Graduate Student Reflection: Jenna Antonucci

The Pozen Family Center for Human Rights supports doctoral student research that makes a significant contribution to the study and field of human rights. The grants may be used during a fifteen month period and awardees are asked to submit a report or reflection upon completion.

By Jenna Antonucci, Anthropology
2017 Pozen Research Grant for PhD Students Awardee

During the early stages in the Syrian revolution, Lebanon saw a surge in interest in art produced by Syrians who were leaving their home country to settle in urban centers such as Beirut. Syrian artists found a market eager to exhibit and sell their work to local and international buyers; in doing so, they altered the image many Lebanese held about Syrians as either day laborers or as military occupiers. As one of the women I interviewed during the month and a half I spent in Beirut explained, she would often find Lebanese people surprised that a Syrian could produce such progressive work. They would tell her “you don’t look like [you are Syrian],” drawing on entrenched stereotypes of Syrians formed over decades of Syrian intervention into Lebanon’s civil conflicts. 

"The Lebanese government has not made it easy for Syrian migrants, preventing many from working legally and requiring rigorous paperwork in order to obtain temporary residence permits."

This period of curiosity over the shifting identity of Syrians waned as the war progressed and more Syrians entered Lebanon seeking refugee status. Further, during this time many of the more famous Syrian artists moved to Europe, where some continue to garner attention for exploring the “human side” of the conflict. In Lebanon, the remaining Syrian artists struggle to produce work in a climate increasingly hostile to the presence of Syrian refugees. For this reason, many artists hope to move to Europe, drawing on human rights law to bolster their cases for resettlement. Nearly all of the artists I spoke with told me they did not want to stay in Lebanon long term. Some were making efforts to move to Europe; others wanted to stay close to Syria where friends and family still reside. Indeed, the Lebanese government has not made it easy for Syrian migrants, preventing many from working legally and requiring rigorous paperwork in order to obtain temporary residence permits.

The grant that I received from the Pozen Center made it possible for me to piece together the story of Syrian art in Lebanon, thus shining light on what happens when revolutionary energy is refracted through the prism of humanitarian regimes. I spent a month and a half during January and June 2018 in Beirut interviewing primarily visual and theater artists. I was fascinated by the vital creativity exhibited by the artists I met. I discovered cafes and theaters where Syrian artists gathered to seek community and collaborations on exhibitions, films, theater projects and more. 

The Pozen Center enabled me to consider the situation of Syrian artists in Lebanon as a window through which to understand what happened when the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring in Syria became a humanitarian crisis felt especially acutely by neighboring countries such as Lebanon. My future research will consider how Syrian artists negotiate structures of human rights and humanitarianism in both Lebanon and Europe while simultaneously striving to produce art that, to varying degrees, activates and fulfills ethical standpoints on a range of social and political projects including, but not limited to, maintaining revolutionary sentiment, constructing social networks of support and care, and imagining how to tell “human” stories to the broader international community.

Jenna Antonucci is a PhD student in Anthropology. Her research focuses on how Syrian artists who have relocated to Lebanon produce art that explores the conflict in Syria.