Islam-West tensions are a source of inspiration for Syrian artist

Sunday 14/08/2016
Mohannad Orabi’s Mu’allaqat series

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.”