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In Paintings, Syrian Artist Shows the Pain War Has Caused His Country

Essa Neima poses for a photo in his art studio in Washington. The Syrian artist said he got the idea to showcase his country's struggles after extremists killed a Jesuit priest friend there. (photo: CNS/Tyler Orsburn) 

06 May 2015 – By James Martone

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The sad realities of Syria’s civil war permeate the paintings of Essa Neima, a 34-year-old Syrian national.

At a recent exhibit, his oil on acrylic works ranged from depictions of damaged church and mosque mosaics, to a broken icon of Mary and a refugee woman forced into servitude by the need to survive.

Most of the paintings were strewn with the deep red color of blood.

“It is like treasure … covered by blood because [of] what’s happening now, the sad events happening in Syria,” Neima told Catholic News Service in Washington, thousands of miles from his country, where conflict has killed nearly 200,000 people and dispersed about 10 million others, according to U.N. estimates.

Neima said the exhibit began with a dream he had in 2014, soon after learning that his friend, Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, 75, had been killed by extremists in Syria. The dream was filled with writing and a human eye, which Neima interpreted as signs he should inform people outside Syria of the toll that the war was taking on his country’s ethnically and culturally diverse communities.

“After I lost my friend, Frans van der Lugt, I had the dream that there [are] quotes and patterns and a lot of drawing on a cave wall, and what I remember exactly [is] the wise, sad eye that was looking at me like blame, as if I should share this message,” he said.

This led to “Syrian Iconoclasm,” the first of the exhibit’s 12 paintings, which Neima described as “the heart” of his spring show, titled “Touch Me Not,” at Washington’s Presbyterian Church of the Pilgrims.

He said he took the exhibit’s title from John 20:17, where a risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and stops her when she reaches toward him.

“He wanted her to respect his new situation. In my art show I want to represent all the disrespected people and the art damaged by the violence and say ‘Touch me not,’“ said Neima, who was raised Catholic and whose first name — Essa — is Arabic for “Jesus.”

“Syrian Iconoclasm” depicts at its center a human eye, surrounded by patterns found in Syria’s ancient mosques and churches. An icon of Mary sits in the lower right corner, damaged and surrounded by blood.

“I tried to show the history of Syria, what patterns you see in mosques and churches and cathedrals and even in the old ruins and old historical places … and the fear of losing it,” Neima said.

Another painting, “Forced Freedom,” shows a wide-eyed, heavily made-up woman, with bare shoulders and long flowing red hair, in reference to what Neima lamented were Syrian mothers, daughters and wives fleeing the war and sometimes forced into situations over which they had no control.

“They are forced to leave the country … and to go to Jordan or Lebanon, and they had to work in certain kind of jobs, or maybe get married” to men they did not choose, he said.

A bluish painting stood out among the rest of the exhibit’s mostly red. In it, a kneeling figure asks for the forgiveness Neima said was imperative to ending the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year.

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Tags: Syria Violence against Christians War Art