Men Also Have the Right to CryWork by Diala Brisly/Photographed with artist permission by Joanna Neve

As you walk into the Michaelhouse Centre in Cambridge, it might strike you as odd that a café is located inside a church. But Diala Brisly’s exhibition War Through Children’s Eyes, part of the 2019 Festival of Ideas programme, is even more out of place in this environment – or so one might think. Brisly’s illustrations are unapologetically heavy. But when placed in an everyday context such as this, we are reminded that each piece is also grounded in real life, though one different to ours. The illustrations are based on the experiences of four children who had their lives turned upside down by the conflict in Syria.

“This exhibition places the suffering of children in an everyday social space”

Having fled Syria herself in 2013, Brisly is able to paint with such emotion and rawness that those with no personal connection to the conflict in Syria are moved by her paintings. When I visited the exhibition, I found it quite striking to see people working or chatting away in the café, the paintings lining the walls behind them. As free people, we are often at a remove from the turmoil of war and suffering that occurs elsewhere. Yet this exhibition places the suffering of children in an everyday social space, reminding us that this conflict affected Syrians from all walks of life, and that we would do well to remember that even (or especially) when at leisure.

The Best Way to Build is EducationWork by Diala Brisly/Photographed with artist permission by Joanna Neve

Despite the subject matter, Brisly uses a bright and cheerful colour palette to bring pieces to life, steering away from the monochrome tones one might expect. Some of her pieces even come across as playful, and if you look closely enough, you can see that she experiments with the classic iconography of childhood. In one painting, for example, a girl appears to play with dolls beneath a collection of stars, each hanging by a thread. At first glance, the construction holds a striking resemblance to the hanging mobiles that are often hung above cots – a happy scene. But then, adjacent pieces depict a mourning father, a weeping mother, and young girls standing among the dark fog of a presumably demolished city. The stars no longer hang above – they are collapsing, torn apart and cut with scissors so they fall from the frame. The cumulative effect of the pieces results in a stunning and contemplative exhibition.

“Brisly captures media images we may have seen of the Syrian war in cartoon style”

Inspired by the stories of children, the paintings on display seek to “evoke their lives, illustrating their childhood hopes in contrast to their present realities, and their fears for the future.” One of the most touching is an illustration depicting two children playing beside a rainbow. A young girl holds out a book as her friend appears to walk across a tightrope. His path is blocked by a city in ruins, but both smile playfully, and the clouds above them are a radiant purple. In this painting, Brisly captures media images we may have seen of the Syrian war in cartoon style.


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So, if you have a lunch break free, or are cycling through Trinity Street at some point, make sure to pull over and have a coffee in the Michaelhouse Centre. It’s lovely to be able to view an exhibition in a more casual way, over lunch or drinks with friends. But it must be known that Brisly’s illustrations harbour a charged and poignant meaning, one that is anything but casual. Out of all the exhibitions I have viewed in recent years (and trust me, I’ve been to many!), this one is surely the most thought-provoking, saddening, and inspiring, all at the same time.

Diala Brisly’s exhibition is open from Monday 14 October – Saturday 26 October at the Michaelhouse Centre, St. Michael’s Church, Trinity Street. Illustrations can be purchased by contacting the artist at diala80@gmail.com.

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