Q&A with Syrian sculptor Issa Kozah

“I prefer listening to music without lyrics; singing sometimes bothers me, especially when it involves repeated lyrics, because I do not like talking,” says the Syrian sculptor, Issa Kazah, who doesn’t mind spending days without speaking to anyone. He spends those days in his small studio in the old part of Damascus, surrounded by his sculptures that are all over the place. Isolation is his constant companion, especially as he prepares for his fourth exhibition that will be inaugurated at the beginning of this year in Kozah Gallery.

What was the beginning like?

It is not easy to be a sculptor, because unlike other visual art forms, sculpture is very expensive and it requires specific tools and a special studio. These high costs were the reason behind my interrupted career start:  After I graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts I had to do something else to earn a living. In order not to distance myself too much from the artistic world, I chose to work in commercial photography. I therefore stopped sculpting for a year, but I kept reading art books and visiting exhibitions, which facilitated my return to sculpture.

I rented my first studio in a farm that is an hour and a half drive from Damascus. I worked there with another sculptor under harsh conditions, as we lacked the basic commodities like water and electricity. However, I later managed to rent a studio of my own in Dumar (an area in the suburbs of Damascus), and then in old Damascus. Today I can dedicate myself to my art, and only have to work in photography two days a week to make ends meet.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Artists are part of this society and can no longer shut themselves off and live in isolation from their surroundings as they used to in the past. I am provoked by the stories, wars and breaking news that surround us from every angle and inevitably leave a trace in my work. For instance, Israel’s war on Gaza last year left a big impact on me that showed in my work. (Says the artist, pointing to a bronze sculpture that represents three people queuing in front of a locked door; in the front stands the man behind him a woman then a child. While they are standing upright, and looking at the door with patience and determination, their bodies seem frail and their heads resemble skulls).

I think that the importance of a piece of artwork lies in the idea first and then its style. The idea determines the form of my sculptures. I sometimes stop working for months if I have not had the right idea, whereas at other times the ideas flow inside me and I work for days in my studio without seeing anyone and enjoying my isolation. My favourite time is the morning; I wake up early because ideas come to me at dawn, and I draw sketches for them, these being an essential part of my work.

Both your father and uncle are architects and you claim that you carry architecture “in your genes”.  To what extent has the architecture influenced your work as a sculptor?

Architecture has influenced the way I build my artwork. After all, sculpture is very similar to architecture for a sculpture is a unit in space just like a building is. Therefore, sculptors should have a good sense of architecture and proportion. It is also important that he finds the right fulcrum point. That’s why the base constitutes 50% of the composition of my sculptures which though small in size (they usually range between 25 and 35 cm) give the impression of a monumental sculpture.

Which art schools have influenced you most?

Primitive art, be it Chinese, African or Arab, attracts me more than modern or contemporary art. Cave paintings fascinate me. Their simplification of form motivates me in my work because I feel that this fascinating legacy that the primitive man has left us should continue.

You have accelerated the casting process in your works. Could you tell us more about that?

I use plaster directly, avoiding clay and other casts. Usually, sculptors assemble an armature then they apply clay to build the form from the inside out. Once they are satisfied with the form of the sculpture, they create a plaster cast for it on which they later on spread an insulating material and fill with plaster to get a plaster version of the clay sculpture. At the end, they apply sand or lost-wax (which is usually applied to more delicate artworks) casting on it to get the final bronze sculpture. I skip the plaster casting by immediately applying plaster instead of clay to the armature. It’s harder this way because while clay is easy to form, plaster is rigid so you need to achieve the right form immediately because you can’t modify the form later.

What do you think about where Syrian sculpture stands today?

Syrian sculpture is still in its birth process, and lacks artistic accumulation and quantity. This doesn’t mean that there is not any Syrian work of high standing. But unlike painting which is more mature due to the greater artistic numbers and interest that it has enjoyed from and by Syrian artists, sculpture still needs more time and a more artists to gain greater international value.

Despite its strong presence in the past, in Palmyra for instance, sculpture is still recent in Syria. And that’s because it was banned for religious reasons and did not appear again in Syria until the beginning of the past century. Sculpture began developing considerably but slowly in the 1970s, when the government began supporting it and capital was invested to encourage the sculpture movement. Generally, art does not develop under poverty. Rather it requires the existence of a rich class capable of acquiring artwork, thus helping the artists to produce.

This long absence of sculpture in Syria, which lasted for hundreds of years, had a big impact on the artistic identity of Syrian sculptors. Here again I compare sculpture to architecture. Syrian architecture is either very old or an imitation of modern architecture abroad. I have trouble finding a clear identity for modern Syrian architecture just like I have trouble finding one for sculpture.

Where do you find yourself as a sculptor between these two identities?

Simplification of form and the human figure has a strong presence in my work. But since it’s the idea that determines form in my works, each of my sculptures has a different style. Every idea can create a wholly different sculpture and therefore my work oscillates between abstraction and realism, and its surface between rough and smooth. I don’t follow one art school or current but use them as tools to express my ideas.

Unlike in the past, Syria’s visual art scene has developed rapidly in the last few years. Syrian artworks are now selling for millions at international auction houses like Christie’s and Sotherby’s. To what extent did this sudden change affect Syrian artists?

This was going to happen, but probably at a slower pace. In any case, it has had a positive impact on Syrian artists. While many Syrian artists made it into the international art scene before, this global interest in Middle Eastern art made success much easier and faster for the new generation of artists.

The value of Syrian art competes with Arab and international art and therefore deserves to take its place internationally and to be sold at international prices. As a result, artwork by some Syrian artists has become unaffordable for Syrian collectors, but that doesn’t affect Syrian art in general.

Many Syrian critics have censured this “illogical” and “sudden” rise in the prices of artwork, considering that it has transformed it into a commercial good. What do you think of this as a Syrian artist?

The artist, like everyone else, needs to live and needs money to continue in his art. I do not think it is wrong for young artists to produce some commercial art to make money and thus be able to make the high standard artworks that they want. Young artists need financial support; this is sometimes granted by a gallery promoting their work or someone who believes in their talent, but if they have neither and do not come from a rich family, they have no choice but to do other things in order to earn a living.

What impact has the economic crisis had on Syria’s art market after its sudden development and the rise in prices it has witnessed in recent years?

The effect of the crisis has appeared only recently. When the economic crisis reached its peak abroad, the Syrian market remained active, due mainly to the Syrian economy’s relative isolation from the world market. Its effects were therefore more psychological than material. But the market has recently begun to stagnate and art is one of the first things to be affected in such crises for it is not considered a necessity but a luxury. Overall, the effect has not been major.

Syrian painting occupies an important position in the Arab art scene. What about sculpture?

Sculpture, in general, does not have much presence in the Arab world today. The Arab country that is most prominent in sculpture today is probably Egypt, where sculptors went back to sculpting a little before the Syrians. Iraqi and Lebanese sculptors also stand out. But I imagine that the climate in Syria is the best today for sculpture, compared with the rest of the Arab countries, and recently, several sculptors have appeared, a good sign for the development of Syrian sculpture in the near future.

I published this interview in Revolve magazine in Arabic. Revolve translated it into English.

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