A Syrian Artist Is Painting World Leaders As Refugees For An Important Reason
“Those leaders who are partly responsible for the displacement of Syrians, maybe they will feel what it is to be vulnerable.”
Abdalla Al Omari, a Syrian painter, filmmaker, and performance artist, is painting world leaders as refugees in an effort to humanize the ongoing refugee crisis in his home country while also casting powerful leaders in a vulnerable light.
The Vulnerability Series, which was on display at Ayyam Gallery Dubai in 2017, includes paintings of world leaders such as President Donald Trump, former President Barack Obama, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is shown looking tired and dejected as he begs for money on the street.
Al Omari, who left Syria after the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, was granted asylum in Belgium. He currently lives in Brussels, and began work on The Vulnerability Series about two and a half years ago.
He sees the paintings as a twist on more traditional propaganda art, explaining he wanted “to show a totally alternative side of the popular leaders” and “bring them very far from how classic propaganda would imagine them.”
“So I see them poor, I see them vulnerable,” he continues. “[This] actually shares the very same definition of propaganda, which is presenting selective facts to encourage a particular narrative, which might not be true.”
The original impetus to create The Vulnerability Series came from frustration Al Omari felt as a refugee, but it soon morphed into something deeper and even more profound. “As an artist I’ve always been intrigued by the romantic idea of vulnerability and the impact it can generate,” he says. “While depicting my subjects and developing the series, I eventually arrived to the paradoxical nature of empathy, and somehow my aim shifted from an expression of anger I had, that I thought was the trigger, to a more vivid desire to disarm my figures and to picture them outside of their positions of power.”
As we can see from Al Omari’s paintings, the figures depicted are anything but powerful. In one image, for example, President Trump is shown with a child in his arms as he carries all of his belongings, including a family photograph, in his hands and on his back.
“I wanted to take away their power, not to serve me and my pain, but to give them back their humanity and to give the audience an insight into what the power of vulnerability can achieve,” Al Omari explains of casting these powerful figures in a different light. “It was basically a personal desire at the beginning to imagine how would those supposedly great personalities look like if they were in the shoes of refugees.”
Though each world leader is traditionally seen as powerful in his or her own right, Omari wanted to turn that notion on its head. “I wanted to see them as a disarmed mass, not as a strong individual as we see them,” he says. “I wanted to discover how much greatness or divinity they would still demonstrate, or if they would at all have any greatness left.”
And even though The Vulnerability Series includes a few paintings with multiple figures — including one depicting former President Barack Obama, former British Prime Minister David Cameron, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others waiting in a refugee line — crafting paintings with solitary people was of particular importance to Al Omari because of the “lack of personalizing” refugee stories in the media.
“If you would tell the story individually, you would connect to those people on a personal, basic level,” he explains.
As for the choice of world leaders? “I found myself obliged emotionally and consciously to get involved and to deliver a message to those leaders,” Al Omari says. “Those leaders who are partly responsible for the displacement of Syrians and anyone else around the world, maybe they will feel what it is to be vulnerable when they see it in the mirror, when they see it in themselves.”