The Art of Deformation (profile of painter Nihad al-Turk)

Syrian painter Nihad al-Turk explains how four months in prison shaped his artistic career.

Looking at Nihad al-Turk’s works is like watching a science fiction movie. Painted with strong, fast brushstrokes and bright colours, deformed mythological creatures, half-human-half-beast, grow all over his canvases and appear to radiate light. Each figure has a necklace with seven dark beads dangling around its neck.

“The beads resemble the members of my family,” Turk said as he pulled out the very same necklace with seven round olive pits from under his jumper. “This deformed and shattered creature I paint is actually me.”

As our interview progresses, this statement does not surprise me. He tells me stories of growing up in extreme poverty, of his mother hand-washing her five children’s clothes in a large basin, and of his father heading off to work exhausted at 5:30am every morning to put food on the table for his family.

However, it was in fact not his tough childhood that influenced Turk’s gloomy style; an incident in 1992 shaped his work and life much more profoundly.

The young artist’s first exhibition took place in 1992, while he was doing his military service. Excited about the show, Turk took time off from the military without permission from his superiors – not just to attend the opening, but for the full 27 days of the exhibition.

The consequences were severe. Turk was arrested and sentenced to four months imprisonment in the military prison in Palmyra. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I kept thinking it was a lie until I saw the ruins of Palmyra through the narrow bars of the police van.”

Life in the military prison was no picnic so Turk sought to ingratiate himself with the guards by offering them paintings. But what initially seemed like a clever way of using his talent to make prison life easier soon became unbearable.

Every day, Turk would be given a 50-page sketchbook and asked to fill the whole pad with drawings of beautiful women, shiny lips and red hearts. At the end of the day the guards would take the drawings, add a couple of lines of poetry and give them to their girlfriends.

The work was exhausting and left Turk feeling entirely despondent. After his release, he sought out psychological help. “I felt like a sheet of shattered glass,” he said. “My only release was painting.”

Today, the beautiful women and scarlet hearts have been replaced by amputated corpses painted in harsh twisted lines that resemble burnt trees. The poignancy of his work is reinforced by his painting technique: using oil paint on a thin layer of paste, he scratches the corpses with pencil lines. The deep grooves that are left in the paste represent the shackles that chain his characters.

Even when painting still life portraits, Turk still distorts his subjects using ragged lines and nervous brushstrokes. Unable to bear stillness, he often adds one of his living creatures – usually a mouse with seven feet – to his works. “I can’t paint anything without life in it and it’s the creatures that give life to my paintings.”

In spite of the supernatural and aggressive appearance of Turk’s creatures, he believes they are not that far removed from reality. “We live in a region full of war and economic hardship, so people will inevitably be slightly deformed.”

In fact, Turk even feels his works express a sense of hope, conveying his love of life and desire to persevere against the odds.

For more information about Nihad al-Turk log on to

Nihad al-Turk
Born in 1972 in Aleppo, Nihad al-Turk never formally studied fine art. After primary school, he started working and earning money for his impoverished family. At the time, Turk could never have dreamt that he would one day be exhibiting his work all over the world with collectors from Lebanon, Turkey, Dubai, the USA, France and Switzerland flocking to buy them.Turk’s most recent shows include a solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery in Damascus at the end of last year and a collective exhibition at Mark Hachem Gallery in New York in October and November 2008.

This article was published in Syira Today magazine.


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