Bissane Al Charif (Paris, 1977).
Bissane al Charif, a Syrian-Palestinian artist now based in Paris, operates in the immediacy of life as a recent exile. Al Charif studied scenography in Nantes, France before returning to Syria to work. She accompanied her parents to Paris in December 2012 for a medical operation. Afterwards, going back just didn’t seem like an option - life in Damascus was no longer liveable. Which isn’t to say that living elsewhere was easy.
Missing Sky, Bila Sama, Sans Ciel, 2014. Video on stop motion, 2:27, by Mohamad Omran & Bissane Al Charif
This video is a dialogue between the place and its appearance, between the city and its memory, between the devastation and its reproduction on the screen. A dialogue between the documentation of places and their restructuring in our imagination. It is also a dialogue between two artists with different backgrounds: a scenographer and a sculptor.
Love Stories in hot countries, Asmahan, 2016. Video, 4:30.
This video was made as part of the art installation I Once Entered a Garden (Asmahan’s famous song), by Bissane Al Charif & Chrystèle Khodr.
"You were born on water and in water you will perish". A prediction made to a teenage girl who was born Amal (Hope) on the Mediterranean and died Asmahan in the Nile. Her story is the story of her time and her region, our region. It is through this history that we try to re-appropriate a body that we knew well, that of our adolescence, the one that carried our loves.
Mémoires de Femmes, 2015. Installation and multimedia work.
The Guardian, 28.09.2015. ’ Bissane al Charif’s exploration of the memories of Syrian refugees to highlight the human dimension of the refugee crisis. “Leaving your life behind isn’t simple,” she says. “Dropping everything, accepting you have to start again someplace new. There are so many questions.” An exhibition at the British Council in 2015 showcased the beginning of her multimedia work Mémoires de Femmes.
While Al Charif’s departure was altogether less traumatic than that of so many Syrian refugees – she left by plane, when there still was an airport – she felt that they would have held similar concerns. So she interviewed a diverse group of eight women who had fled, asking them the same questions. What is the home you left like? How did you leave? What did you take with you? Where do you imagine your home will be in 10 years’ time?
Because Al Charif chose detail over drama, the documentary results are mesmerising in their mundanity. The women describe beloved homes in such detail that you are right there with them; they relate arduous, extended journeys; and they list the random things they found in their handbags. One woman spoke of a tube of hand cream she received from her sister as a present. “I don’t use it any more,” she told Al Charif, “I just open it to smell it and remember her.” This resonates with the artist. “I didn’t think I was leaving, so I only came with a small suitcase,” she says. “Still now, I miss my true belongings. I have very little from before. My mother came when I had my daughter, a few months ago, and brought me a few items of clothing, but I don’t have much.”
Al Charif paired her audio recordings of the women answering her questions with images of nondescript interiors or exterior shots filmed from car windows and the top floors of buildings. She isn’t attempting a portrait of Syria. She’s simply letting eight women speak. Their words are subtitled in French and English, but there’s no further explanation. “I just wanted to put these women there, one after the other. We all left. This is what we’ve lived through when we did.”
And that is precisely what gives this work its edge. It anchors something fleeting. As Al Charif points out, this departure might be a huge moment, but starting over in a foreign country and a language you don’t speak means that it is quickly forgotten. Also, remembering is exhausting. Al Charif wonders constantly if she shouldn’t make work about something else. Or if she should have gone back to Syria and stayed. Or if she ever will go back. Maybe not. “I don’t know yet what I feel. I’m still in transit. I’ve not completely accepted my departure, but at the same time I know that I have left.”
Works in Public Collections:
Museum, Institut du monde arabe, Paris. Donation Claude & France Lemand 2020.