Jeanne Damas likes to remind us: Rouje is about women. Paths intertwined, inspiring encounters, ideas that linger. Throughout these portraits, she gives a voice to some feminine figures whose stories resonate with her. Today, she met with Sara Kontar, a Syrian artist and photographer based in Paris. Spotlight on Sara’s work, her need to create after the exile and her collective Eyes From Syria.
Hello Sara! I noticed a photograph of you and your brother Ahmad at the Hyères festival. I recognized Ahmad that I had seen at a few fashion shows, before being intrigued by your work. When I discovered your work, I learned that you had to leave Syria because of the war and arrived in France in 2016. Were you born there?
No, I grew up in Syria but my father used to work in Libya so I was born there. I have no recollection of Libya as I lived in Syria from 5 to 19. It was an amazing country until 2011. Not everything was perfect but the land, the people, the lifestyle: it was all beautiful, loving and warm. I loved my childhood there, I feel very grateful that I grew up in a small town surrounded by nature, with an architect father and a psychologist mother.
Were you taking pictures then?
Not yet. I’ve always been in love with photography but only got a camera later on. Maybe we couldn’t afford it or it wasn’t really a thing in my family. When I turned 10, I met a friend of my aunt who had a tiny camera with pink flowers that obviously captivated me. It stayed with me: I was attracted to the object, to the art.
We grew up in an era without smartphones, where the camera wasn’t as much part of our daily lives.
Exactly! I started taking pictures when I arrived in Paris. I was in art school and a student there was selling her camera, a Nikon fm2.
When you got into art school (the Arts Décoratifs), I’m guessing you were already doing art?
Yes, I took up drawing in Syria and loved it. I took a few classes in cultural centers, I wanted to study art. But over there, you grow up with the idea that to make a living, you need to be a doctor, an architect or an engineer. A “real” career because the art world wasn’t really part of the landscape. I studied architecture but wasn’t into it as much.
Yes, I’m more drawn to the image form than volumes - I love telling stories, meeting people. This art form is interesting but not necessary for me. Then my mom was the first to move to France, after my first year studying architecture. Before the war, they used to do exchange programs for psychologists between France and Syria. She had the opportunity to leave with two other women and decided to stay. She also wanted to leave my father. We eventually fled Syria 6 months later.
How did you make it to France?
It was difficult to leave. The process to obtain a visa is tricky. We were in Damascus, I was separated from my twin Ahmad for the first time. We are very close - we came to life together, started studying together and fled Syria together. He was by my side during all of my life’s defining moments. I’m so lucky to have him in my life because I’ve never felt alone. So when the war started we were used to the bombing. What was scary was being a student without knowing what we would do with our diploma. No dreams, no future. We were at the end of 2015, my mother was already in France and we learned that the borders between Turkey and Syria would soon close. The situation was extremely volatile so we didn’t have another option but to flee - staying would have been more dangerous. I called Ahmad, and we left for Turkey one week before the closure. Then we didn’t know what to do so we contacted smugglers and it took us a few weeks to get into Greece then Athens and finally Paris. We were taken under the care of the Red Cross, the army and the police of the different countries we crossed but they were not always welcoming. It was incredible to finally be reunited with our mother.
Did the life you made for yourself here matched what you had in mind?
Not at all, I obviously had a lot of clichés in mind (laughs). A mix between Hollywood movies and a fantasized vision of France. I love what I was able to find here but it’s different!
Did you move in with your mother once you were finally together?
Yes, the reunion was amazing. I didn’t know anybody in Paris so I met up with a few Syrian friends and then got involved with associations. It was important for me to be able to meet with people who had lived through the same things and to learn French quickly. It was a game with Ahmad to see who would speak fluently first. When one learned one song by heart, the other one had to learn three.
So who won?
It depends, he’s super good at using expressions. All of us are actually quite good. We were able to obtain refugee status in France fairly easily and I was able to study French at the Sorbonne. Then I discovered that there was a special art school program for refugees. I passed the exam and the following year I was studying at the Arts Déco after presenting a project with iPhone photos and pencil drawings. I felt out of step with the other students, I had so much to learn! I bought a camera and took advantage of the school’s photo lab to develop my films and prints. I haven’t been able to stop since.
Has your work been featured in shows?
I’ve done group exhibitions, have shown my work through associations and collaborations between museums and my school. Last May, during the last lockdown, I organized a project with a friend. The mood was cautious yet festive, we invited our friends & family, had musicians play, collaborated with artists. I’d love to keep doing this, to organize lively events, to get things moving.
You mentioned the lack of perspectives in Syria. Is it something you no longer feel since moving here?
Of course - what brings me hope is also the other Syrians I met here in France. They’re full of love, motivation, drive. They join forces to organize festivals like “Syrien n’est fait”, conferences, and concerts. They’re giving me strength!
Do you feel like your life story inspires your work or that the two are linked?
Yes absolutely, my art is what allows me to live, and to keep going after what I’ve been through. It’s a relief. My work is dark even though my personality isn’t - I think photography allows me to move forward. Art can express what psychoanalysis hasn’t been able to let out. When you put a piece of yourself in the artwork, it’s important to share it. But it’s also hard to put it into words!
I find your series Bodies on a rock super powerful, what does it mean for you?
It resonates with two other series: Inaccessible homes and Erased faces. It conveys different feelings around identity, its challenges, as well as exile. It’s a very personal work around self obliteration and the blurred lines that ensue. It’s also about anchoring, getting back to one’s land, home. So it’s obviously linked to my story, the process of starting over, learning a new language and culture, without any points of reference. In retrospect, what I’ve been through is part of my identity but I don’t see myself like a victim. Paris changed me, I’m more free and less shy. This city doesn’t welcome you with open arms, you need to go knock on the doors yourself in order to open them.
I get what you mean. You also started a collective: Eyes from Syria ?
Yes, since last year. I started to put my work out there, to introduce me as a photographer. I’ve met some Syrian photographers. Over there, this art form isn’t taken as seriously as here so I wanted to build a platform that would incite people everywhere to explore photography. I met a girl who takes incredible pictures with an old phone. Without the collective, her work would have stayed hidden, and now her talent is getting recognized. I also wanted to gather these everyday Syrian pictures into an archive.
I imagine it was very frustrating for you to not have had a camera then?
You can’t imagine, I think about it every day. One day, I’d like to go back, I have so many projects. For now, it’s not possible but it gives me hope. And until then, I’ll share my art with people that are over there. I’d also love to work on a book that would combine pictures and texts, on exhibitions - to leave a mark…
Visit Sara’s Instagram account @_.sarako._
Photos by Jeanne Damas
Video by Nicole Lily Rose