“Virtual ecstasy mingled with an Oriental taste” – this is how Syrian painter Elias Al Zayyat described Edward Shahda’s paintings, which turned heads at exhibitions in Turkey, Switzerland, Sweden, Russia and China. His art distinguishes itself by the freedom of subjects, styles and colours, something Shahda attributes to his love of nature.
Born in Damascus in 1952, Shahda grew up in the rural environment of Hama. As a child, he used to escape into nature and paint all day. “The colours of the Orontes River and trees in Hama affected my work a lot,” Shahda says. “Nature gave me complete freedom to experiment.”
Spontaneity and freedom weren’t much appreciated at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus however. During his studies, Shahda was confronted with a list of painting rules and principles. Though he first felt restricted and rebelled against these rules, he soon realised he was wrong. “It’s important to learn the principles of painting first, so that one can then break them.”
Throughout his studies, Shahda was disappointed by the faculty’s unclear curriculum and its indifference towards Eastern art. Despite the long history of Eastern art and civilisations, the institute dealt with the topic in a summary way. “I don’t see why we should copy Venus and Roman art when we have the ancient art of Palmyra right in front of us,” Shahda says.
Shahda focused on the study of Christian icons and Islamic miniatures, which is the Islamic art of book illustration, derived from the 13th-century Baghdad school of manuscript illustration. He was fascinated to discover that while the miniatures were an Islamic art form and the icons were Christian, they used the same decorative elements and had the same vision.
Like other forms of Eastern art, the miniatures and icons are very much to Shahda’s liking. They brush aside Greek aesthetics, ignore the rules of symmetry, and focus instead on the spiritual. The images are always two-dimensional because the artists considered depth to be a lie. According to Shahda, it’s quite logical: they painted on paper, which is flat, so why should the drawings use perspective?
Inspired by his study of Eastern art, Shahda opened an exhibition in 2006 in Damascus entitled “Oriental Makamat”. The exhibition was a hit and he gained great acclaim.
As soon as his exhibition ended, Shahda sought a new source of inspiration: still life. Again, he refused to stick to the classical rules of painting. Bringing together the colours and flat surface of Eastern art with usual subjects of still life painting like a glass, a piece of fruit or a vase, Shahda created his own abstract works.
In painting a landscape or the objects on a table, he avoided depth and perspective, giving his subjects full freedom to blend together, giving the impression of an abstract painting. “The colours are the most important elements in these paintings,” Shahda explains. “They reflect the time and mood of the work.”
Though art is his ruling passion, Shahda also worked as a carpenter and decorator. He made the wooden decorations of the first Syrian Opera House in Damascus and worked on the decoration of several cultural centres. However, a few years after he had bought his new atelier in the artists’quarter of old Damascus in 2003, Shahda decided to become a full-time painter.
Today, he not only works as on his own art, but also organises weekly gatherings where young painters can discover different styles and painting techniques. They review all art schools and exchange views about different subjects. “No matter which art school artists follow, practicing all forms of art is essential for their development.”
In parallel, he also holds sessions where he brings together emerging and established artists in an effort to bridge the gap between the two. “I want to create a dialogue and art exchange between the two generations of artists,” Shahda says. “This widens our scope.” Working with local artists, Shahda has organised six major meetings so far.
After almost 40 years of continuously studying art, Shahda is still looking for new sources of inspiration. “Painting is like eating,” he says. “You can’t eat the same meal every day!”
This article was published in Syria Today magazine. Issue no. 35