Contemporary art

Syrian photographer: 'We refuse to die as a number in the international media'

Issa Touma vows to return to Aleppo amid the fighting

The Aleppo-based photographer, curator and gallery founder Issa Touma says he is planning to return to the city shortly, taking a route through the desert. 

Speaking from the Netherlands, he tells The Art Newspaper that he will continue his work with the Art Camping project, when anywhere from five to around 50 people—depending on the security of the areas they come from—meet to create art in his gallery, Le Pont. Touma says of the Aleppo space: “In the past five years there were just five bombs—that means it’s safe.”

Touma says: “We started Art Camping during the war. We refused to die as a number in the international media. We tried to give some positive energy to the people in the war zone,” referring to the project that began in 2012 when refugees first began arriving in Syria’s second city.

His new book Women We Have Not Lost Yet features portraits, which are partially obscured, and testimonies of 15 young women who took refuge in the gallery last April. The images were exhibited at Amsterdam's Castrum Peregrini last September.  

While 80 percent of Syria’s intellectuals and many artists have left, he feels “they didn’t fight enough for the country”, and so he wants to go back there even as the fighting escalates in a battle that could prove a turning point in the five-year-long conflict.

Touma says that despite the new round of aerial bombings and flight of refugees in the run-up to a possible ceasefire, movement on the ground was better than the “incredible suffering” of continual war.  “We had a really terrible time in 2013 when the opposition surrounded all of the western side [of Aleppo], and we were hungry and no one wrote about that,” he says. “There will be hope when people stop sending weapons,” he says, referring to foreign support of the different sides in the civil war.

• Women We Have Not Lost Yet by Issa Touma is published by Paradox and André Frère Éditions

• An interview with Issa Touma will appear in the March issue of The Art Newspaper