BEIRUT: There are always instants when we’re obliged to follow the example of society, sheep-like. As much as you may treasure your individualism, you must sometimes suck it up and fall into line like the other schmucks.
It is this sort of herd mentality that Syrian artist Mohammad Abbas has set out to expose, and mock, in his solo exhibition “Are We Not Human?”
Now up at Art Lab Gallery in Gemmayzeh, this show is comprised of 14 oil-on-canvas works and seven more on paper. All marry animal and human forms in a way that depict Abbas’ vision of the society in which we exist.
By turns, hens, donkeys, pigs, ostriches, sheep, cats, owls and rabbits all take the pride of place in the center of his canvas.
Satire and black humor swagger through these paintings.
For those familiar with French literature, Abbas’ works may recall the texts of 17th-century French fabulist Jean De La Fontaine, who used to depict the manifold eccentricities of French society through personified animal figures.
In Abbas’ landscape-shaped painting “Education,” onlookers encounter an entertaining vision of pedagogy. Standing in the foreground is a humanoid figure with the head of a white donkey (“hmaar” is a workaday metaphor for stupidity in these parts). Depicted from belly up, the donkey appears to be wearing a black tank top undershirt or – in more androgynous terms – an evening gown.
The donkey creature stands before a blackboard, thus the title of the piece. The blackboard being blank, the teacher doesn’t appear to have got started with the lesson, assuming s/he has any lessons to convey at all. Presumably Abbas has a high opinion of the educational system in Syria, perhaps in the Arab world generally.
Slightly more amusing is “Stripped Featherless,” which finds a chicken standing up on his hind legs. Shorn of feathers, naked but for a pair of white y-fronts, his shoulders are thrown back, his eyes frozen in that shocked attitude one tends to find in the face of chickens.
Depending on the fairy tales you grew up with, the featherless bird may be read in various lights. For Westerners it may be evocative of the emperor’s new clothes – in which the vain ruler is conned into paying a fortune for nothing, which he’s convinced is an invisible outfit.
There are also farmyard expressions that described being being chiseled. In English, where you can be “fleeced” out of your money, the language apparently prefers mutton. The French expression “se faire plumer” (to be feathered), which evokes this work precisely, evidently prefers fowl.
The oil-on-canvas work “Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself” finds an anthropomorphized pig comforting a diminutive white rabbit – the way an adult would reassure a child.
“In contrast with [past] deities and mythological characters, marrying the human and the animal to symbolize strength and power,” Art Lab notes in its exhibition blurb, Abbas “sets scared and empty looking animal heads set over meager and starved human bodies.”
Here the pig and the rabbit do appear petrified – accentuated by the rabbit’s wearing shorts, while the pig’s been caught in his briefs. Its cartoonish aspect gives the work a slap-stick, yet pitiful, quality.
People are treated like animals.
“Holiday in Guantanamo” puts a cat in the sort of orange jumpsuit folks have come to associate with inmates detained in the U.S. military base. How would cat-lovers respond to the horrendous treatment doled out to the facilities’ inmates, if the detainees all looked like Puss in Boots?
The closest Abbas comes to allowing a glimmer of hope to shine from these canvases is “I Beg to Differ.” Ten gray sheep stand before an undifferentiated gray wash. Their facial features and expressions are identical. One sheep, however, has had its chest daubed with red paint.
Then again, it’s not uncommon to use a daub of bright paint to mark a lamb for slaughter.
Mohammad Abbas’ “Are We Not Human?” is on show at Gemmayzeh’s Art Lab until March 16. For more information, please call 03-244-577. Or visit www.art-lab.me.