Image description: A rose on pink background with a red cross behind it. End ID
Image description: A rose on pink background with a red cross behind it. End ID

Illustration by Yana Peeva

We Smell War: An Artwork that Awakens Depth & Perspective

Reflections on a central piece at the Abu Dhabi Art exhibition and how analyzing artwork, and having a personal encounter with the gallerist, reveals the layers, or petals, of the meaning behind the Damascus Rose print by Fatma Bucak.

The art world is peculiar, in the sense that it accompanies the tumults of the world, political, personal, tragic, and ecstatic, for as long as one can recall, and it draws a parallel thread, immersing at times, through propaganda, documentation or protest, and winding away at other times, pleasing the eye of those that yearn an escape of the sorrows. It is therefore not a surprise that we continue to ask ourselves the question of whether art is meant to be political. Is art supposed to create political identity? Or do we desire art as an oasis, an unrelated spring of aesthetics, even a distraction, when the real world suffocates? Is art an instrument of political momentum or an ornament of beauty that resists times of distress? The Art Abu Dhabi Fair opened for the public on Nov. 22 at a time that is once again filled with agitation, frustration, wrongful leaders, and sinful wars. Here is an incredible present-day question to ask: will this art be a harbor of visual satisfaction or will it push us into the discomfort that seems to be omnipresent because of today’s conflicts?
Whilst roaming the very-well-represented art fair, I found an artwork that struck me as both beautiful and rich — rich in the sense that it fed my eye and lured me in with a story.
Image: Two canvases painted red with a rose painted in darker shades, in simple, white frames, with the phrase "- I do smeel war" printed on them.
After feeding on what the image had to offer in a visual sense for me, the gallerist, Jade, offered me the story that it held.
The artist is Turkish and reveals in her artworks the nature of warfare. Quite literally, she takes into focus the effect that war has on the environment, both in the sense of climate change and by endangering species by destroying their habitats.
The picture shown above is the artwork that captured me. It shows a rose, faint, depicted through a nuance of the pink that envelopes it, and the words “I do smell war” are written below. The artwork is a print, Jade tells me, of a painting Bucak made of the Damascus rose, a national artifact of Syria. Through the war and its repercussions, only two families are left that bred these roses. Their smell and color are what characterize them and make them extremely valuable. The artist works with these families to export the roses and grow them in many different places around the world. However, this process is not without trouble. The roses are alive, and therefore a burden to get through customs, needing a passport and documents to be imported. The stress of the journey exhausts them, often causing the plants to die and making the journey somewhat fruitless. Bucak tries again, relentlessly, and in 2016, the first rose survives. This is the bloom depicted in the artwork.
The printing of the painting itself was a process that held depth and meaning. The printing press, which the gallerist showed me a photo of on her phone, was last operated during the Second World War, functioning as a print for war propaganda posters during that time. The artist reactivating these century-old machines to print a pink rose, one that migrated from its home because of war, is an artwork in itself, a story that lives and tells, subconsciously, the story of many, many lives affected by the war.
The story that the artwork carries enforces the incredible visual message that it radiates. After enquiring on the background of the artist and the rose, the pink feels more fierce, and the elements of resistance, of sorrow, of a lost homeland, and tiredness, tiredness of war, seem to appeal from the pigment.
The gallerist Jade answers the question of political arts in her own way: Bucak’s art is “political in a poetic way,” and “if you don't want to see the politics, it is visually pleasing as well.”
This, to me, seems like the balance the arts should offer. There is an ambivalence, but it serves a purpose, a purpose that has proven art valuable as accompanying society through its pains and ecstasies.
The Damascus Rose has traveled and been exhibited in Düsseldorf, Bell University, and Columbia University. Its appearance in Abu Dhabi Art carries further significance in these turbulent times of conflict, hardships displacement, and violence that have prevailed all over the world in the past years. At the same time, the rose, a gesture of love, distinct for its smell, and rich in pigment, offers affection, softening some part of you that has toughened up.
It is tragically beautiful how this flower endures all the struggles and lives to shine bright pink.
Mira Bunga Rachmana Raue is a staff writer. Email them at
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