, Syrian refugees are threatened with forcible return to the regime that, with Russia’s help, sought to starve and murder them into submission.
Ten percent of Syria’s pre-war population – 2.5 million people – were the victims of regime sieges since 2011 (PAX, 2019). The suffering they endured under starvation is not visually arresting like images of bombs exploding over cities. Hunger, a slow violence that tortured the bodies and souls of the besieged, has taken an inestimable but almost invisible toll on Syrian communities. Today, as the conflict has stagnated and dropped out of world attention, Syrians are still not safe from the pervasive threat of starvation. In 2021, the World Food Programme sounded the alarm that hunger in Syria had reached “critical levels.” As many as 12.4 million Syrians – nearly 60 percent of the nation’s population – are food insecure. These numbers are increasing rapidly, as humanitarian assistance alone cannot resolve the regime’s lack of action or concern for its citizens, or the structural and economic damage caused by a decade of war.
Syrian artist Khaled Barakeh is the next to bring his activist-artistic practice to the Maria Project at Mariakirken. His exhibition, Design of Necessity, speaks to universal themes of human resilience in wartime that are, tragically, once again at the forefront of the European imagination. Barakeh’s approach is participatory, inviting the creative engagement of Syrian siege survivors and Syrians living in deportation and asylum centres in Denmark. As a result, Design of Necessity refracts universal themes through stories and experiences that are uniquely and intimately Syrian. The exhibition takes artistic inspiration from these stories, conveying Syrians’ determination to stay alive as a collective act that forged networks of solidarity and compassion in besieged areas. In this same spirit of openness, the exhibition initiates a new space to explore possibilities for intersectional understanding and solidarity between the victims of war crimes, past and present. In Design of Necessity, art is an open platform for sharing memory, practicing solidarity, and reenacting resilience in the name of justice for Syrians, and for all people suffering under siege and starvation.
The sculptural works in Design of Necessity depict the creative, everyday practices that Syrians developed with ordinary objects under siege, living in cellars, shelters, and barren hiding places. To heat up food and boil water, Syrians fixed shards of broken glass to the inside of satellite dishes to harness and concentrate the sun’s rays. Confined underground, they learned to grow mushrooms, which flourish even in minimal conditions and which became a crucial source of nutrition. With the support of Syrians living outside the country, they also learned to turn mushrooms into packaging.
Design of Necessity exhibits satellite dishes installed in Maria Kirkeplads, containers of mushrooms growing in the church space, and a series of documentary materials that will be installed and shown until the end of September. Syrian asylum seekers and refugees -- who endure the constant threat of being sent back by the Danish state -- will be invited to make the cooker-satellite dishes and create self-portraits out of them. The dishes will in turn become artworks, with their fractured reflections provoking spectators to consider the fragmentation of Syrian identities and communities over the past decade. In Danish cities, satellite dishes are often stigmatized objects associated with immigrant areas. Khaled Barakeh’s exhibition transforms them into a sincere image of the search for connection and into icons of Syrians’ resilience – both in the war and in their new, foreign homes.
Connectivity will be built into the fabric of Design of Necessity, which will remain dynamic and socially engaged throughout its run. Much like the branching networks of mushrooms, the exhibition will establish links between the art and its setting; between Syrians in the diaspora; and between the Syrian community and host communities in Denmark. At dinners, the artist-participants and community members will come together to eat mushrooms cooked in the satellite pots and to tell stories of siege, hunger, and survival. Through storytelling and the sharing of food, the meals will deepen ties between Syrian asylum seekers and Danish communities, and demonstrate the ways Syria remains unsafe for those who fled the regime’s violence. During the exhibition period, Mariakirken will also serve as a viewing space, conversation room and forum for a range of actors working to create dignified conditions and opportunities for Syrians in Denmark.
The Maria Projektet is curated by Matthias Borello and developed in collaboration with Lise Christina Rasmussen, pastor of Mariakirken Vesterbro. The project is generously supported by the Danish Arts Foundation, the Bikuben Foundation, the Augustinus Foundation, the Engineer Captain Aage Nielsen Family Fund, the Diocese of Copenhagen (Social Ethics Committee), the Innovative Diaconal Fund, the City of Copenhagen, and the Vesterbro Local Committee, among others, and will run until autumn 2023.
To know more about Maria Project’s participants’ artists, future events and exhibitions, please visit www.mariaprojektet.dk.