From Apps to Aleppo

From Apps to Aleppo


When two seemingly polarised universes featured in the same news bulletins recently, the fine art photographer Khaled Akil decided to bring them together, with fascinating results.


Who better to highlight the horrors of war to as wide an audience as possible than the characters of the world’s most popular online game?


After all, if anyone can raise the profile of Syrians and their suffering, then surely Pikachu and friends from Pokémon Go can.


While this might not have been the original intention of the artist Khaled Akil when he first began working on his project titled Pokémon Go in Syria Part I, the success of his thought-provoking project is certainly welcome.


In the collection, Akil superimposes the cheerful, brightly-coloured Pokemon characters on contrasting, sombre black and white photographs depicting scenes of war-torn Syria taken for the news agency AFP.


“I’ve received amazing media coverage in Japan [where Pokémon was created and the Go game developed],” he says. “Some of the people from there contacted me to apologise, saying they hadn’t realised what was happening in Syria before seeing my work. I had to tell them there was no need to feel guilty, but still, I felt a great sense of achievement. It was my duty to show the world what’s going on over there in these crazy times of war and in that respect, I believe I’ve succeeded in some way.”


Despite its seemingly incongruent and jarring subjects, the resulting artwork is both powerful and thought provoking. Akil explains that the idea for the collection came while following the news and noticing that the ongoing war in Syria and popularity of the Pokémon Go game were regularly featuring as news items in the same bulletins. “I’d be watching reports about people chasing these characters at the same time as stories about the horrific events in Syria,” he says. “I wanted to find a way of combining or merging these two trending news items that were being featured back to back, yet were also two different universes.”


Born in Aleppo, but currently based in Istanbul, Akil has never been afraid to tackle controversial topical issues in his work; a current project he is working on as part of his In Between series will document the plight of the Yazidi sex slaves in Iraq.


A mixed-media artist Akil’s work is, he admits, somewhat difficult to categorise, combining fine art photography with elements of calligraphy.


Akil initially studied Law and Political Science, graduating from Beirut Arab University in 2009, despite coming from an artistic background. “Although I chose to study law, I never felt that I chose to make art, rather it was something I felt compelled to do,” he says. “That said, doing a job you love is always a bonus.”


This ethos is one of many things passed on to him by his father, the famous Syrian artist Youssef Akil. “He used to tell me that art doesn’t feel like work and that what could be better than waking up with that feeling,” Akil says with a smile.


The younger Akil also found the support and advice of his father beneficial. “I learned a huge amount from him on subjects such as contrast, light, colours and how to see my subjects,” he says. “He also came with me to all my early exhibitions.”


Despite having relocated to Turkey due to the war, Akil is confident that he can still detail Aleppo from his current base. “While I’m not there physically, the city will always be with me,” he says. In a comment that is perhaps reaffirmed by his Pokemon work, he adds, “Sometimes it’s good to think outside of the box. If I was in Syria right now, my art might be better, but then again, it might not.”


Akil explains that he had been working on his second exhibition, titled The Unmentioned, before the war in Syria broke out. By the time the show took place in 2011, the country was caught up in conflict. “I watched the tragedy in Syria unfold, I could tell what was going to happen,” he says. “My exhibition in Aleppo was like a reflection of events in art. That is the power of art; it can reflect what’s happening, whether relationships, war or the structure of society. And it’s how I deal with them all.”



His Requiem for Syria series will be shown at Stanford University, California, from the end of January, before moving on to other venues.


Akil holds little hope of witnessing peace in Syria anytime soon. “It breaks my heart to watch what’s going on there, but this is human nature,” he says. “We are not learning the lessons of previous conflicts, it’s simply the Middle East’s turn. However, I think that what’s lost on some people is that while the West is concerned about halting the progress of Isis, Syrians are really its first victims.”


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