Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world

Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world
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Kim, Kanye and kids on the streets of Syria. (Stephany Sannosian)
Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world
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From Sanossian's "Met Gala" series. (Stephany Sannosian)
Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world
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From Sanossian's "Met Gala" series. (Stephany Sannosian)
Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world
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From Sanossian's "Met Gala" series. (Stephany Sannosian)
Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world
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Stephany Sannosian. (Supplied)
Updated 12 June 2019

Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world

Meet Stephany Sanossian, the artist bringing Hollywood to the Arab world
  • The Syrian-Armenian artist’s doctored images are grabbing global attention
  • “When you mention Syria, everyone talks about the war, No one talks about our rich culture. I want to change that.”

LONDON: Newsflash! Kim, Kendall and Kylie, those doyens of social media, have been spotted in Damascus and Aleppo — looking amazing, of course — soaking up the street life and attending exclusive private parties in magnificent Syrian mansions.  

And the Kardashians/Jenners were not alone. Turns out, Syria is quite the celebrity hot spot these days. Also spotted in the war-torn country recently were Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue; international songbird Celine Dion and the American stage performer Billy Porter — all  having a whale of a time in the bazaars.

But this wasn’t some kind of fashion-inspired UN peace mission. On closer inspection, those pictures did seem kind of fishy. For a start, the outfits the celebrities were sporting were identical to the ones they were wearing at the Met Gala in New York on May 6. And we all know Kim, Kendall and Kylie aren’t going to be photographed in the same dress twice.

Turns out the scenes were the product of the wild imagination of Syrian-Armenian artist Stephany Sanossian, who simply transposed the celebrities into locations of her choice within her beloved country.

The pictures may be humorous, but Sanossian’s motivation for creating them is serious. She is using celebrities to draw attention to Syria — to remind people of what her homeland once was — before the deadly civil war erupted — and what it is today.

“When you mention Syria, everyone talks about the war,” Sanossian told Arab News. “No one talks about our rich culture. I want to change that.”

Sanossian, who currently works as a freelance graphic designer, has a Master's in Research for Design and Innovation from Elisava, a prestigious design school in Barcelono affiliated with Pompeu Fabra University. The part of the course she most enjoyed dealt with trends and their global impact.

“For me this was amazing,” she said. “We looked at all kinds of trends — not just fashion, but artistic, political and economic.”

Last summer she held a joint exhibition, “Perspective 101,” in Denmark. She is also the co-founder of “Live Love Armenia,” based in Yerevan, Armenia, which showcases the authentic face and beauty of the country. “The mission is to display Armenian talent to connect the Armenian diaspora with the motherland,” she said.

There is something a bit wistful about Sanossian. She was born and raised in Aleppo — leaving Syria in 2010 to be educated in Lebanon. She admits she is strongly affected by nostalgia for the scenes of her childhood and longs to show the world the country she knows and loves without the ugly scars of war, suffering and devastation.

So while on some level there is something quite humorous about her fake images, there is also something poignant. In a world that has become numbed to suffering, does it take a celebrity to make the world take notice? Perhaps it does. If so, she has succeeded in making her point as the world’s media is knocking on her door for interviews.

The ‘celebrities in Syria’ shots aren't her first mixed-media images. She did a brilliant job last year of creating an ‘Aleppo Fashion Week,’ blending catwalk images of famous models with historic sites.

The intention was the same: To use images that everyone wants to see to draw attention to places that people have forgotten or overlooked.

“Each image I create triggers a joyful memory for me and creating this kind of art far away from destruction and war brings me happiness,” she said.

It's a great concept — and one with endless possibilities. But what about the reaction of the celebrities — or indeed the photographers — whose images have been used?  So far, none of them have been in touch. But perhaps that will change as the story gains momentum. To date, Sanossian has around 5,000 followers on Instagram, but that number will likely grow fast as media attention increases.

Asked where she gets her ideas from, she said: “My inspiration comes from everywhere — it might be walking down the street, a memory, or something happening around me on a daily basis.”

She is keen to raise the profile of Middle Eastern artists in the West, as she believes that there is too much focus on Western art in general.

“People in America and Europe only seem to know the Middle East in the context of war and destruction and nothing else,” she said. “They don’t seem to have much knowledge, for example, about the Middle East art scene.”

She plans to leave Barcelona soon (a tough decision — “I love Spain so much,” she said) and head either Lebanon or Dubai. She still has family in Syria, but her close family are all in Lebanon.

Regardless of where she ends up, Sanossian will continue to make thought-provoking artwork. “I want to keep doing what I am doing and raise awareness of the true nature of places like Syria and Armenia,” she said. “Let’s be proud of our heritage and culture.”


Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair

Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair
Updated 15 January 2021

Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair

Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair
  • Works from 100+ artists from the MENA region will be on show in Cairo from Feb. 12-14

ESRAA ZIDAN

‘Untitled’

This 2020 painting is typical of Zidan’s exuberant, colorful and loving portrayal of the female form (her Master’s degree was on “Human Anatomy for Artists”). The 30-year-old Egyptian artist began depicting plus-size women as a response to the “unrealistic beauty standards” of Instagram, she once told Cairo West magazine. “The most important point is that I portrayed them feeling happy and satisfied. I want every woman to feel accepted and confident about how she looks.” In another interview, with Executive Woman magazine, she said: “We aren’t supposed to look alike. Everyone is different, and every woman is enough the way she is.”

WAEL DARWISH

‘Untitled’

The Cairene multidisciplinary artist has described himself as “much concerned with the changing perceptions and the state of continual metamorphosis that Egypt, as an African, Arab, and Middle Eastern country that was colonized and liberated, has witnessed in the last three decades.” In his paintings, such as this one, he is “obsessed by human movement and the quest for freedom,” and uses bold colors and impressionist techniques to imply that movement.

HAKIM ALAKEL

‘Untitled’

The 55-year-old artist is one of the most significant figures in Yemen’s art scene and his paintings have sold around the world — particularly to fans of Art Nouveau work. His art is inspired by city life in Yemen before the civil war, depicting simple, colorful urban scenes often featuring female residents. “These cities, and their inhabitants, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature and the environment,” Alakel is quoted as saying on synkroniciti.com. “You’ll find that Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols of the larger environment in which they live.”

WALID EL-MASRI

‘Peacock’ (series since 2018)

El-Masri is a Lebanese artist who was born in Syria and now lives and works in Paris. According to Ayyam Gallery, his practice “revolves around the repeated examination of a single material subject as he explores variations in depth and space through abstracted compositions. … Like Morandi's vases or Cezanne's apples, El-Masri's depictions are less about the objects themselves and more about the possibility of transformation that is derived from paying close attention to the object over time.” El-Masri explained this practice to the Attasi Foundation. “Every time you repeat a shape, you perceive it in a different way,” he said.

“The Peacock” is a series he has been working on for the past few years, reportedly intended as an homage to his father, who was kidnapped in Syria, after which El-Masri stopped painting for some time. When he started again in 2018, the peacock was the first thing he painted, and he has since completed several works on the same theme.

SALAH EL-MUR

‘Untitled’

Sudanese multidisciplinary artist Salah El-Mur is based in Cairo, but spent many years traveling throughout East Africa and the Middle East. This, according to a statement from the organizers of the Egypt International Art Fair, “has given him a rich and diverse background, while still maintaining a distinctive and peculiar Sudanese identity, to the extent of becoming a (flag bearer for) Sudanese art.” His vivid and colorful paintings of street life “do not (portray) significant events or actions, but characters — each with a concealed story of their own.”

MOHANNAD ORABI

‘Waiting’

This painting comes from the UAE-based Syrian artist’s “Family Portrait” series. His expressionist-style works, according to the fair’s organizers, is based on “the inherent psychology of portraiture in compositions that depict a revolving cast of characters” and was “initially inspired by the confessional elements and sense of freedom in children’s drawings.” But the inspiration for this series came from childhood visits with his family to photographers’ studios. “These psychological portraits capture the fatigue and uncertainty experienced by millions,” Maymanah Farhat, director of art at Ayyam Gallery, told Time Out last year. “They remind viewers that the future of countries such as Syria now rests in the hands of displaced youth; children shaped by the trauma of war.”

AHMED ABDELWAHAB

‘Egyptian Girl’

Abdelwahab is one of Egypt’s most-respected contemporary sculptors. His work is something of an homage to Ancient Egyptian civilization and visual references, and he often uses traditional techniques and materials to create his sculptures. But while he celebrates his country’s heritage, his style is modern — even incorporating Western influences no doubt inspired by his time studying in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, he earned a three-year scholarship in the Rome atelier of the acclaimed Italian sculptor Emilio Greco in the late Sixties.