The risk of death is outweighed by the joy brought to kids for stencil artist Luke Cornish, who is preparing for his third trip to Syria.

Luke Cornish said, ‘I’m used to having my artwork destroyed on the street. Having it blown up by ISIS is something else.’

Melbourne stencil artist, Luke Cornish, only returned from Syria in March and yet is preparing to return to this war-torn nation in October. It will be his third visit in 18 months. A new Melbourne exhibition documents his experiences.

‘There are a couple of reasons I am compelled to go back. I guess it has been a desire of mine to become a conflict artist for a long time. I was deeply influenced by what George Gittoes had done,’ he explained, in reference to the Sydney-based artist whose visits to Rwanda, Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan have documented attacks on basic human rights through his art practice.

Cornish went to Lebanon in 2013 and tried to cross over into Syria but couldn’t get in. He had better luck this year as part of a boxing delegation organised by Father David Smith.

‘I’m a pretty terrible boxer. We were meant to be doing exhibition bouts with the Syrian Olympic team – I would have been annihilated – but I broke my wrist two days before leaving. So I jumped in to film for SBS who were going to send a crew but backed out,’ said Cornish.

Cornish, also known as E.L.K, gained visibility to the wider art world in 2012 when he was the first stencil artist to be a finalist in the prestigious Archibald Prize with his portrait of Father Bob Maguire.

The war artist has existed almost since the start of conflict – part documentarian, part storyteller, though Official War Artists were only recognised in Australia from WWI onwards. However, a new aspect to the recording of conflicts, from a humanitarian position, has developed in recent years.

While super artist Ai Wei Wei has taken a more political line to speak about human injustice as an outcome of conflict, closer to home artists such as Ben Quilty and writer Richard Flanagan have been strong advocates for the humanitarian cause. The pair travelled to the sprawling refugee camps of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon in 2016 as guests of the charity World Vision.

Cornish recalled Flanagan’s words from that trip: ‘These people aren’t like us; they are us.’ Cornish added: ‘It just sums up the whole experience when you get over there. They are us over there.

‘Also these kids I have been working with, they don’t question if you’re Christian or Muslim.’ He tells of one experience where a young girl in East Aleppo asked him to paint a Dora the Explorer cartoon on a wall for her. ‘I love the irony of painting Dora the Explorer, a cartoon character that the kids in Syria no longer get to see, in an area where they need it the most,’ he said.

Aleppo art workshop; image courtesy Luke Cornish

On Cornish’s last trip he distributed donated art supplies to children in schools, taught art workshops and put up street art amongst the rubble of war-devastated neighbourhoods. 

‘For me personally it was exposing these kids to art whether in an audience capacity as I worked, or in a workshop. People always want to have exhibitions in London, New York, Berlin and Paris, but to change the world you have to get to people who need it most,’ he said.

IS THE RISK WORTH IT?

Whilst travelling in Syria in March, Luke was arrested and held at gunpoint for several hours by the Syrian-Arab army for purportedly not having the right paperwork. Days earlier the same checkpoint had been targeted by a suicide bomber.

‘People don’t normally come back from those situations,’ said Cornish.

‘The risk of going there is pretty intense. It is intimidating. You have to prepare yourself that you may not come back. That is not easy to do,’ he said, adding with a laugh, ‘But I was more scared of boxing.’

Was it worth it? ‘It is certainly rewarding for me spending time with the kids and utilising my privilege as an artist to do something with them,’ he said.

Artwork - Hola_ soy Dora 600x400
Hola Soy Dora, Artwork by Luke Cornish; courtesy the artist

Cornish’s outlook on the trip centres firmly on the concept of a shared humanity, which he discovered with the children, families and communities that he met in his Syrian travels.

He said: ‘I am not trying to be political; I am not religious … I am tying very hard to be as neutral as possible. To go there, you are either in a government held area or a rebel held area. The dangers are very real.’

ENSURING THEIR STORY IS HEARD

‘People in the west tune out when they are bombarded with negative images,’ says Cornish of the Syrian crisis. ‘With the Zero to the Left exhibition, I want to say to the people of Syria, we haven’t forgotten about you.’

Cornish’s new exhibition of powerful stencil paintings track the incredible journey and interactions from his past trip. He explained of the title: ‘It is an Arabic slang saying that translates to something like "left of the decimal point," meaning that a guy is left of zero – he has no value. It is an interesting take on the way these people have been reduced to think.’

The exhibition is a combination of drawings done by the kids, which he has bought back and framed, exhibited alongside his own work using stencils.

‘To be honest this work is not a huge seller – people really don’t want destruction on their walls. For me it is more important to make work that is potentially hung in an art gallery for a hundred years than someone’s lounge in three weeks.

‘I feel like you should be creating some positive impact in what you make, no matter how small.’

Using stencils on aluminum sublimation prints, his exhibition focuses on everyday life: ordinary people living under extraordinary conditions in Syria, such as young boys ‘just being boys’ playing in streets previously decimated by bombs or a little girl’s love of Dora.

‘What struck me the most, is the hope, generosity and defiant positive of the people of Syria. They are tired of a war that they have no say in. They don’t want sympathy, they just want the bombs to stop,’ he said.

CAN ART LIBERATE?

Cornish believes that art can liberate you. ‘It has given me freedom that I never had. It changed my life.’

He added: ‘I have no misconceptions that I am creating budding Picassos, but in bringing art to these kids I am hoping that I am offering another direction than creating the next Bin Laden.’

He said that one of the most powerful memories of his last trip was towards the end of his stay in Aleppo, of a little girl, aged around four, who run up to him and gave him a big hug and a flower she had made out of cardboard.

‘Everyone says "you're so brave" in going. I get to go home; this little girl doesn’t.

‘Spending 45 minutes playing with a hundred kids who’ve never known anything but brutal war is nothing short of life changing. There’s a real sense of gratitude and respect … It has given me a sense of compassion,’ he added.

Another reason Cornish is returning in October is to help an art therapist. On his last day in Damascus, with bombs falling on the city, he met an older lady at his hotel named Rita who is an art therapist.

‘She is doing her utmost to set up a charity providing art therapy for traumatised children. She’s doing this with next to nothing financially and absolutely zero assistance – she makes paint out of sand, flour and food colouring … her determination to make a positive impact in the face of extreme adversity is infinitely inspirational,’ said Cornish.

Cornish will be organising a low-key fundraiser in September to raise money for art materials that he hopes to deliver to Rita, along with a few artists who will join him on his next trip.

Cornish has largely self-funded his trips, and has used social media to help with donations of art materials.

‘I put a thing on Facebook asking for donations for art materials. The response was amazing within 48 hours,’ he said.

Despite the support and passion to support his humanitarian cause, Cornish also is not romantic about his actions. ‘The risk of prison is real and the artillery bombardments – it’s fucking heavy.

‘I am not going to be taking these risks forever,’ he concluded.