BEIRUT: “This is Not Politics!” The title of the exhibition by Syrian artist Samer Saem El Dahr, at least, seems clear enough.
Up at Gemmayzeh’s Joanna Seikaly Gallery, Saem El Dahr’s pieces range from mixed-media, to oil-on-canvas and charcoal-on-paper works – they depict a succession of sometimes colorful, yet gloomy, figures, in more or less anonymous settings, all exhibiting marks of trauma.
With the situation in Syria being what it is nowadays, onlookers will be tempted to assume that Saem El Dahr’s works are depictions of his country’s present turmoil. There is no confirmation of such an assumption. Neither is there a denial.
All 25 of the artist’s paintings and drawings are entitled “Reaction.” The nature of this response is left for the onlooker to piece together. Saem El Dahr neither reveals nor misleads.
“Reaction n.4,” oil-on-canvas 120x105 cm, portrays a nude female figure. As intriguing as her nudity is the artist’s rendering of the face and the chair on which she sits. Her features appear scratched or blurred – as though she were wearing a plaster of Paris mask or in the process of being waterboarded.
While the figure’s right breast is recognizable, the mass of color on the left side of the chest is distinctly discomfiting, not least because of the breast-like circular motif on the bottom left of the canvas.
Notwithstanding all this, the figure’s only discernible reaction is not reacting.
Saem El Dahr renders the nude and the chair on which she sits with the same sunny palette, creating the impression that she’s melting into the chair to form a single entity. At the same time, the happy hues the artist deploys fly in the face of the morbid grimness of the figure itself.
“Reaction n.16” (charcoal-on-paper, 100x70 cm), represents a male figure whose only hair is a moustache – his left hand delicately touching his bald pate. The figure appears to be a uni-ped, the knee of its one leg raised to his chest, as though he were sitting on the floor.
This disproportionality is reminiscent of the work of French artist and filmmaker Niki de Saint Phalle – famous for her representations of hugely curvaceous women.
The apparent uni-ped has six fingers on his right hand. Saem El Dahr apparently wants to accentuate this odd feature, since the “extra” finger is rendered lighter than the other parts of the body.
“Reaction n.2” (mixed-media, 120x120 cm) portrays a couple tucked in bed. Most of their physical features are disfigured within swirls of texture. Only her breast – resting atop the bed sheets – his nose, mouth and left eye are discernable. The bluish-gray and white hues used to depict the figures bring a chilly morbidity to the work.
Perhaps their naked forms are covered not by a bed sheet but something more terminal, which might explain the absence of facial features.
Some viewers may see a correlation between Saem El Dahr’s works and what is happening in Syria.
“Reaction n.6” (mixed-media, 100x80 cm) depicts another human figure sitting, its hands seeming to clutch at its ankles. Dappled in red, black, blue, white and yellow – often quite festive colors – the figure could easily be seen to be bearing the marks of mistreatment, an impression reinforced by the figure’s facial expression.
As the title of the show promises, there is absolutely no overt reference to politics in this exhibition. Yet Saem El Dahr’s approach to figuration – at times abstract, others veering toward realism – his juxtaposition of vivid colors with variations on a theme of gray and the disturbing tableaux he depicts, leave the observer plenty of room to project whatever meaning she likes.
Samer Saem El Dahr’s “This is Not Politics!” is nowadays up at Gemmayzeh’s Joanna Seikaly Gallery until March 29. For more information, please call 70-776-711.