Jawa El Khash moved from Damascus to Toronto five years ago to study Integrated Media and Expanded Animation at OCAD University. It was there that she first encountered the digital processes and 3D softwares that define her practice today. Reflecting on her first interaction with these media, Jawa recalls: “I started to think of it as a tool that combines softness from the renaissance and romanticism era while resembling the harshness of modernism and brutalist architecture.”
Immediately fascinated by the potential of these new tools, the young artist started to incorporate them into her work. Initially making still images, Jawa began to experiment with virtual reality towards the end of her final year. It was that step into the world of VR that really captured her imagination. “It brought me closer to the worlds I was creating,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Before I was only seeing them from a flat screen but now I could walk around them and through them and play with their scale. At that point, the animations I created became life-size simulations and I started to really think about world-building.”
Atmospheric, contemplative and full of emotion these worlds represent Jawa’s attempts to “digitally archive the present and re-imagine the future.” The emotional resonance of Jawa’s virtual spaces, and the obvious care with which they’ve been crafted, speak to her deep, personal connection to the subjects she deals with. “My work comes from everything around me,” she muses, “my homeland, nature, people, artists I love and the ones who came before me.”
In her latest work The Upper Side of the Sky, Jawa presents a VR landscape populated by the ghostly bodies of Syria’s lost ecological and architectural forms. These artefacts – which have been destroyed, damaged or endangered as a result of the Syrian Civil War – find themselves resurrected in a virtual ecosystem comprising of a greenhouse, courtyard, chrysalis chamber, butterflies and ancient monuments native to Palmyra. In a website made for the project, Jawa displays each of these objects individually, breaking down their provenance and the meticulous thought process behind their selection. Each looming monument, each pattern printed on the tiles and each fruit, plant or herb exists in the space as a result of a rigorous procedure of research and theoretical reflection.
Some of these artefacts were sculpted by Jawa herself while others were taken from open source libraries like New Palmyra, an organisation creating 3D models of Syria’s destructed monuments. Using objects shared by these platforms was both a practical and conceptual consideration in the work. Reflecting on the importance of this process, Jawa says: “The idea of building virtual worlds using open source libraries is important to me as it’s a gesture of resilience against the destruction of these historical objects. It also supports sharing knowledge with future generations so they can learn about their history and access this data.”
At first glance The Upper Side of the Sky might seem to be restoring these lost artefacts to their former glory, but Jawa takes care to complicate that narrative. Using the vernacular of 3D software to articulate the degradation inherent to this process, we see mesh lines turn into skeletons and once luscious plants flattened into textures.
The results are as beautiful as they are haunting. As we drift through the faded mirages of these restorations, Jawa urges us to reflect on the nuances of these acts of preservation. “I wanted to digitise this lost architecture and plant life, not to save them, but to give them an opportunity to live in different life forms and to act as a record for future generations,” she explains. “These lost monuments are irreplaceable, but their photo-realistic reconstruction offers us some solace by allowing us to walk the memories of the monuments in their past.”