Struggle for Life (profile of Syrian painter Mohannad Orabi)

Photo Manaf Hassan

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It was in the maternity ward of a hospital as he watched the babies writhe around in their incubators that Syrian artist Mohannad Orabi found inspiration for his latest highly acclaimed collection of paintings.

“The babies were so similar, with only a small bangle to distinguish one from the other,” Orabi said. “However they will grow into very different people, both good and bad. Some will live and become doctors or teachers; others might never make it out of their little incubator.”

Orabi’s portrayals of the uncertainty in a baby’s struggle for life have marked a turning point in his artistic career. Already famous for his portraits, Orabi’s baby paintings have affirmed his reputation as one of the most talented painters on the Syrian art scene.

Although each painting is different from the next, they all depict babies swinging in space with a small shadow underneath them. “The shadow I paint is always small. The baby hasn’t developed very much, he’s just taking off. He might fly away but he could fall back as well,” Orabi said.

Like photographers, painters usually capture a moment of peace, grief or happiness in their work. Orabi is fascinated by the uncertainty in time. Painting in broken curves, he creates a sense of movement in his figures. “I revel in adding three seconds more or less [to the moment]; this leaves the condition open to change,” he said.

As a child, Orabi’s artistic talent never failed to impress his teachers. At the age of 11, he was crowned ‘Best Child Painter in Syria’ and he represented his country at an international youth camp in Germany. A few years later he won the silver medal at the Shankar International Competition in New Delhi, India, in which children from 140 countries took part.

Orabi explained that his parents’ support was a key factor in his success: “My parents weren’t highly educated and they didn’t have a large income, but they did everything they could to support me. They believed in me.”

In a tragic turn of events, Orabi’s parents died the same year he started his academic studies at Damascus University Faculty of Fine Arts in 1996. Shocked by their sudden death, he vented his sorrow through painting. “I wanted to become what my mother wished me to be,” Orabi said. “I paint for her and for my family.”

With countless prizes under his belt, various group and solo exhibitions to his name and paintings in Lebanon, UAE, Saudi Arabia, France, Canada and Switzerland, Orabi has more than lived up to his parents’ expectations.

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Achieving his dream has not been easy however. As a struggling artist Orabi used to work long hours as a cartoonist at Al Najem Syrian Cartoon Company. As one of the company’s founders, he would work nine hours a day which left him little time to pursue his real passion of painting. “By the end of the day I was too exhausted to paint,” he said. “I knew, however, that if I wanted to become a full-time artist, I would have to work hard.”

In 2001, Orabi started his own art magazine, ‘Kalematna’, and went on to present an art show for children on a local Syrian channel. The show was a huge success, proving to be the most popular children’s programme in Syria, according to statistics by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Orabi’s time on the show also led him to become interested in children’s art works and the meaning behind them. “Children’s paintings are really amazing, they reflect their lives and the problems they have at home,” Orabi explained.

After years of struggle, Orabi’s hard work finally paid off and at the age of 31 he was finally able to make a living as a full-time painter, achieving what most aspiring artists can only dream about. He asserts that his ongoing success is largely due to the opening of new private galleries in Syria. “It’s essential to have private galleries that contract painters and present their work to the world,” Orabi said.

Orabi says that while Syria has many talented young artists, they don’t receive enough governmental support. He referred to the fact that most of the paintings put on show for the celebration of Damascus Arab Capital of Culture 2008 were by artists who are dead – a missed opportunity in his opinion. “Why should we wait for the artists to die in order to appreciate their work?” he said.
Regardless of whether or not his paintings continue to be recognised whilst he is alive, Orabi says he will continue painting for as long as he can: “I can’t live without painting, it helps me keep my inner balance,” he said. “I have worked through the most difficult and most pleasant times of my life with my painting. It is an integral part of me.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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