Islam-West tensions are a source of inspiration for Syrian artist
Beirut - Considered a staple of Arabic literature, the seven pre-Islamic poems known as the Mu’allaqat illustrate the intricacies of Bedouin life, customs and culture. They were said to be written in golden letters on linen and suspended from the walls of the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca.
For Syrian artist Mohannad Orabi, the poems were a source of inspiration for his Mu’allaqat exhibition at Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery. The show featured a series of hanging curtains that served as canvases for the artist’s signature childlike characters, demonstrating how a transformation in the artist’s attitude towards life influences his practice.
“I haven’t personally been [to Mecca] but there are enough references, images and news coverage from there to have a clear image that remains in our minds,” Orabi said. “In relation to the religious element, there is an indirect reference and link to it that is largely a result of the current situation and the fear that comes from what is happening that is related to Islam.
“The idea behind these works that resulted in their overall aesthetic is that I’m attempting to take objects with a certain function and turn them into artworks. By having the work not stretched on a frame gives them a sense of freedom, representative of the people’s migratory and temporary living states these days.”
This indirect link to the tensions that underline the relationship between Islam and the West is positively overshadowed by the vivacious nature of Orabi’s aesthetic, which seems to project a more optimistic outlook.
There is a distinct sense of spontaneity and airiness that trickles into each of the Mu’allaqat. Layering colourful accessories with light brush strokes, Orabi casts his doe-eyed playful protagonists into the foreground as he constructs elaborate scenes that do not overwhelm the eye.
“It is very difficult for an artist, or at least it is for me, to pinpoint the main source of where these figures come from,” he said. “A lot of the time, they are me, mainly at a time when I was a child or at least when I was at an age where I hadn’t lost much innocence yet. Other times, they come from my daughter. I’ve observed her as she draws and have realised that she works in a simple way, using lines simply.
“With what we are living now, the social and political unrest, we search for that innocence and light.”
This element of innocence appears to characterise the feel of Orabi’s artworks and comes in contrast to the senseless violence that has decimated his homeland. However, Orabi asserts that the instability has facilitated an avenue for creative and personal growth.
“The last three or four years have affected my personal growth as well as my growth as an artist. Moving from one place to another, home to home, country to country, there’s a state of turbulence and lack of stability coupled with an increased interaction with life, provoking more questions, new decisions, etc.,” Orabi noted.
“So I’ve learned that we ourselves should try and take control of these currents that could lead our lives in different directions and learn from them, rather than let the way things are going take us with them.”
Orabi’s previous works reflect his interest in the spontaneity of process and the liberation of form that emerges when art is created intuitively without fixed directives. Many of the mixed-media canvases were painted as self-portraits, revealing the artist’s fascination with the evolution of consciousness in childhood and the wonder and whimsy of the formative years that first shape our comprehension of the world.
With the start of the Syrian uprising and the conflict that followed, Orabi adopted an increasingly realist approach to portraiture, drawing inspiration from the various media that are currently forging a visual repository of the war. Martyr posters, Facebook profile pictures and other types of filtered or composed imagery serve as source material for portraits of Syrians under siege, displaced and in exile.
Orabi, who lives in Dubai, said he has been affected in two ways.
“There has been an emotional response to the conflict and there has been a response to the different environments I’ve been in — Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Dubai — each place has its environment and its set up and they’ve affected me as a person and in turn my work,” he said.
“I believe that an artist’s work is always an attempt to answer questions on his or her mind. These are issues that for me are very difficult to verbalise but, if they were not, otherwise I would not need to paint.”