This is Life (Profile of Syrian painter Mohannad Orabi)

Inspired by premature babies, Mohannad Orabi paints the struggle for life.


Entering Mohannad Orabi’s studio is like stepping into a kindergarten. All over his canvases are babies with big round heads and coal-black almond eyes busy playing yo-yo, throwing balls or riding bikes. Nevertheless, no glimmer of smiles plays across their faces for it’s not the carefree happiness of children that Orabi paints; Inspired by the lines of premature babies writhing in incubators in the maternity ward of a hospital, what Orabi paints is the uncertainty in the babies’ struggle for life. Therefore he paints them swinging in space with a small shadow underneath them. Painted with broken lines, Orabi adds movement to his figures that they often seem about to fall off the canvas.   “I revel in adding three seconds more or less (to the moment); this leaves the condition open to change,” He says.

Entitled “Self portraits”, Orabi’s figures reflect his own struggle for life after his parents’ sudden death while he was still a teenager, and his struggle to make ends meet as an emerging painter in Syria. Nevertheless, Orabi stresses the universality of his theme. Behind the sad faces and bent bodies what he really paints is the duality or fear and boldness, surrender and determination; in other words, life.

“This figure could be you, or me or any person out there who identifies with it.” He says comparing his paintings to a family album. “While some pose to camera confidently, others smile shyly and are embarrassed to show the photo afterwards.”

Drenched in colors, Orabi’s figures are set against a monochromatic background, usually covered with cherry red, coal-black or white color. In his latest works however, a pale grey took over his typically bright background, hence drawing more attention to the figures. Observing his paintings, as if seeing them for the first time, Orabi starts guessing the implications of this new color. While his earlier colors, vibrant and prevailing as they were, laid emphasis on the background, thus implying the influence of the figures’ milieu and society on them, the new pale grey reveals, according to Orabi, their detachment from their surroundings. “They disentangled themselves from the pressure of society and its bargains.” He says.

Ironically dressed in traditional Syrian clothes, the figures have indeed thrown down the gauntlet.  “The once instable babies are no longer floating in space,” Orabi says.”Rather, they swing their arms challengingly at the viewer as if saying ‘This is me!’ “

As we go on in a game of guessing, Orabi tells me he never has any idea in mind when painting “Only after finishing the painting that I start analyzing its meaning,” He says. It’s form that Orabi is more concerned about. In his latest collection of paintings for example, all his figures wear hats that vary from trendy caps to classical tarbooshes for no other reason than pure mathematics. “I like the relationship between the triangle (the hat), the circle (face) and the rectangle (body),” Orabi says. “It’s exciting how with a few lines you can reflect a person, you need two arcs to cross at two points and voilá! You get an eye.”

Putting meaning and form aside, what Orabi is the most concerned about, is painting.  “It’s my release, without painting I’d be completely out of balance.”

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