The Odd One Out

Growing up in a family of doctors, Buthayna Ali’s household couldn’t have possibly been further removed from the arts. I discuss with the Syrian-born artist in Damascus how societal, religious and gender-related taboos fuel Ali’s oeuvre.

Buthayna Ali at her exhibtion We. 2006. 330 rubber swings, rope, sand, sound and light. Total size: 600 square metres.

Since the first time she attended an art exhibition as a tiddler, Buthayna Ali knew she wanted to become an artist. As a child, she would organise weekly in-house exhibitions for her family and showcase portraits of them, landscapes and sketches of her surroundings. Although her father expected her to study medicine, Ali applied to Damascus University’s Faculty of Fine Arts (where she now teaches painting) and later completed a diploma in painting from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts and a Master’s degree in Islamic Art History at the Paris IV Sorbonne University.

As a multimedia artist, Ali is not only the odd one out in her family, but also within the Syrian art scene that is still largely dominated by classical art forms. Even though Ali admires the works of artists like Michelangelo, Manet and Schiele, the modernist art tendencies of artists like Duchamp in the early 20th century left the biggest impact on her. “The freedom in art in the 20th century helped me break many boundaries. Art for me is about freedom,” Ali says.

I can’t decide which is more provocative in conservative Damascene circles – the art forms that Ali pursues or her eagerness to break the taboos of sex and religion in her work. One thing is certain: Ali’s work never fails to raise eyebrows in her native Syria. When asked what her thoughts are on addressing ‘square issues’, Ali shrugs. “Art is meant to break traditions. It is important to free your tools and open your mind to new ways of expression,” she says, acknowledging acceptance of the fact that conventional spheres in Syria may not appreciate her work. “The first time I saw an installation as an art student in France, I thought it was crap. You don’t wake up one day and start to like video or installation art,” she adds; “To appreciate these art forms, you first need to understand the process that led to their creation and this does not happen between one day and another.”

Breaking Taboos

Even outside Syria, Ali’s work causes controversy. Her installation, No Comment, features copies of the Qur’an, Bible and Tanakh chained inside a glass display case with audio recordings of Islamic verses, Assyrian hymns and Jewish songs. It was denied entry into Jerusalem for participation in the 2009 exhibition, The Other Shadow of the City, curated by Samar Martha at Al-Hoash Gallery. Through the work, Ali criticises religious hypocrisy and implies that the teachings of the three religions are no longer followed, but are instead used for political propaganda. Ali did not receive an official explanation as to why the work was rejected. The work, which was never exhibited, didn’t make it back to Damascus and was ruined on the way.

“I made this artwork especially for The Other Shadow of the City exhibition and I chose this subject because Jerusalem for me is about these three religions and their fight to gain control over the city,” Ali said. “I was very disappointed that the art work was not allowed into Jerusalem. I’ve always dreamed about visiting Jerusalem and I was so excited that my work could be exhibited there.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Her easygoing and informal persona allows her to stroll along the streets of Damascus to convince ordinary Syrians – from the local butcher to the veiled woman walking down Souk Al-Hamidiyeh – to talk to Ali openly about their views on sex, life and the concept of homeland. In her installation, Marionettes, Ali probed men and women from different cultural and religious backgrounds on Syria’s curious lingerie production which includes edible undergarments and remote-controlled bras that play music and spring open with a press of a button. The inspiration for this work came from seeing kitschy lingerie spread out on a peddler’s small table next to the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Old Damascus. “I found it very contradictory that it is a taboo to talk about sex, yet it is perfectly normal to sell lingerie in front of places of worship and to have women, mostly veiled ones, go into the Syrian equivalent of sex shops where men sell them lewd lingerie!” exclaims Ali.

The piece, exhibited in Point Ephémère in Paris in 2007, features eight lingerie items hung by strings, like marionettes, and which face eight mirrors. Visitors standing in front of the mirrors appear to be wearing the undergarments; a changing room – for anyone wishing to try on the lingerie – plays audio files of conversations between Ali and interviewed men and women who had been asked their opinions on the lingerie and whether they would purchase any of the items. To Ali’s surprise, most of the Syrian men she interviewed said they didn’t like them, while the majority of the women said that they would wear them.

Syria’s provocative lingerie production caught the interest of other artists as well. Designer Rana Salam and writer Malu Halasa published the book The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie in which various Syrian women voiced their fears, hopes and view of sex and marriage. In Marionettes, Ali decided to go a step further by making visitors of her exhibition, even if only virtually, wear that lingerie and thus see the subject from a more personal point of view.

“The work is about the viewers rather than the exhibited lingerie. I wanted to challenge the visitors and dare them to wear those lewd pieces,” Ali says pointing out that interaction with the audience is why she chose to make installations instead of paintings.  “A boundary always exists between the viewer and a painting, and it takes a long time to overcome it. Installations, on the other hand, involve all the senses of the viewer making the artwork easier to grasp and more intimate. This also makes it more colourful. Monet painted the Cathedral in each period of the day to show it, each time, in a different light. My installations change with every visitor; each one of them make it appear in a different light.”

Y Why! 2010. 22 cement slingshots, rubber and leather. Total size: 600 square metres.

Issues of Displacement

During the interview, roles were often reversed and Ali was the one asking the questions – something akin to the second nature of a restless artist. “In Arab countries we take many things as a given. There are a lot of things that you don’t question because you are not supposed to,” she says. “I didn’t choose my name, my sex, my country of origin or the religion I was born into. There are a few things left where I can have a choice, so why not? Asking questions gives me choices.” Her constant travel between Europe, Syria and Canada for study and work allowed her to question the concept of home, especially when meeting second-generation immigrants who consider their parents’ country of origin as their homeland even though some had never lived there and don’t speak its language. “Can you inherit a homeland?” Ali asks. “I don’t understand how it can be that you grow up and spend your whole life in a certain country and yet feel that you belong to another one that you’ve hardly visited!” Inspired by the immigrants and their sense of dislocation, Ali created the photomontage, Examples, in which she asked immigrants in various countries where it is that they call home. Exhibited in 2008 at Paris’s Enrico Navarra Gallery, the work features interviews and portraits of Ali’s ‘examples’ created in a book format, but hung. Like bookends, each person’s face and the back of their heads framed the contents within, thus inviting viewers to read what is essentially, within these ‘minds’. The conversation then begs the question: where does Ali call home? Unflinchingly and in a heavy Damascene accent, she quickly says, “Al-Sham (Damascus) is my home. I don’t see homeland as a political unit though. Less than 100 years ago, the Syria we know today did not exist. My homeland is where I grew up and where my childhood memories are.”

Dislocation is also a central theme in Ali’s installation, Y, which was commissioned and later purchased by Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art. The artwork is comprised of 22 slingshots which symbolise the 22 Arab countries that according to Ali, “catapult their citizens”, or, in other words, force them to immigrate and seek asylum for various political, economical and social reasons. Using cement, Ali sized each slingshot according to the size of the Arab country it represents and reflected its migration rate during the last decade in the length of its rubber straps. Why slingshots, I ask? “Because they involve a short period of flying. They give a sense of freedom. This initial freedom, however, is short-lived. They will soon hit the ground with a brutal jolt,” replies Ali, referring to the emotional impact of being uprooted.

Calling for Equality

Ali insists that she is not a feminist. However, the Syrian tradition of deeming trivial or casual conversations ‘women’s talk’ and the fact that two women’s testimonies equal a man’s in Syrian courts provoked the title of one her most recent works, Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! that was exhibited at Tütün Deposu in Istanbul in 2010 as part of the Sharing Waters sauna meets hammam project curated by Ulla Kastrup. In the piece, Ali explores the hammam as a refuge for women away from the sphere of male influence and authority; a place where they can spend “me-time” and share their secrets and concerns mostly concerning the opposite sex.  Ali’s belief of women being unequal to men is not restricted to Syrian society – the work includes a Japanese woman’s recitation of discrimination in her workplace because of her gender; an Iraqi refugee’s tales on being a prostitute in Syria and an American woman’s criticisms on society for frowning upon her having four or five sexual partners. “I see the hammam as a place where women peel off their clothes and restraints and enjoy a short period of freedom and gather strength to face their lives in a patriarchal society,” adds Ali. “It was very hard to convince women to open up and tell me the stories that they would otherwise confide in their close friends in a hammam.” Getting these women to talk was not the only challenge – Ali’s subjects opted to record their voices on tape for sake of privacy as opposed to speaking with her face-to-face. This element of ‘secrecy’ and indistinctness was reflected in Don’t Talk to Her, She’s Only a Woman! via two standard metal lockers fitted with 15 closed tier boxes in each. Light and recordings of each woman’s narrative spill out from the sealed boxes. Yet, when viewers open a locker, the light goes off and the sound is muted.

Light forms an integral part of Ali’s works. Since her first show, an installation of a tent which was also her graduation project at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts, was criticized by the jury for not using light, Ali put a lot of effort in this aspect of her work.

“I felt that by not using light I let my work down. Light in an installation is just as important as colour is in a painting,” Ali said.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

I’m Ashamed. 2009. 750 photographs, sound and light. 323 x 843 x 355 cm.

Ali’s most recent exhibition took place last November in Venice in the Fondazione Prada’s new exhibition space, the Ca’ Corner della Regina, where she showcased her work Y. Since then, however, the artist has not made any new artworks. The anti-regime demonstrations which began in Syria in March 2011 and rising death toll have had a profound impact on her; being so emotionally engrossed in the rebellion has distracted and conceiving other artwork is not a priority she holds at present.

When asked about her future plans, Ali shakes her head. “I used to tell my students at the university that if you stop working for one day, then you are not an artist! Yet here I am, one year after the unrest started in Syria and I am no longer able to work,” Ali says admitting that it is the first time she stopped making art since she was a little kid. “Living inside Syria, I feel like I am inside a box and I can no longer see things clearly. So many people are dying and all I am left with is a deep feeling of shame,” she pauses. “My only plans now are to see the end of the bloodshed in my country.”

This article was published in the current March/April issue of Canvas art magazine. See pdf version here.

Syria’s Soprano (profile of Syrian singer Dima Orsho)

Singer Dima Orsho fuses western and eastern traditions, making a name for herself both at home and abroad.   

Dima Orsho / photo by Kais Zakaria

 Dressed in jeans and a light blouse with her hair casually tied back, Dima Orsho looks nothing like the stereotype of an opera singer. The easygoing and youthful appearance that she and the other members of the Hewar ensemble radiate captivated their Syrian audience as they swung to the group’s eclectic music when they performed in Syria at a jazz concert in 2008.

Orsho, who performs both solo and with the band Hewar, has a musical style that reflects her multicultural background. She and Hewar blend Oriental sounds with elements of jazz, scat, opera and classical music, woven with non-verbal vocalisations by Orsho.  She uses her voice as a third instrument to accompany her Syrian colleagues, Kinan Azmeh on clarinet and Essam Rafea on oud.

“Hewar [Arabic for dialogue] is based on the principle of musical dialogue where we can say what we can’t express in words,” Orsho said.

A cultural blend

The lyrical soprano in her thirties said she refuses to be relegated to one genre.

“Just because I’m an opera singer, it does not mean that I should not sing oriental,” Orsho said in a phone conversation with Syria Today from the Chicago home where she currently lives with her husband and child. “I like to try different things and that is exactly what we try to do with Hewar. We enjoy experimenting and working together and I think that the positive energy created by that joy is always radiated to our audience.”

The search for something different drove Orsho to travel to the US in 2005 for graduate studies in opera performance at the Boston Conservatory.

Orsho had previously studied opera performance and clarinet at the Damascus High Institute of Music and attended singing classes in Maastricht Conservatory in the Netherlands. However, she found the courses too specific. 

“Opera performance studies in the US are more comprehensive,” she said. “I didn’t only want to learn how to sing but also how to stand on stage, how to act and how to direct a musical.”

Dima Orsho and Kinan Azmeh at the Library of Congress 2010

Stiff competition

Orsho, however, said her time in the US was not always easy.

“Studying abroad was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. It was a tough time for me since I had to catch up with a more complicated and intensive curriculum,” Orsho said. 

The competitive atmosphere in the US also makes it more difficult for musicians to distinguish themselves, she added.

“Each year thousands of musicians graduate from conservatories and music schools all around the US while in Syria only a handful of musicians graduate annually, which makes opportunities in the US very competitive, especially for non-Americans in general and Arabs in particular.”

Still, Orsho succeeded in making an international name for herself as a Syrian singer. She has performed in professional productions at the Boston Conservatory and at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

In 2008, Orsho released her first solo album, Arabic Lieder, in which she sings to compositions by renowned Syrian pianist Gaswan Zerikly and incorporates lyrics from distinguished Arabic poems from Mahmoud Darwish and others. 

Music compositions

Although Orsho is primarily known as a singer, she says the idea of becoming one did not cross her mind until her second year as a clarinet player at the High Institute of Music.

“My teacher Victor Babenko advised me to switch from clarinet to singing. He believed in my vocal and musical abilities.”

Since she was a teen, Orsho wanted to study composition. However, back in 1993 when she started her studies at Damascus High Institute of Music, there were only three curriculums: clarinet, piano and singing.

“I didn’t have many options back then. I wish I had then the opportunities I have now in the US. It’s too late now to start all over again and study composing” Orsho said.

Nevertheless, Orsho occasionally composes her own music for films and theatre performances. Some of her most famous compositions include the soundtrack for the 2005 film Under the Ceiling by Syrian director Nidal al-Dibs and Darkest Times, a mimic theatre performance directed by Syrian dancer and choreographer Noura Murad. She is currently composing the music to which the Syrian dance group Leish Troup will perform in December.

Meanwhile, she is busy recording Hewar’s third album, which will be released in Germany and Damascus by the end of the year. Twenty-four hours each day does not give her enough time to accomplish all the musical feats she would like to achieve, she said: I wish I had more time, there are so many things I’d love to do.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.  

Q&A with Syrian Photographer Muzaffar Salman

Muzaffar Salman held his first photography exhibition titled Punctum at the Goethe Institute in Damascus last month. I sat down with the young photographer to find out what inspires his work.

Photo by Fadi alHamwi

Photo by Fadi alHamwi

Why have you called your exhibition Punctum?

Punctum is a term used by French literary critic Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida. Barthes uses the term to refer to the element in a photograph that ‘pierces’ the viewer. Punctum has a purely personal meaning which depends on the individual’s prior experiences. I chose this title because I wanted my photos to have an impact on viewers. Through the title I also wanted to reinforce the message that photography is an independent and important art form.

Until recently photography was not considered an art form by many in the country’s arts community and photography exhibitions were rare. Do you think people value photography more today?

Syria is one of the few countries where photography is still not considered a fine art. Instead, it is still taught as a form of applied arts. Digital cameras have helped to create a better understanding of the art of photography. After all, what distinguishes a photographer is not only how expertly he can control the shutter speed, develop a film or make a print, but what he sees and how he sees it. This is what has the deepest impact on viewers. Being an expert in the developing process makes you a good lab worker, but not necessarily an artist. A photographer is someone who can see the meaning in things and transmit that meaning through photographs.

 Muzaffar Salman - Self Portrait

Muzaffar Salman – Self Portrait

So you think digital cameras have raised the profile of photography?

Photography has become a part of everyday life since the invention of digital cameras. Many people now have their own cameras and they have realised that it takes more than a simple click to create a good photograph. However, I don’t actually think photography has become easier now that we have digital cameras.

Before, photographers only needed to worry about the lens aperture, shutter speed and focal length, but today there are many other settings such as the ISO rating, white balance and so on. For a good photograph, you need to have all the right settings. Working in a dark room is also much easier than working with Photoshop Lightroom [software for managing digital photos].

I have four photographs in this exhibition which were taken with a Zenit camera, all of which I developed and printed manually. Working in a dark room is thrilling. At the end of the day, however, it’s not the techniques used to create a photograph, but the feelings it inspires which moves the viewer the most. Viewers relate to photos that stir up their emotions or recall a distant memory, ones that are visually entertaining or carry a meaning or an idea.

What inspires you as an artist?

Photography is the art of seizing the moment. Plato said that human beings think in images. Indeed, we see the world through photos but it took us thousands of years to invent a camera to capture what we see. Different scenes produce different emotions in people. Taking a photo is actually an attempt to capture the feeling a specific scene creates so that when you see that image you can recall the feeling and share it with your close ones. As such, photography is about feelings, rather than images.

Muzaffar salman-Bird

Muzaffar salman-Bird

Many of your photos look like watercolour paintings, while others are closer to graphics. How do you achieve this?

There’s an unwritten law in Syria that says all photos should be printed on Kodak colour photo paper. I simply overturned this law and printed my photos on Canson cardboard, using black ink. There are one hundred different types of paper out there – why should I limit my work to only one? Syrian intellectuals keep imposing rules on photographers. They say: ‘Don’t use Photoshop. Don’t crop your images. Don’t mess with the colours. Don’t change the contrast level.’ Why not? If a painter can use 100 different techniques, why can’t a photographer do the same?

You have been working for years as a photojournalist and you are the head of photography at Al-Watan daily newspaper. This is your first solo exhibition as an art photographer. How different is photojournalism from fine art photography?

I don’t believe in terms such as photojournalism and fine art photography. There are good photos and bad photos. Publishing a photo in a magazine doesn’t make it less artistic. I don’t see why I can’t exhibit a good photo that was taken for journalistic purposes. There are, of course, photos which complement news stories. These photos, just like news in a daily newspaper, are short lived. They live for one day and that’s it. But who said a photo should be immortal?

 Muzaffar Salman

Muzaffar Salman

A number of art galleries in recent years have signed young artists like you up on contracts. Would you join a gallery under this arrangement?

I seriously considered joining one such gallery, but I didn’t in the end. As an independent photographer I can save enough money to carry out my own art projects, but if I work for a gallery I will not be working on my own projects anymore. Instead, I will be working for the gallery. That’s not healthy. An art project should be personal, not a work duty.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

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.

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.

Modern Robin Hood (profile of painter Nihad al-Turk)

When meeting Syrian painter Nihad al-Turk, you are faced with a restless man, a modern Robin Hood, as he likes to call himself, who is burdened by poverty, social and political injustice yet unable to restore order.

Born to a poor family in Aleppo in 1972, life didn’t go easy on Al-Turk. Finishing only the primary school, having no money and experiencing a series of debacles in his personal life however made Al-Turk all the more determined to achieve his dream and follow the footsteps of painters like Picasso and Da-Vinci, his ideal at the time.

“My works are a reflection of me,” Al Turk tells me. His paintings however depict a deformed, chained character, heavy with disappointment and sorrow. In fact, Al-Turk believes that every man is deformed from the inside and that life is about improving our deformed selves through our lives by love.

As Al-Turk finds life unjust and people only further deform and destroy it, he resorted to the world of animals that he sees as more righteous and innocent. He created a mythical creature that unites the contemporary man, which is deformed, bewildered and disappointed in life and the animals.

“It’s people who deform life and worse they try to chain animals and organize their daily lives and meals according to their taste depriving them from their primitivism.” He says.

A night in his studio’s garden in Dummar marked a turning point in Al-Turks career. Awakened by a little mouse, Al-Turk felt his deep loneliness. By dawn, he depicted himself as a lonely deformed flower vase and painted the mouse as a deformed animal with seven legs. Since then the little animal has been present in all his paintings and has become a trademark of Al-Turks latest works.

Though moved to still life, the sense of alienation and oppression never parted Al-Turk’s works; avoiding the traditional still life stereotype, he deforms every element in his paintings and adds a living creature to each one.

“I can’t imagine painting a still life without life in it. It’s simply too rigid and lifeless that way.”

Despite their depressive content, Al-Turk’s paintings bear a lot of strength and love. His intensive use of red colors adds strength and vivacity to the works. Far from the traditional interpretation of red as the color of love and revolution, Al-Turk sees it as a spark, action and a symbol of his intense love for life; for though he never lived on easy street, Al-Turk is very ardent and optimistic about his future. He has already won several prizes, among them the golden prize in the 5th Latakia Biennale in 2003 and his paintings has been sold in international auction houses.

Nevertheless, Al Turk believes his art will remain heavy with the poverty, political and social injustice that governs the world. „As long as there’s no justice in life, tension will never leave my life and therefor my paintings,” He says.

This article was published in the artist’s catalog.

Artist Profile: Oussama Diab… A Fairy Tale of Love and Freedom

Ousama Diab tackles social and political problems with the naïve technique of children.

Painting by Oussama Diab

Painting by Oussama Diab

“Her name is Mariam!” says Ousama Diab pointing to a fleshy woman who appears in a collection of his paintings entitled Mariam, as if introducing an old friend. However, Mariam with her bent head and slightly curled up body, seems stuck inside Diab’s canvases. Painted with earthy colors and rugged lines, she seems as if sculpted from mud. “Mariam is Palestine,” Diab says. “She represents Palestinians stricken by massacres, hunger and displacement”

Though she never looks you in the eye, Mariam’s forefingers are always stretched out, as if trying to draw your attention to her story; a story Diab lived as a Palestinian refugee who was forced to flee his country and as the son of a fedayee who fought hard for unachieved independence.

As Diab’s style leans towards naïve art, wars and massacres are no longer his subjects. Instead, he criticizes the lack of love and solidarity among people and their everyday struggle to make ends meet.

“People used to give without taking only two decades ago; today they act like the Syrian proverb says: scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, or even worse; they say scratch my back but I won’t scratch yours.” Diab says recalling with nostalgia how his mother used to fill a plate of their favorite food for the neighbors to taste and how warmly neighbors used to greet each other in the street; customs that Diab says aren’t that customary any more.

Except for Diab; in his studio, I was received with extremely sweet tea, delicious handmade Palestinian pastry and was seen off with a shot of strong black coffee prepared by his cheerful father. On canvas, Diab’s paintings remain grim and grey though. He depicts screaming faces, dark monsters and frightening animals. For him, a painting doesn’t have to be beautiful, what matters, is that it reflects his feelings. “I’m not a singer, I don’t need to entertain the audience; I showcase what I feel and they are free to like it or not.”

Nevertheless, since Diab found love himself, his paintings became more colorful and jolly. In one of his latest paintings, Diab presented his own version of “the little red riding hood” where instead of trying to eat the red riding hood, the wolf falls for her.

Painted mainly with acrylic and oil colors, Diab’s paintings are finished off with pastel to remind you of children’s drawings on the school’s blackboard. Also similar to children’s drawings are Diab’s repeated elements like hearts, wings and arrows symbolizing love, freedom and killing. In fact watching Diab’s paintings and his strange mythological characters, with five eyes, seven toes and a great verity of colors, is like leafing through a fairy tale. Even Diab’s still life paintings, mainly in the form of a flower pot with three flowers in it, have an air of supernaturalism about them. But then who wants to depict life exactly as it is? Certainly not Diab! “While a painter paints an apple, an artist eats it and paints how it tastes.” He says.

This article was published in the artist’s catalogue. Download pdf version here.