From the Middle East to the American South: Zeina, 19, and Merrick, 24, collaborated across continents to share a story of the need and the hope of Syria. But this story is bigger than their work.
Think back to last time you created something. Did you write/paint/plan/build in a vacuum, separated from the opinion of your friends and peers? Of course you didn’t. Because you’re an artist. If ever there was a community who respected the power of collaboration most, it would be artists: creators and conceptors who understand that true innovation comes from shared hope and ideals.
But that story isn’t new. This one is:
Two artists who leaned on social media to come together and bridge the gap between opposite worlds. And they are doing more than just telling a story – they are living it.
“I am a painter. I began experimenting with photography to capture emotions that I would later reference in my paintings. I loved figure drawing and decided to focus on how to best take portraits. That led to a love for photography not just to support my paintings, but in addition to them.
“My work focuses on human nature. Emotions we all feel. I use facial expressions to tell a story. But at the same time, I am Syrian.”
I have a story, and I want to tell it, but I don’t want it to be the sole theme of my work. Especially in Dubai – people are getting bored of it. I feel like I can’t only focus on that.” – Zeina Alkattan.
Zeina is a Syrian refugee finishing out the first year of her college studies in Dubai. She has always focused on sharing the emotional toll of life post-Syria over telling her own story, for fear that art focusing directly on the refugee crisis would be dismissed due to overexposure.
“Constant Reminder” by Merrick Adams and Zeina Alkattan
“I love collaborating with Merrick because I can focus on both sides of work: emotion and how that informs our lives as Syrians – my contribution is bringing out emotions like hope and strength, and Merrick takes on the specifics of life as a refugee.”
Merrick Adams is a printmaking and design student living in North Carolina. Following his belief that stepping outside of the confines of his community was the truest path to growth, he signed up for a short-term study abroad program in the Middle East.
Merrick recalls, “I didn’t realize the true scale of the Syrian conflict until I was in the Middle East. I had been living in my own little North Carolina bubble. I met Zeina while I was in Dubai – she’s studying photography and painting. We spoke a little bit but didn’t have any deep conversations. I was so worried about being intrusive that I didn’t bring up how I’d been hoping to collaborate.
“Ghost of My Past” by Merrick Adams and Zeina Alkattan
After the program wrapped, I came home and started experimenting with photo illustrations. I wanted to make something to show the loss of identity Syrians go through. Then I went on Instagram and saw Zeina’s newest photographs – they were beautiful.”
Regretting that he didn’t have the courage to ask her in person while he was in Dubai, Merrick eventually messaged Zeina through Instagram, asking if she’d be open to a collaboration.
It turns out she’d already been looking for new ways to tell her story.
“The Sun Will Rise Again” by Merrick Adams and Zeina Alkattan
At the end of the day, I think any two artists can come together and create. I don’t think any one piece can or cannot be created on. If I see art – of any kind – I know I can add to it. I’m not improving it; I’m creating differences that help it grow. It has each of our stories.
My advice to all artists: be open to collaboration. The complexities (in life and in art) are what make it special.”
If Zeina and Merrick’s collaboration teaches us anything, it’s that we all share one thing: a profound need to create. Through nerves, fear, and geographical obstacles – commit to art.