Raneem Zarzar was only 16 when her three brothers and one sister left Syria and made their way to Europe as refugees. Her parents tried to persuade her to join her brothers, who eventually settled in Germany and the Netherlands, but she refused. She wanted to stay in Damascus and become an artist there. Today, at 19 years old, she is a newly admitted student in the school of fine arts at Damascus University.
With the nation torn by civil war over the past six years—half the population has lost their homes and some 400,000 people have been killed—Syrian universities have struggled to find ways of continuing classes amid the turmoil. The fine-arts school has coped with that challenge too, and the war has left its fingerprints on the 57-year-old institution, which is the oldest such school in the country and has graduated many famous Arab artists.
“We had many ears of corn to draw for the entrance exam,” said Zarzar, who is one of 257 newly admitted students. “I tried to draw all of them and I ran out of time, but I did well enough to pass.”
The school doesn’t require high grades for admission but has two entrance exams to select each new class of students, out of thousands of applicants.
Lama Alqarra, a fourth-year student at the school, said she was “flying with happiness” when she was admitted in 2013. “Today,” she said, “we have 30 students who will be graduating from the sculpture department this year—30! This is a massive number.”
But growth in student numbers has presented problems, too. Alqarra was one of 490 students in her entering class.
“Professors don’t have enough time to look at all students’ work,” she said. A student’s work of art “is not an exam paper that they could grade in few minutes. Each work needs discussion and conversation,” Alqarra said.
Fouad Dahdouh, a professor at the school, said having more students doesn’t mean more outstanding graduates. “Out of each class every year, only two or three students would have outstanding talent that we could predict a great artistic future for,” said Dahdouh, a sculptor. “The rest would end up either teaching art in schools, or switching to different non-artistic jobs.”
The problems that came with rising student numbers were intensified by a shrinking of the teaching staff. Out of 12 professors in the sculpture department before the war, only five remain. Some professors left the country. Others retired, were injured or were even kidnapped.
But with traditional classes and strict professors, space for discussion or free ideas is limited anyway. Most professors want students to do art in a certain way. Alqarra said her graduation had to be deferred until next year because half of the time she had dedicated to working on her final graduation project had to be spent persuading her professors to accept it.
“They would say, ‘This is not accepted socially, or religiously,’” she said noting that the school is becoming more conservative, with more religious students pressing for more conservative art instruction.
The trend toward a more conservative line started before the war but became more direct in the past few years, Dahdouh said. “In 1984, when I was a student, we had live nude models to sketch and it was ordinary,” he said. “But today it’s not allowed in the school. It’s a general situation in many Arab countries.”
The school dates from 1960, when the Higher Institute for Fine Arts was established in Damascus as a part of the education ministry. It depended at first on Egyptian and foreign professors but gradually built its local staff.
The history of the school is reflected in its curriculum, which is considered outdated, especially in covering Post-Contemporary art. Attempts to update the curriculum often run into bureaucratic challenges.
“We tried a lot,” said Dahdouh. “We made new study plans, but the correspondence to agree on them takes years, so when a new plan is agreed on, it’s already outdated.”
To overcome the limited financial resources of the public school and to create a gallery for younger talent, the National Center for Visual Arts was opened in 2015 next to the fine-arts school. The center is directed by Ghaith Al-Akhras, one of Syria’s modern-art pioneers, providing artists with work space, materials and an exhibition area to show and sell their work.
But the center’s profit orientation is a concern for some. It holds “a monopoly on the students’ artwork,” Alqarra said. “The center sells what they want and students mostly don’t have a say in it.”
Among current students’ work, a sense of the war’s continuing toll is present, though more in the background than as a direct subject.
“You can see the war in the thin and sad faces the students draw or sculpt, the dark environments they illustrate,” Dahdouh. said. “But we need more time after the crisis for the artists to absorb it and reflect it in their work.”
The war has made it more difficult for Syrian art to reach international markets, such as galleries in the Gulf countries. Locally, the commercial art galleries that have stayed open during the war are still partially available for young artists.
“There is a monopoly by some big artists on the galleries and it’s very difficult to get in, but there are some galleries which are giving opportunities to young artists to show their work” said Alqarra.
Zarzar is not yet thinking about where to sell her art. The rising cost of materials and her hour-and-a-half commute to the university are her biggest concerns now. They’re also the reasons why she partly regrets not following her brothers to Europe and ultimately plans to leave. “I want to be in the art school’s environment for a year or two more and then I can leave,” she said.