In the lounge of The Markaz at Stanford University, a man bows his head and holds his arms over his chest in a gesture of both sorrow and resilience as a white dove spreads its wings above his head. The background to the mixed-media work by acclaimed Syrian artist Khaled Akil looks like a night sky clouded with smoke — blackness splotched with patches of light.
The piece is one of six from Akil’s series Requiem for Syria, currently on view at Stanford, which offers a heartbreaking yet hopeful image of Syrian struggle. The organizers of the exhibition, Stanford’s Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies, would likely agree that the images deserve a grander venue than the student resource center where they’re casually hung above couches. But there is also something radical about their commonplace installation —accessibly inserted into the daily lives of students and the landscape of one of the country’s most prestigious universities. After all, when the solo show opened on January 31, Akil himself could not be in attendance. The Aleppo-born artist currently based in Istanbul would have been banned by President Trump’s executive order barring all Syrians from entering the country.
Akil was born into a family of progressive cultural figures. His grandfather, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, was a celebrated author and his father, Youssef Akil, a prominent painter. According to Al Jazeera, Akil left his home of Aleppo for Turkey in 2012 to present an exhibition of his work. By the end of his visit, war had rendered the city too dangerous for Akil to return. He has continued in Turkey creating artwork with astute and unexpected takes on the political crises in the Middle East ever since.
While Requiem for Syria is affecting in its lyrical symbolism, Akil’s 2016 Pokemon Go in Syria series relies on jarring juxtaposition to convey the reality of living in Aleppo today. In one image, a young boy walks his bike down a road lined with crumbled buildings as a blue “Vaporeon” Pokemon sits beside him — a reference to Nintendo’s hugely popular augmented reality game that places its mythical creatures into players’ everyday surroundings.
Akil used similar techniques in his Hate Loves Hate series, also from 2016, to draw correlation between the political climates in Syria and the United States. In “Hate Marches to the Beat of the Same Drummer,” ISIS soldiers wield weapons and fly Trump flags overhead.
Since living in Turkey, Akil has twice applied for a visa to attend his art shows in the United States. He was was denied both times. Earlier this year, he told Al Jazeera that he refuses to apply again as long as Trump is in the White House.
Still, Akil’s exhibition at Stanford proves that artwork can’t be confined by borders. As Akil posted on Facebook when announcing the show: “Yes, Trump has banned the entry of Syrians into the U.S., but art flies with no visa.”
‘Requiem for Syria’ is on view at The Markaz: Resource Center at Stanford University throughout the month of February.