REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- One of the more benign-looking paintings on the wall is of a cat against a blurry beige background.
As Syrian forces shell cities across the country in a brutal crackdown on anti-government activists and rebels, the normally bustling streets have been empty of everyone except stray cats, explained Marc Mouarkech, an employee of the Espace Kettaneh Kunigk gallery in Beirut.
"It’s sort of a statement, whether it’s a social statement or a political statement," Mouarkech said. "In their art, they tried to express an opinion that goes against the regime."
The painting is one of about two dozen pieces on display as part of an exhibit in Beirut by Syrian artists inside the country. The pieces were completed in the last year, since anti-government protests began last March.
Like the exhibit itself, titled simply "Artists from Syria Today," some of the pieces veer away from the overtly political, in part because of the safety concerns for the artists, while others seem as if they could have been ripped from news photographs.
The group of 16 artists approached the gallery only a month before the March 15 opening, on the one-year anniversary of the uprising. Over three trips, they transported the works of art over the Lebanese border, some openly and others –- like the more controversial ones -– hidden.
"To document," Fadi Yazigi said simply when asked the purpose behind the exhibit. Yazigi, the main artist who organized the exhibit, spoke by phone from Damascus, the Syrian capital, and said he had to choose his words carefully.
A similar exhibit opened in Cairo, and there is talk of putting on shows in other Arab cities, including Amman, the Jordanian capital, he said.
Painting was a way of dealing with what was going on, he said.
"We were inspired by the situation," he said. But it has been harder for him to paint now, each piece taking longer to finish, because of the importance of the message he is trying to convey.
"There’s a lot of pain and a lot of fear," he said. "There is more effort because there is more of a responsibility [with the art] now."
-- Times staff
Photo: "Dungeons," by Jaber Al Azmeh, is one of the works on display at the Beirut gallery. Credit: Espace Kettaneh Kunigk