Syria as seen on YouTube: Leuven, Belgium painter Dirk Eelen paints shocking YouTube images
Columns of smoke and heavy bomb impacts. A Syrian father with his child dying in his arms. Bloodshed. A boy whose jaw has been ripped off by gunfire. Horrifying and raw visual testimonies. Filmed with mobile phones from rooftops and squares. Every day, countless new video footage appears on YouTube depicting the violence in Syria. Only these YouTube videos give an impression of the situation, that is often to gruesome to face up to. Civilians make up the large majority of victims of the conflict now raging on for almost two years. According to the UN about 60,000 people lost their lives since the violence broke out in March 2011. This poignant footage reached, and intrigued, Leuven painter Dirk Eelen too; he used stills from the clips to create a series of oil paintings: Syria as seen on YouTube.
Dirk Eelen has been following the Arab Revolution closely, but he himself was primarily interested in Syria. “From the start, I was wondering what would happen in Syria. I stayed there for a month during a tour of the Middle East about ten years ago, and I feel it is the most hospitable and friendly country I have ever visited.” Then already, the painter experienced Assad’s strict regime. “We weren’t supposed to discuss politics at all. The regime’s oppression was almost palpable.”
The painter found little of interest in the western media, which is why he was confronted with the Syrian reality in different ways, like on YouTube. “What struck me most was the fact that the footage was shot by the people living there. Very basic images, shot with phones.” Social media have been the most powerful medium for the populace to show what was going on. Using a channel like YouTube as a source of inspiration is somewhat strange. “Through the clips one could almost follow the revolution as it happened. Even if the images were of poor quality and one couldn’t really make out what was happening. But what you felt was all the more poignant.” That feeling is what the painter conveyed in his pictures. With little detail and dark coloured surfaces he elicits feelings of frustration, powerlessness and sorrow with the viewer. The same feelings that linger on after watching those videos.
Lingering on. That’s just on of the aims of his series of paintings. A YouTube video is an volatile medium, and what Eelen gets at, is for people to pause and reflect on these images. “Every other minute a new video is posted, and they are viewed less and less. I hope that through my paintings, people will give more attention to the videos.”
Another thing Eelen finds incomprehensible, is how the non-violent revolution derailed and drifted towards the conflict we are now witnessing. This evolution is reflected in his works too. One of the first scenes of the series he painted is a town square meeting with people cheering, brimming with hope. Then follows a number of works depicting the atrocities in a remarkably literal way, like the body of a slain boy and the despair in the eyes of a little girl. “In the beginning, everybody was apathetic about Syria and if the world had tried harder 18 months ago, I don’t think things would have come to this.”
Dirk Eelen was born in Leuven, Belgium in 1974. After majoring in archaeology at KU Leuven University he followed his passion for painting and followed a course in painting and ‘Graphics and Strip Cartoons’ at Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design. Since 2004 he is a full-time painter.
Syria ‘As seen on YouTube’, February 7 to 10, 2013 in The Egg, Brussels, Belgium.
The exhibition was opened in the presence of Belgian television veteran journalist Rudi Vranckx and EU commissioner Karel De Gucht, who lectured on the conflict in Syria, and the role of Europe. Half of the proceeds of paintings’sales are donated to the Red Cross.
Images: © Dirk Eelen
Translated by Mark Eijkman
This post is also available in: Dutch