Ettijahat-Independent Culture is a Syrian cultural organization that supports artists and undertakers of cultural initiatives, helping Syrian communities have access to culture and arts. While Ettijahat-Independent Culture aims to improve the general environment for cultural practice in Syria, it also seeks to integrate creative and cultural work with social change amongst the most marginalized groups of people most affected by the political developments.
Ettijahat-Independent Culture first arose in 2011, when its founders noticed a disconnection between the national cultural sector and the wider society. Creative control and cultural authority resided with the government, and few frameworks addressed this lack of independent culture. Since the beginning of 2011, the reality of cultural policy-making, research, and production changed further. Lasting until today, the conflict in Syria impairs the operation of cultural institutions. Works of art and sites of cultural heritage have been destroyed. The life and work of artists and cultural researchers have been impeded.
Operating from Lebanon, Ettijahat-Independent Culture responds by providing an intellectual haven for Syrians who require a vital platform in order to engage in the political and cultural transformation of Syria. The name اتجاهات (Ettijahat), which in Arabic means “directions”, reflects its mission to foster visions of the future of Syria.
Since its founding Ettijahat-Independent Culture established a wide range of programs to connect independent artists, cultural undertakers, and researchers. Today, Ettijahat-Independent Culture supports their professional practice with training, funding, publication, exhibition opportunities, and awards. To accomplish its mission, Ettijahat has designed and leads programmes to focus on different areas of cultural practices:
Research to Strengthen the Culture of Knowledge: Since 2013, about ten to fifteen emerging cultural researchers gather annually for a six-month period of capacity-building under the supervision of experienced scholars. They analyze changes in artistic practices linked to the drastic upheaval in Syria, and reflect on pressing issues concerning the country’s current situation. Beyond providing the guidance of experts, Ettijahat-Independent Culture funds the research process and materials and facilitates the papers' publication. In 2016, it established the Sadiq Jalal al-Azm Memorial Award to honour outstanding cultural research.
Laboratory of Arts: In 2014, Ettijahat-Independent Culture, in collaboration with Goethe Institut, launched the LoA, which provides Syrian artists and cultural organizations of all artistic disciplines with assistance to generate a major project. Every year, the LoA offers fifteen grants of up to $10,000 in order to safeguard artistic freedom and independence.
Create Syria: In 2016, Ettijahat-Independent Culture and the British Council partnered for the initiative Create Syria, intended to strengthen the expertise of exiled Syrian artists in order to facilitate recovery and resilience among displaced and local communities. Selected artists and groups are trained in art project design in times of crisis and develop artistic interventions to community contexts. Participants are provided with funding, networking, and showcasing opportunities.
Amaken: Ettijahat-Independent Culture’s most recent initiative provides multi-functional workspaces such as Fabrika, Sunflower Cultural Space and Studio Koon and equips artists with technical support. Amaken enables its participants to develop and exhibit individual projects.
Cultural Priorities in Syria: Syrian political actors do not prioritize cultural work in the ongoing state of emergency. Therefore, Ettijahat-Independent Culture gathers artists, researchers, and activists to rethink the political and cultural role of art. It encourages cultural professionals to actively engage in the monitoring and making of policies, while at the same time advocates for artistic independence from appropriation through political groups.
Despite the huge diversity of artists and researchers who reach out to Ettijahat-Independent Culture, most of them share the experience of displacement. Ettijahat-Independent Culture diminishes the potential of isolation by connecting exiled individuals with both the Syrian and Lebanese communities. Art practice becomes the channel for this exchange to take place, as in the example of Syrian theatremaker Eyad Houssami. Together with his ensemble, he engaged with the Lebanese society by presenting interactive shows which addressed the lack of public speech in Lebanon: “Our role as practitioners in theatre and on the cultural scene is to build up platforms allowing diverse target groups to meet.”
Ettijahat - Independent Culture does not only facilitate local engagement, but it also enables its community to benefit from a global network of partners. Many of the hundreds of artists who have so far participated in Ettijahat’s programs went on to present their work on international platforms and festivals. Visual artist Hiba al Ansari, a LoA participant, brought a lost school book from ruins in Kafr Nabl, Syria to Munich, Germany to be the core of her installation Math Book. “I took it, as if I was stealing this place’s memories,” she said. Al Ansari also exhibited her work in the Syrian Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia.
Executive Director Abdullah Al Kafri intends for Ettijahat-Independent Culture to “develop new artists and grow as an organization with them.” The drive behind the multitude of programs is not only to reflect on the past, but also to create visions for the future of Syria and to practice what Ettijahat-Independent Culture regards as viable for a vital and open society. Independent cultural production is subversive and innovative, yet it is especially vulnerable because it lacks the shelter of an institutional roof. Ettijahat-Independent Culture and its partners safeguard independent cultural actors while honoring their artistic and intellectual freedom. The LoA participant and Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press winner Orwa Al Mokdad describes Ettijahat-Independent Culture as a “space for freedom that allows us to create what we believe in.”
By Lena Schubert, October 2018. Lena is a Cultural Studies major and Art History minor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and studies abroad with the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program in New York City. In Berlin, she organized an exhibition with works about and by exiled Syrians. She hopes to continue bridging art and politics after graduation.