The Alternative Narratives of Adnan Samman

Method 18th Sep, 2020

The broke artist is a trope with which we’re all too familiar. A creator gives up real nourishment, now hardly able to afford a pack of instant noodles just so they can keep on creating. But that wasn’t the case for artist Adnan Samman. Rather than a pursuit that pushed him into financial hardship, time and again art sustained him.

At the age of 27, Adnan has already shown his work in exhibitions in numerous countries – including at the prestigious Art Dubai, had three of his pieces added to the permanent collection of a museum, and created a reliable source of revenue on Society6.

Adnan Samman took some time out to tell Method Magazine all about it. 

Can you tell us a little about your background and when/how you started making art?

I was born in Hama, Syria in 1993. And as long back as my memory goes, I always found myself encouraged to express myself with whatever means. I did many things in my early childhood, but the one that stuck the most with me was colors and pencils. So I used to draw a lot. Luckily, my father had many friends who were celebrated local artists, so I was able to meet those people, show them my work and hear their advice. I believe that really shaped up my passion for arts. 

I’ve read that though you were a prolific artist as a child, you stopped creating from 12 until the time you found yourself in Jordan. Can you tell us how you found your way back to your passion?

True! I lived in Saudi Arabia starting from 10 years old until 18. At the time, especially for someone with such an art-heavy background, Saudi Arabia wasn’t really a good environment for creativity. No art museums, no artists, no appreciation of art in general. So eventually that kind of discouraged me and put my hobby to rest. That ended when I moved to Jordan in late 2011 and suddenly found myself in a new, very different country. Jordan’s creative scene (fine art, music, theater, etc) was literally booming back then, with the Arab Spring just starting and a bigger space for freedom of expression being born. That helped me get back to self-expression and be involved with those creatives. That’s how I made friends in Jordan. Through art and music. 

Much of your artwork is collage work. Is it digital or analog?

I’ve worked with both, however I grew more fond of digital collage. The things computers offer artists make it possible to go as far as imagination can go. No limits!

What is the strangest place (magazine, website, etc) you’ve sourced an image from?

Old book stores in Egypt! I collaborated with a lovely friend and curator from Brazil, Sheila, on a collage series in 2018. She was living in Cairo at the time, so she went out to vintage stores and collected many scans from magazines and books so I could use them in my work. She was able to do so with an Egyptian friend called Shyma. I received those scans and made collages using them. Then those pieces were exhibited in my first ever exhibition in Egypt, and that was a very special moment!

Aside from collage art, what other mediums/styles do you use?

I also do illustrations sometimes. I actually just recently got back to hand drawing when Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris commissioned me for two artworks. I decided I wanted to get out of my collage comfort zone and challenge myself. So I drew by hand, scanned the drawing and then further edited it on the computer. Now I’m doing more hand-drawing related work, as an attempt to find new ways other than collage. I’m enjoying the results!

The Oriental Museum in Durham, UK has acquired three of your works. Can you tell us how that came about?

I’m currently represented by a gallery in Doha, Qatar. One of the most established art promoters in the Middle East, Emergeast has an exclusive selection of my artworks in gallery standard limited editions. Earlier this year, the Oriental Museum approached them to buy a big collection of around 30 pieces by Middle Eastern and North African artists to add to their permanent collection as representation of the “new wave of digital art in the region”. I was very happy to know that they bought not one, but three of my pieces. The works are limited editions between 3 and 5. 

You also produce music and have an album Eyeless in Damascus on Soundcloud that seems to have been made over the period of a few years. Can you tell us about the making of this album?

Yes! This also started when I moved to Jordan. A lot of independent music was coming from Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt between 2011 and 2013, so it was such an inspiring time to try things out. Then the project “Eyeless in Damascus” was born. I mainly used a computer and a small keyboard in all of those recordings. Sometimes included guitar too. My direction with Eyeless in Damascus was to create more experimental sounds and push those very limited resources to their extremely unusual sonic capabilities. Then I tried my luck with more dancey stuff, but eventually found the project slowly going nowhere. Partly because I really enjoy making music with people, rather than solo music. I actually have a lot of unreleased, unfinished material now! So the project is not entirely put to bed. 

There used to be a famous Instagram account @syriabefore2011 that, as the name suggests, featured photos from Syria before it was a warzone. The account was wildly popular, particularly for unifying Syrians who now live all over the world. Why have you shut down the account? Do you have plans for the photos archived from the account?

Yes! I created the archive and was the only person responsible for everything related to the project. As it grew bigger, it started becoming more and more of a burden than something I enjoyed. I was dealing with a lot of hate coming from different people for different reasons. Particularly pro-Assad people. It was mind consuming, because unfortunately, to me, it’s not easy totally ignoring those people. The messages are all there and sometimes you can’t help but read them. It reached the level of cyber-bullying so I decided that my peace of mind is more important. And this is very sad, because at the end of the day all I did was occasionally criticize the government. It’s mind blowing that people take offense to that and start attacking. I couldn’t also stay completely out of politics, because it’s a huge part of Syrian life and history. It’s unethical to “stay out of politics” in these hard times. I wouldn’t say the project is completely gone now. But in the meantime, it’s the best option for me. Regarding my plans and the current situation of the archive, those photos (around 5000 so far) are all preserved and kept! I really wanted to make a photography book out of them, and I’m still dreaming about that. Maybe a crowdfunding campaign was possible when the platform was active, but now I can only see this book becoming a reality when a publishing house comes up with a funding plan.

L : Hama, 1968 by Hans Munk Hansen | R : Damascus, 2009 by Colin McLurg
Taken from the Syria Before 2011 Archive

I have read a few of your past bios that call you a “refugee artist” – is that an identity you can ever shed?

I kind of disagree with that label, but not completely. I’m still, in a way, a displaced person with no permanent home to go back to. But at the same time, I was privileged and lucky enough not to go the same tough route that many Syrians and other people went through. You know, the traditional refugee path and staying in camps, having official refugee status with the UN, etc. So, in the most pure meaning of the word refugee, yes I am, I guess. But in the practical way, not really. So I don’t know what’s the correct term here. But I don’t have a problem with being called a refugee artist at all. 

Your byline on your website identifies you as “A Syrian Creator of Alternative Narratives” – what are those alternative narratives exactly?

I try my best to show another side of the region I come from in my work. That side is there and very present, however it’s not the mainstream narrative. So “alternative narratives” are all those counter narratives that may shake that stereotypical image about the Middle East and North Africa, to both locals and foreigners alike. 

Your art is visually appealing but a lot of the references are probably lost on non-Arabs. Does it matter?

I agree. There are many aspects included in my work that locals, or Arabic speakers to be more accurate, can understand and identify with. Both linguistic and cultural. My work is mainly directed to those people, but it’s also directed to all those genuinely curious about Middle Eastern, North African and Arabic cultures. So I would hope that those strange details in my work would rather act as curiosity-inducing than alienating. I actually take your note as a compliment, confirming that my work is not trying to appeal to everyone, and I like that. 

If there was one piece you’ve made that you think the world needs to see – and understand – which one would it be, and will you explain it to us? 

I believe it’s “Hugging Damascus”. It’s probably my favorite piece for many reasons. First, it’s the one piece out of everything I created that has affected the most people. It touched too many people and that truly means a lot to me. It also embodies my own nostalgia to home and how I feel about it while living in Europe. It’s arguably one of the most personal works I created. The artwork actually all happened by accident. I was staring at a photo of Damascus’ skyline for a long time, thinking about what I should add to it. Then somehow, and after trying many things, I decided “I will just give it a hug” so I did! Later on this piece became my most best selling piece. It helped me financially in tough times. So in a way, it hugged me back. 

The relationship between Lebanon and Syria can be seen as nothing short of complicated. A few weeks after the Beirut blast, you shared an image of protesters, some holding the Lebanese flag, some holding the Syrian independence flag, and then a man holding a sheep in the front. What does this mean?

I absolutely agree that the relationship between Syria and Lebanon is complicated. It became even more complicated and charged in the past decade, after hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled into Lebanon. There is no denying that Syrians have faced a lot of racism in Lebanon, and that contributed to hard feelings from the Syrian side too. When the protests started happening in Beirut after the blast on 4 August, some Syrians chose to see it as an opportunity to spread more hate, as response to the hate many Syrian refugees faced in Lebanon. However, the majority of revolutionary Syrians sided with fellow Lebanese against the Lebanese government. After all, they’re fighting the same fight as we are. My piece represented how I feel about the situation. A crowd of people holding the same values and the same power. The sheep is a symbol of purity, peace, creativity and courage. The man holding it at the forefront is my hope that these are the values we, Syrians and Lebanese, will carry on into the future. 

As a Syrian artist, do you think any of your artwork is apolitical? Can it be?

The thing is, I think the situation in Syria bypassed being solely political and became more of an ethical problem. And in Syria in particular, the political fused with the ethical. So for example you don’t really see Assad or even his supporters mention the millions of refugees in neighboring countries and Europe. They just don’t exist to them, even though that’s purely an ethical, humanitarian issue. Sometimes my work doesn’t directly include political references or figures, however it’s always linked to something human. And I think maybe we can make a case here that, in Syria in particular, it’s become hard to separate human and political. If I was a Norwegian artist for example, I would’ve easily called my art apolitical. It would’ve been easy to separate things. But when it comes to Syria, it’s bizarre to claim something is “apolitical”. It can’t be. Our lives revolved around politics for decades, whether we like it or not. The truth is ugly. 

How does your artwork help you to reconcile the different lives you’ve already lived – and the ones you will live in the future?

I acknowledge the fact that the places I lived in, and all the experiences I faced and the people I knew, all affect my work. And I like that. I think it’s a privilege and an advantage having lived in those different countries. Sometimes those pieces I create act as a love letter from me to the places I miss. Sometimes a desire to go even further. For example, I’ve made many artworks related to Morocco, even though I’ve never been there. 

Art isn’t currently your full time work. Strangely, at a certain point in time, many people give up on their passions if it isn’t the thing that pays the bills. What keeps you creating and sharing your work?

I think it comes down to the fact that I started this whole thing with zero expectations, especially regarding the financial part of it. I do what I do purely out of love and desire for self-expression. It’s kind of the only way I can truly be me. So this never slows down. Sometimes it’s harder to keep producing as much as I used to, now that I have a demanding job and lifestyle, but I will never stop, even if it pays nothing. Of course, maybe it’s easier for me to say this given that my work is almost only digital, but I’m sure many more artists will relate. Also I just want to say that actually my art saved me, financially, many times. And the skills I learned practicing my craft throughout the years have contributed directly to my actual bills-paying jobs. 

Follow Adnan on Instagram, Soundcloud, and shop his art at Society6.

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