On a recent weekday afternoon, Syrian artist Tammam Azzam was walking around San Francisco’s Haines Gallery and showing a visitor all his new artworks — the ones with collaged pieces of torn paper that resemble multiple sizes of confetti. Confetti is an inherently happy medium and Azzam was in a good mood at Haines, even laughing on occasion. But Azzam’s exhibit, called “Forgotten Cities,” is no party. On one level, it’s an artistic exhumation — an exhumation of Azzam’s memories of Syrian cities that he used to walk in, and an exhumation of Syria’s recent past and current state, where once-proud streets have been reduced to rubble, shells of buildings, or a tortured reality that is still hard to fathom.
But here’s the thing: Azzam’s paintings are strikingly beautiful. Each one is untitled, with no mention of Syria. So when visitors walk into Haines Gallery and see the arresting colors, sizes, and shapes — and their scope (the largest piece is billboard-sized) — they may see them as abstracted landscapes or mirage-like vistas of ancient metropolises. That interpretation would be a logical one, since Syria’s history goes back millennia — back to a time before the region’s people developed the world’s first known alphabet, and before Greek leaders used the name “Syria” for the region. With “Forgotten Cities,” modern Syria is a kind of elephant in the room — looming and lurking behind each artwork without being named explicitly. That way, visitors can see in Azzam’s art what they want to see. Azzam does almost the same thing.
“I’m talking now about the bigger meaning of cities; it’s not just cities in Syria,” Azzam tells SF Weekly about the exhibit’s title. “This destruction is everywhere in the world now, and Syria is just part of the suffering.”
Stopping before one piece that seems to have a purplish skyline and green and bluish buildings, Azzam says, “For me it was a sky, but then it’s changed to something different. I don’t know what it is but I went for it [in my art]. It’s a mix between sky and wall and the mountains. Maybe it’s not a landscape at all. But for me it is.”
This ambiguity and shape-shifting is aided by the material that Azzam used for these new artworks. The torn and shredded papers give you a visceral sense of fragments — fragmented buildings, fragmented streets, fragmented lives. To riff on the philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s famous declaration, the medium is also the message in “Forgotten Cities.” Azzam, who fled Syria in 2011 when Syria’s civil war started, lived in Dubai before moving to Germany three years ago. That’s when he began his collaged canvases.
“I felt this shredded paper expressed something,” he says. “The shredded paper can say something themselves — it’s an expression of broken things.”
But the vibrancy of the colors, especially the reds, express joy. And that’s another allure of “Forgotten Cities”: The counter-intuitive expression of life in scenes that echo with struggle.
“I prepared the colors on the papers and used it as a palette, so it’s like a trial to build something already destroyed but to flip the inside colors outside — to talk about the story behind the front damage we are looking for everywhere.”
The Syrian cities that underlay the artwork in “Forgotten Cities” are in Syria’s northwest, where years of fierce fighting in Syria’s civil war has made life there untenable or dispiriting. The cities can’t even be considered “cities” in their past, practical sense since these cities, Azzam says, have lost their foundational purpose.
“When I started to work,” Azzam says, “this is the first thing to come to mind: How the cities I walked through and lived there — they don’t exist anymore. It’s forgotten. Even if you rebuild, it’s not the same place, and not the same atmosphere. It’s not the same light. It’s something totally different. It’s not nostalgia. It’s like how to keep some fragment of your memory, because it’s not going to exist anymore.”
If the artwork in “Forgotten Cities” is Azzam’s way of wrestling with his memories, and retrieving moments or feelings that he wants to share with art-goers, the retrieving can be brutal. Azzam’s parents still live in Syria, in the country’s south, and he has good friends who’ve remained in the country. Azzam, who’s 39, lives in Berlin with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. He worked on the canvases at Haines for two years. Some days, he spent 14 hours straight on them. Before Azzam posed and smiled in front of the exhibit’s biggest artwork, he told SF Weekly that his own art can give him fits.
“To be honest,” he says, “sometimes I would like not to see [my art]. It’s too much after two years of working on the series. At some point, I feel like I don’t want to see more.”
But Azzam can’t stop looking. And he can’t stop making art. It’s what keeps him going. He works to stay in the moment. But he works so he won’t forget the past. His past. And Syria’s past. That’s what’s on display at Haines Gallery, whether art-goers realize that or not.
“Tammam Azzam: Forgotten Cities” Through Nov. 2 at Haines Gallery, 49 Geary, Free; 415-397-8114, hainesgallery.com.