The United Nations isn't normally what you think of when you picture New York's world-class art scene. But it's now the site of a struggle between the Syrian government and the people trying to overthrow it and just what constitutes art.
On Thursday, the U.N., which has a wide collection of art exhibits from member states on display, opened an exhibit called "My Homeland," sponsored by the Syrian Mission to the U.N. It features the work of Hagop Vanesian, a Syrian photographer who has posted pictures of himself hobnobbing with Syria's U.N. ambassador on Facebook. The exhibit features scenes from the three-year civil war in Syria, including images of the destruction and suffering the struggle has caused.
But the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), an umbrella group that coordinates the rebellion's political efforts, is disturbed that the U.N. would host the work of a man that its U.N. representative refers to as a "regime propagandist."
In a letter to U.N. Under Secretary General for Management Yukio Takasu, Dr. Najib Ghadbian, the SNC's Special Representative to the U.N., urged the world body to cancel the exhibit. "The U.N. cannot in good conscience host an exhibit that callously promotes a regime that is responsible for immense death and unprecedented destruction," Ghadbian wrote. "By doing so, the U.N. condones the atrocities committed by Syrian forces, and serves as a mouthpiece for Assad's heinous war crimes."
The "My Homeland" exhibit "perpetuates a pro-Assad narrative," Ghadbian continued, before accusing the Syrian mission of using Vanesian's photographs to "whitewash the regime's war crimes and perpetuate its narrative: that it is a victim rather than the primary perpetrator of death and destruction in Syria."
At Thursday's scheduled press briefing, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric insisted that the organization had no control over what Syria chooses to display. "Slots for exhibits in the Secretariat's non-public areas are managed by Department of Management and are given to member-states on a first come first serve basis," he said, adding that ambassadors are merely asked to ensure that the art featured is of a "non-commercial nature" and upholds the U.N.'s principles.
"The U.N. does not exact any editorial control over the exhibits sponsored by the missions," Dujarric continued, emphasizing that the countries choosing to display the art alone are responsible for any content that is displayed.
The SNC, however, argues that in choosing to allow the exhibit to move forward, despite the documented crimes of the Assad regime in Syria, the U.N.'s actions are "incompatible with the principles of an institution dedicated to international peace and security."
Vanesian told the Associated Press that he's a "humanitarian" and not a politician. "I just photograph the suffering of the people," he said, adding "that Western countries have listed some of the groups fighting inside Syria as terrorists."
In April, a Syrian defector who goes by the pseudonym "Caesar" had his photographs displaying systematic torture in Syrian prisoners presented to the U.N. Security Council, but could not have them displayed since he did not have the support of a U.N. member. Instead, they were displayed in Washington, D.C., for several weeks towards the end of last year.
Hayes Brown is a world news editor and reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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