Hammoud Chantout: From white walls to exile
WASHINGTON - In Washington’s Georgetown neighbourhood, an architectural sliver of space off a courtyard of an office building hosts Syra Arts, a private commercial art gallery with an outsized mission.
The gallery’s recent exhibit of paintings by Hammoud Chantout, titled Human Portraits, is especially noteworthy because he is a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. The hackneyed “brain drain” of population displacement inevitably includes artists. With conditions worsening, Chantout left his beloved Damascus with his wife, sculptor Orouba el- Deeb, on July 19, 2012.
Born in 1956 in a village east of Aleppo, Chantout’s family lived in a domed mud hut. Improbably escaping rural poverty, he studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Syria and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, ultimately returning to Damascus. When he left Syria, he established a studio in Beirut and has been painting prolifically.
Selected paintings from 2009-12 are characterised by a richness of dark colour and depth of form set against mixed-coloured brooding grounds. This period is amply displayed in a beautiful catalogue of his 2012 Amman show called Illuminations Beirut 2012, which gallery co-owner Sylvia Ragheb displayed for context since there is no catalogue for the current show.
A few of Chantout’s 2012 paintings herald the new style of single deconstructed figures painted in a more limited dark palate against a minimalist white-grey ground. A carry-over theme from earlier compositions features a bitter orange tree as artifice. Under its stark trunk and broad canopy, a human figure stands in a dark umber shadow against a white expanse, sometimes with a baton conducting nothingness. In another version a red chair appears. Chantout prefers to work mostly acrylic or gouache on canvas and occasionally on wood.
Ragheb said that in his newer work Chantout “paints layer upon layer to achieve the nearly blank ground and uses a variety of scraping tools and even chopsticks”. His transparently rendered figures seem to represent a fracturing of his earlier style.
In his artist’s statement, Chantout recalls a period of childhood solitude, presumably prompted by illness: “Bedridden for a long time in our muddy house… in front of me there was a wall covered in white lime… I used to stare at the wall to see pictures [for] battles, horses, trees and faces and every day the scene on the wall change[d] and this was my sole amusement when I was young.”
While harkening to his early years, his solitary figures project a sense of loss, isolation and distraction from his homeland. The compositions of sad, sometimes distorted faces are rendered by paint dabs, strokes and silhouetted portrait lines, reaching just beyond quick sketch work and the brevity of pointillism. The method itself evokes an interesting optic.
These depicted presences seem lost in a liminal dimension — scratches and blots of reality perhaps akin to the emotional state of being a refugee. They float, almost transparently. “He’s known for creating a dream-like, mystical background,” said Ragheb.
The exhibit features 28 portrait sketches, mostly showing downcast expressions of pondering, depression and profound loneliness. The more somber portraits of 19th-century master French sculptor and caricaturist Honoré Daumier come to mind. One is surrounded by the white canvases rooted in Chantout’s childhood room, compounded by a pervasive sense of the abstract in disassembled lives.
If a window to the soul, these are surely paintings of an artist who may be contentedly resettled in perhaps the temporary safety of Beirut but deeply burdened by existential doubt.
Asked about the paintings’ journey to the exhibition, Ragheb said: “I went to Beirut to meet the man behind the work. I always establish a relationship with my artists.”
But Chantout’s US visa application was denied. According to Ragheb, “He learned that they did not even look at his documents and his invitation letter. He had also applied as a family with his wife and younger daughter.”
Determined to show Chantout’s work, Ragheb gingerly rolled the larger paintings and carried them on her flight to the United States in a document roll. She packed smaller canvases in a large suitcase. With a deep breath, she sent them as checked baggage and happily re-stretched them for mounting at the gallery in Washington. She has sold many pieces, mostly to Syrians.
Ragheb and Egyptian Randa Aboul Nasr founded the Syra Arts gallery in 2013 to raise awareness and create opportunities for Arab artists to gain visibility and access to the US market. The gallery hosts eight shows per year.
“There’s no other gallery doing Middle Eastern art the way I’m doing it,” Ragheb said.