My Suweida (profile of Syrian painter Houssam Ballan)

Syrian painter, Houssam Ballan paints his hometown Suweida in a contemporary realistic style.

Watching Houssam Ballan’s paintings is like having a walk in the streets of his hometown Suweida. With the street as their main playground, you see kids all over his canvases running around, chasing a cat or scribbling on walls. Women sit cross-legged playing the lute while others have an afternoon siesta break. “I want to capture the essence of life in Suweida, especially the old parts of it.” He says.

Ballan is driven by his fear of the sweeping modernity which he believes is taking over his city. He tells me with nostalgia about Suweida’s black little alleys, old fashioned shops and Salman, the local madman whom everybody calls Faraj! “He gets so irritated when we call him a different name!” Ballan says cheerily.

Although Ballan depicts the everyday life in Suweida in a realistic style, his works aren’t a photo-like depiction which captures a moment. Rather, they are composed to reflect a period of time, a story.  Ballan points to one of his works in which he painted a boy lying on his back on the ground while his legs are crossed above a plastic chair. Crammed in the upper left side of the canvas, only the boy’s legs appear in the painting while the rest of the painting depicts the dusty ground with several footsteps leading to the chair. Looking at the painting, you can almost see the boy playing around till he became so tired that he fell asleep on the ground while the waterpipe’s charcoal ash Ballan used in his work reflected the dusty nature of Suweida so expertly that you can almost smell it.

By adding charcoal ash, collage and sometimes even motifs and fractals to his paintings, Ballan broke the traditional image of realism. “What I do is contemporary realism,” he says. “It’s easy to paint in a realistic way because all you need is good technique, contemporary realism, on the other hand, requires intellect because it doesn’t reflect a scene but an idea.”

In one of his latest works, you see four boys standing cheerily at the center of the canvas. While one of them is painted in a realistic way, the other three’s features are slightly washed away; the background, on the other hand, is abstract.  Painted mainly in black and white, the painting looks like an old worn out newspaper.

“I like the graphic and print texture of black and white newspapers,” Ballan says. “I like mixing many shades of black and white, it’s just like music the larger the musical scale is, the richer the composition becomes.”

Ballan even adds iconic elements to some of his works. In one of his paintings, Ballan painted two boys standing against a wall holding each other with one hand, a black cat and a white rabbit with the other hand. Just like in icons, Ballan situated the boys in the center adding a lot of light to his work without painting any shadows on their faces. Furthermore, he minimized their body ignoring the original dimensions of the body, also a characteristic of icons.  “When painting an icon, Christian painters didn’t care much about the aesthetics of their work, what they cared about was the sacred story or idea,” Ballan says. “I like this spontaneity in painting.”

Taking a closer look at the painting you’d notice that not only did Ballan ignore the aesthetics and classical dimensions when painting the boys, but he completely broke any hint of realism by adding five hands for the boys instead of four.

“Figures in the icons are far from perfect, yet it’s this sheer expression that makes them so amazing!” says Ballan “I believe that fussing over every detail in the painting makes it lose this charm. It’s like dancing, at the beginning you have to focus on every movement you do but it’s only when you forget about yourself and start moving spontaneously that your dance becomes so beautiful.”


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