With the Hamburg G-20 Summit in session this week, it seemed like the perfect time to look at Abdalla Al Omari’s ‘The Vulnerability Series.’ An artist and Syrian refugee, Omari started working on these painting in Damascus in 2011 when the civil war started. He then fled to Brussels and was granted asylum. The portraits, which have been a hit on social media, show world leaders as displaced people.
Initially, the project was about empathy. As Omari explained to The Washington Post:
“In the beginning, my desire was to imagine how those supposedly great personalities would look like if they were in the shoes of the mass, of refugees displaced, besieged … to take them out of their individual self and see them as disarmed mass in order to discover how much greatness or divinity they would still be able to demonstrate, or would they at all be able to.”
Then his focus changed to power. As he related to Al Jazeera:
My aim somehow shifted from an expression of anger to a more vivid desire of disarming these figures, (to) picture them outside their positions of power.
I’m fully on board with the focus on power — especially star power. What Macron and Trudeau as international media stars, and Trump the biggest sensation of all, the paintings are not just jarring for removing political power. They are jarring for erasing celebrity. I’d venture to say that fame and the media’s obsession with personality contributes as much to the political bubble as anything else. And when you think about the way the public and the media feeds on and off Trump, we’re all in collusion with it.
Abdalla’s Trump works on a lot of levels. Casting him as impoverished emphasizes how alien the shiny, coiffed and corpulent man truly is from his struggling followers. That bag, by the way, is nothing you’d find on the arm of an alpha male. And when have you ever seen such an expression of vulnerability or feeling from Trump? The most damning allusion, though, is the drawing. Whether intended or not, it’s a biting reference to Trump’s stated motivation for April’s Syrian air strike. Remembering how he was moved by photos of gassed Syrian children? The skeptical painting frames that empathy — in this endless crises, now compounded by his travel ban — as arbitrary, or largely for display.
Omari’s painting of Obama is arguably a lot more effective than the others. That’s because there is less political and personality baggage to deal with. Given Obama’s approval ratings, his earnest, almost Boy Scout image, his consistent focus on the common good, and that fact he is out of office, this is a much cleaner meditation on power and disconnection. What is obviously missing is the charisma, the confidence, the occasional swagger — in other words, that public persona and the sense of the politician as rock star.
The Putin painting is more of a one-liner, but it’s a good one liner. The otherwise tightly wound leader, here a wizened panhandler, broadcasts how much Putin has enriched himself by way of the oligarchy.
Credit Al Omari for removing all irony here. The world and the media make so much of the missile, Kim’s kookiness and his lineage, it skips over the fact he’s just a boy.
Finally, you have to admire how personal this painting is for Al Omari. The splotches of red are ominous, as is the anonymity of the others in the vessel. What’s powerful, though, beyond casting Assad as a refugee, is how the painter turns him into a witness. Ultimately, the image is also a transcendent one. What I mean is, beyond closing gap between the real and imaginary refugees, we also see how the crisis tends to draw everyone into the same boat.
— Michael Shaw
(Photos: Paintings by Abdalla Al Omari, from ‘The Vulnerability Series’, where he reimagines the world leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un and more, as refugees themselves, putting them in harsh situations actual refugees face daily.)