Prisoners in Azaz, drawn by Butler
‘Describe’ is not a word many artists would use to explain what it is they do with a paintbrush. But then, not many artists would decide to pack up their paints
and paper and brave the manifold horrors of today’s Syria.
George Butler is an illustrator who did just that. Looking for Syrian refugees to draw in Turkey in August 2012, the 28-year-old took the advice of a man in a sweet shop and crossed the border into the small and mostly empty Syrian town of Azaz, a place he says passes most journalists by as they speed towards the drama of battles in Aleppo or Damascus. There, in his scrawled, delicate style, he recorded the everyday life of a town slowly coming round after a recent battle between regime troops and the Free Syrian Army – the prisoners languishing in a Free Syrian Army-held prison, men on motorbikes outside a re-opened market, children swinging on the turrets of abandoned army tanks.
While more conventional reporters rush from death to death (a process devastatingly described recently by the Italian freelancer Francesca Borri), Butler is stopping to look, and to draw what he sees. He calls it describing.
I meet Butler at the Illustration Cupboard, an intimate gallery in west London dedicated exclusively to illustration, which is currently exhibiting a year of his drawings (as well as two trips to Syria, he has worked in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Mali and Mumbai).
I ask him what how he sees his position as an artist in a situation of such brutal conflict.
“I think my role, albeit self-appointed, is to describe over a period of time what’s going on in front of me and my experience of it,” he says.
“I think these places just need as many different ways of recording them as possible to try to relate to as many people as possible.
“I suppose the role of an artist is the same as a photojournalist. You’re looking for that one image to try and relate to someone who doesn’t know anything about it, and I suppose to make a difference, as clichéd as it sounds.”
Butler says his quietly-observed portraits are not competing with photographs for the front page of a newspaper.
That said, his Syria pieces have received a great deal more attention then he initially imagined, including from CNN, al-Arabiya, BBC World Service and the Guardian, where his painting of an Azaz market made the cover of its magazine G2. During a war in which we are saturated with images of bloodied bodies and Kalashnikov-wielding fighters, it seems there is also a market for images that capture the detail of the everyday.
“I think sometimes people just flick over photographs and as humans we\'re very much programmed to read photos in a certain way,” says Butler.
“When you turn the page and you see an illustration, sometimes it holds your attention for a bit longer.”
In a context of such intense suffering, it’s impossible not to wonder what ordinary Syrians must have made of this Kingston University graduate setting up shop with his canvas and paints in their war-stricken town.
On the whole, they were interested and accepting, he says, explaining that some saw the value in having their stories told in this way, while others had bigger things to worry about and paid him little attention.
He shows me one subject who posed to be drawn, despite being behind bars at an FSA-run police station at the time.
“I didn’t know the reason these people were being held in prison so it was a little bit like drawing in a zoo,” he recalls.
“What I didn’t realise for most of the time is that this man realised exactly what I was doing and he just lay there very compliant, almost posing I suppose, staring out at me.
\"And then after about 20 minutes he sort of nodded to check whether I’d finished, and I nodded back and he got up and walked off and sat at the back.”
Butler adds: “It was an extraordinary experience for me, but I also had a real desire to try and describe it for anyone else who wanted to look at it.”
Another painting shows children swinging on abandoned army tanks in front of an Azaz mosque, during a time when residents had just begun to return to see whether their homes had survived the recent fighting.
As with all his paintings, Butler did not attempt to draw everything, but “picked out details that made the place what it was” – a still-functioning bakery; a sign pointing back towards the border with Turkey.
“As someone who’d literally just arrived it was quite strange that this had become so normal for them” Butler says of the children’s fascination with the tanks.
The illustrator has been back to Syria once since this visit, to draw among refugees and in field hospitals.
His next trip is to Burma, where he will be drawing tuberculosis sufferers for the charity Médecins Sans Frontières.
But he’d like to go back to Syria again, and hopes further drawings will help raise awareness of what is happening there.
With an end to the country\'s bloody war apparently as distant as ever, there will certainly be a lot to describe.
A Year of Drawing: George Butler, adventurer and illustrator is at the Illustration Cupboard, 22 Bury St, London, SW1Y 6AL, until August 3. See www.illustrationcupboard.com and www.georgebutler.org to find out more