The marriage of politics and art is not a common one. But it’s a union that Syrian native and Sag Harbor resident Hadi Toron has successfully seen to fruition.
Now a full-time painter, Toron’s works are inspired by his experiences as a former United Nations diplomat, and his contributions to American art and American foreign service will soon be recognized by the U.S. Department of State through their ART in Embassies program.
Born in 1945 in Damacus, Toron realized his passion for art at an early age. Though he pursued an arts education in Rome and then at the Fine Art Academy at Syria’s Damacus University, he became slightly disenchanted by the highly subjective nature of his chosen field.
“I had a feeling that I needed to enlarge my scope of interest,” said Toron. He simultaneously began to study law, and graduated from Damacus University in 1970 with a dual degree in Fine Arts and in Law.
Soon after, Toron moved to New York. He continued to paint, but his more pressing objective was to find work, as he didn’t believe in selling his paintings. Though he did begin to exhibit his work in the United States—his first exhibition was in Cleveland—it was Toron’s burgeoning political career that ultimately inspired and established his career as an artist.
Toron proceeded to work toward a master’s in political science with a concentration in international law, and he started working for the United Nations in 1980.
In 1989, Toron was appointed director of the United Nations Information Center in Khartoum, Sudan. It was in the African nation that Toron’s art really started to flourish.
“Sudan society and people really moved me in a new direction, where I’m still painting the Sudanese today,” said Toron.
Toron mainly found himself in group shows in Sudan, and often with other diplomatic artists, including the wife of the Pakistani ambassador. But after five years in Sudan, Toron accepted a similar position with the U.N. in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago.
“I continued to paint Sudanese life, but now it also reflected Caribbean characters,” said Toron.
In 2002, after eight years in the city of Port of Spain, Toron entered into his self-proclaimed “early retirement.” However, his retired years would have to match a high standard, as he was constantly teased about having an idyllic life in the Caribbean.
“I was accused of having the best job in the U.N.,” jokes Toron.
“But, I really wanted to paint,” he explained. He moved to a studio in Sag Harbor and later wed longtime friend Marie-Christine Matter.
“I’ve always loved the Hamptons—I had been here in the 1970s and I fell in love with Sag Harbor,” explained Toron.
However, the soft colors of the paintings that grace Toron’s home stand in stark contrast to the violence that has recently plagued his Syrian home.
“People in the Arab World are becoming fed up with dictatorships, corruption and poverty in a region very rich with natural resources, so they had to rise,” Toron explained. “That’s what’s happening in Syria, but it’s definitely more complicated than other spots in the region.”
Syria, a Middle Eastern country situated between Lebanon and Turkey and bordering the Mediterranean Sea, has been ruled by the Assad regime since 1970—current president Bashar al-Assad inherited his leadership from his father Hafez al-Assad. Influenced by the ‘Arab Spring,’ a wave of protests that have occurred throughout the Arab world since December 2010, violence in Syria escalated last March as protestors revolted against Syria’s largely oppressive dictatorship.
Among the protesters’ demands was the repeal of the Emergency Law which allowed arrests to be made without a charge, for various political parties to be deemed legal and for the resignation of corrupt officials with many ultimately hoping to end the Assad regime. Though the government has responded to a handful of the demands, it has also increased its use of force to subdue the protestors.
As a result of the increased government violence despite agreeing to a peace plan, Syria was suspended from the Arab League in November.
But, on December 19, Syria again agreed to allow Arab League observers into the country to work with the Assad government to end the conflicts, after the League threatened to take initiative in the U.N. Security Council. The observers arrived on December 27. While the violence has continued, there is still hope that Syria can avoid an explosive Civil War.
“Syrian society is a complex one, with so many ethnic and religious groups,” said Toron. “We all hope this conflict will not turn to a Civil War with ugly sectarian interactions.”
Syria’s unique situation is highlighted by the fact that the majority of the population follows Sunni Islam, but the country is ruled by the minority Alawite sect of Shiite Islam.
The situation is also complicated by a divided response from external influences, as the United States, the European Union and the Arab League have put sanctions on the Syrian government, but Russia and China have blocked strong U.N. Security Council initiatives.
The Syrian government has repeatedly claimed that armed terrorist groups are responsible for the violence. The U.N. estimates that over 5,000 people have been killed in the protests since March.
A unique aspect to the United States’ increasing efforts to bolster diplomatic relations worldwide, however, has been its decades-old ART in Embassies Program. Founded in 1963, the program establishes temporary and permanent exhibitions of American artists in US territories worldwide.
A selection of Toron’s paintings will be displayed in Qatar beginning in 2012. The program mostly chose to exhibit Toron’s Sudanese images and his work on Damacus, which Toron completed for his graduate studies.
Interestingly, Toron rarely has an appointed theme or portfolio in mind when he paints. It is the subjective nature art that initially led him to pursue politics that now appeals most to him.
“I paint what I feel. It’s my reaction to what I see.”