Documenting Humans of Damascus

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A sample of the handprinted fabric prepared for the women  of Duma © Rania Kataf (CC-BY-NC-ND)

By Alexandra Taylor

Meaning in objects is subject to interpretation. Or rather, subjects produce meaning. This co-dependency between object and subject is what inspires the concept of intersubjectivism. Semioticians agree that “communication between subjects is often based upon a set of conventional rules that is known by every subject involved in the communication process” (Muñoz-Vinas’ p. 152). In a nutshell, shared experiences, knowledge, understanding and perspective create sociological constructs and symbolic interaction. If we see a squiggly shape with a bold red line through it, we know where not to take the dog. A banana with tape across it takes us back to 2019, when Maurizio Cattelan’s duct-taped and absurdly ephemeral Comedian had most of us questioning the art-market and global trade. When we think of a bent-armed black cross on a white circle against a red backdrop, an entirely different wave of emotion overcomes us.

How we apprehend the world is entirely based on perspective—individual and, when united, intersubjective to the extent that we share common understandings. Whether stemming from social, private or scientific realms of thought, cultural identity is experienced through intersubjectivity.

In two articles written for Syrian Heritage Archive, Rania Kataf describes the hidden figures behind Aghabani, the Demascenes’ most admired fabric. Though once there were 5,000 women who worked from home in Aghabani production, today the numbers have drastically decreased. The Syrian war has put Aghabani “on the verge of extinction” by forcing women to leave Duma without their needles and embroidery machines. Only two locations in the old city create hand-printed fabrics: in a khan in Souq Midhat Pasha named Khan al-Dikkeh and in the Jewish Quarter. An attractive past vision of Aleppo—roughly 300 km north of Damascus—pre-dating the war, included hundreds of colourful hand-printed textiles hanging from the walls of its Great Citadel. “Sadly”, Kataf writes, “this scene has disappeared and only lies in the memories of those who have worked in the craft”. No longer able to watch the dyers at work, and burdened with the death of their masters as well as the introduction of new technologies, an ancient Syrian art form is now on the brink of extinction.

Empathy is important in the phenomenological account of intersubjectivity. Via highlighting an overwhelming sense of agency in Aghabani craftsmanship, Kataf clarifies that it is the subjects (not the objects) who are served through cultural heritage preservation. This simple idea drives contemporary theory of conservation. The assumption that only conservators can set guidelines for preservation encourages dichotomy between what is tangible and what is intangible. Gironés Sarrió’s (2003) note on removing laypeople from the equation, based on the assumption that they “may not be able to grasp a science or a field of work as we professionals can” is short-sighted. Yes, conservation includes aspects that are expert-only, but as evidenced in Kataf’s articles, there are also many other aspects to heritage preservation in which no technical knowledge is involved.

Poignantly, Kataf concludes her article on textile printing with, “…what remains certain is the role Syrian cities played historically as manufacturing and trade centres in textile production – a story that craftsmen and traders printed in our ancestors’ memories for centuries, with ink that lasts forever”. Psychological characteristics – moods, affects and instincts – of considerable intensity infuse both subjectivity and intersubjectivity and are powerful cultural investments.

Since 2011, when the conflict in Syria began, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced. Rania Kataf is not a conservator. Yet she has embarked on a journey that seeks to remind people of the art of community, the
power of connection and the importance of protecting cultural heritage under threat. These ideas also lie at the heart of our own practice: a shared, common interest or intersubjective reasoning behind what it is that we do. Kataf records the feelings, opinions, memories, prejudices, sentiments and comforts of Demascene subjects in the images she takes for “Humans of Damascus” and the articles she writes for the Syrian Heritage Archive. Her documentation of the Aghabani is essential, not only as a record of the craft’s techniques, materials and historical significance but as a means of filling the gaps in our knowledge in preparation for future treatment efforts. While our field is a multidisciplinary, complex space full of chemical action, technical imaging and research that lend aid to the most intricate form of material insight, the craft of Aghabani will always be best understood by the Demascene.

I find Muñoz-Vinas’ Theory of Conservation to be relevant in discussing Kataf’s holistic interpretation of what Aghabani means to her and her community. For the people of Duma, the delicate range of textures and finely stitched Aghabani designs have “safeguard[ed] their city’s identity” since the Ottoman period. Ethnography and material culture together instil agency through collective intersubjectivity. Aghabani today is most commonly used as a tablecloth. Yet, the fabric is appreciated far beyond the realm of tableware in Demascene culture. “Each Aghabani is uniquely designed by one woman, just like a painting… No hands are like the hands of Dumanian women. They create magic”.

Gironés Sarriós’ idea derives from the old-fashioned concept of conservation being an “expert-only” zone, in which the authority of the practicing conservator depends on objects as subjects: objectification for the sake of simplifying conservation treatment methodology. Using Kataf’s research as an example, perhaps conservation as a discipline should extend to admit a larger number of people in the decision-making process. The benefit in doing so would be to create what Muñoz-Vinas, Sörlin and Gustafsson dub the “trading zone”. It is a daunting thought. As stated at the beginning of this article, subjects produce meaning, but meaning is constantly re-interpreted, especially when culture is entrenched in the very fabric of everyday life, such as the creation of the Aghabani cloth. Yet “trying to escape the challenge [of conservation decision-making] through objectivism is just that: escapism” (Muñoz-Vinas, p. 163).

Conservation theory and practice are based on integration; not only do we have direct interface with citizens, but we are also required to bear in mind greater multi-factor quality dimensions. Yet, we are only participating actors in a system-wide endeavour that has historical implications. As such, we need to respond with respect.

Preservation-related activities, such as documenting the holistic and tangible heritage of Aghabani craftsmanship, prompt the jump from protection to pro-action by pushing cultural heritage advocates from their comfort zone and into the trading zone. By encouraging cross-sectoral cooperation between decision-makers, scholars, conservators, citizens, policy-makers and practitioners, Kataf is an inspiration to cultural heritage advocates everywhere. Indeed, beyond subject and object, we seem to share a mutual, intersubjective understanding of what conservation actually is. I’ll conclude with a quote that I believe best captures all relevant themes touched on in this review. In a recent interview with CNN, Kataf advised the neighbouring municipality of Aleppo, then under bombardment, to follow her lead; “learn about the history of the city, so you can rebuild it – for a city is the reflection of you and you are a reflection of the city”.

You can learn more about Rania Kataf’s initiative, and support the work that she does, by accessing the following links:

“The Ink that Lasts Forever: Textile Printing in Syria” by Rania Kataf

“Hidden Figures: The Women Behind the Beautiful Craft of Aghabani” by Rania Kataf

Humans of Damascus on Facebook

Raina Kataf on Instagram

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gironés Sarrió, I. (2003). Knut Nicolaus. Entrevista. Restauración & Rehabilitación. 74, 66-68.

Muñoz-Vinas, S. (2013). Contemporary Theory of Conservation. Routledge.

Gustafsson, C. (2019) ‘Conservation 3.0 – cultural heritage as a driver for regional growth’ in Scientific Research and Information Technology Ricerca Scientifica e Tecnologie dell'Informazione Vol 9, Issue 1, pp. 21-32

Sörlin, S. (2001) ‘The trading zone between articulation and preservation: production of meaning in landscape history and the problems of heritage decision-making’ in Durability and Change. The Science, Responsibility, and Cost of Sustaining Cultural Heritage (eds. Krumbein W.E., Brimblecombe P., Cosgrove D.E., and Staniforth S.) pp. 47-59. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.

AUTHOR BIO

Alexandra Taylor is a paintings conservator at Art Salvage & Art Conservation (NL). She is the IIC book reviews coordinator and the Icon Paintings Group social media officer. Alexandra received her conjoint BFA(h)/BA at the University of Auckland (NZ) and MA in cultural materials conservation at the University of Melbourne (AUS). Her 2019 GAF fellowship investigated current practice in preventing art crimes in conservation with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (IT).

(Read the full article with images and links in the February-March 2022 "News in Conservation" Issue 88, p. 66-69)

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Though once there were 5,000 women who worked from home in Aghabani production, today the numbers have drastically decreased. The Syrian war has put Aghabani “on the verge of extinction” by forcing women to leave Duma without their needles and embroidery machines.
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