BEIRUT: Since the start of the civil war two years ago, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the violence, taking up residence abroad. For one of Syria’s foremost artists, painter and sculptor Fadi Yazigi, this process is unbearably painful to watch. His sorrow finds expression in his art.
“Most of my work is from the social field,” he explains. “I capture what is going on around me all the time. The [focus] of what I’m doing is human figures. So now I’m working with human figures in a different way because I see something tougher, harder.”
Although Yazigi’s work remains resolutely apolitical, “Is It Time to Tell?” – his latest solo exhibition now up at Karantina’s SMO Gallery – is imbued with references to violence, pain and heartbreak.
A set of two works, simply entitled “Birds,” are showcased alongside one another on one wall of the spacious gallery. Identical in all but size, the two works consist of a number of small Plexiglas cubes, or cages, inside each of which is a single horizontal twig, acting as a perch.
Gripping tightly to each twig are two tiny feet. Above them the spindly legs of dozens of songbirds form pairs of delicate pillars, topped by nothing but a lump of gristle and a few matted feathers. The bodies of the birds have been torn away, leaving nothing but the legs behind.
“A large number of people left in Syria have escaped to somewhere else. This is [causing] a lot of harm and pain ... exactly like the birds,” the artist explains. “They leave the country and they leave their legs [behind]. Even with the people who died, it’s the same, because if I leave the country this is a kind of dying for me. I don’t feel that I want to leave. I’m still living in Damascus.”
Completed earlier this year, “Birds” is one of the newer works on show, yet one of the most interesting aspects of this sprawling, varied and multifaceted exhibition isn’t the vintage but the breadth of work included.
Pieces from 2008 – including a video installation of the artist interviewing prominent Lebanese author and intellectual Elias Khoury and sketching him as he speaks – as well as several paintings, are interspersed among pieces dating from 2010 through 2013. The range allows the viewer to contrast Yazigi’s earlier work with that completed since the onset of the conflict, which constitutes the majority of the show.
Stylistically Yazigi’s work maintains clear continuity. His characteristic human figures with their large heads, diminutive bodies and large, guileless eyes appear in work across the six-year span.
It is the figures’ expressions that have changed, along with the emotional atmosphere.
No longer are Yazigi’s figures smiling playfully, seemingly clapping their hands or dancing with joy. Instead they are serious, their hands raised not to wave but to cover their mouths in horror, clutch something to them or reach for one another.
Several motifs have appeared in his work over the past two years, symbols of the violence that has engulfed his country. The first is a bird. It appears not only in “Birds” but – in a less macabre form – in several of his recent paintings, where birds perch on the hands of his human subjects or fly freely across the canvas, perhaps symbolizing the appeal of taking flight and leaving the upheaval behind.
Other motifs communicate violence itself. Four colorfully glazed ceramic figures are crucified, while a bronze sculpture captures a man hanging from a block, arms severed, nine vicious nails penetrating his chest to puncture his heart. Other figures have a hole through the chest where their heart should be.
A severed head on a platter appears in Yazigi’s largest painting, measuring over 4 meters high, a disjointed mixture of human figures, birds and severed limbs. An elegant bronze sculpture, simply entitled “Head on a Plate,” repeats this motif – a man’s head with eyes closed, aquiline features in unnatural repose, lies on a smooth plate, neck severed just below the chin.
Food features recurrently in Yazigi’s pieces. A trio of food-related works evinces an inventive approach to materials and an inherent playfulness that has not left his recent work despite its more somber tone.
“Untitled on Bread” features 25 rounds of Syrian flatbread, struck on canvas and painted with colorful tableaux of small figures captured in a variety of poses.
A series of three paintings on flour sacks, completed in the last couple of months, reinforce a preoccupation with food.
Three beautifully rendered sets of cutlery, in bronze, complete the trio. Each set of three – knife, fork and spoon – features elegant blades, tines etc., while their handles are outlandish by contrast.
The handles of the first set consists of fleshy leaves and opening buds – a set of perfectly rendered foliage resembling a Gardenia plant.
The second is a more traditional shape, but the cutlery handle has been transformed into the thorny stem of a rose, beautiful to contemplate but painful to clutch.
The final set is the most disturbing. Upon closer examination, a bunch of small grapes reveals itself to be a grisly bouquet of skulls, a cluster of bird heads, their beaks pointed inwards to the stem, their eye-sockets bear.
“We see the news all the time, even while eating lunch,” Yazigi explains, “so you feel your cutlery [changing], the knife [becoming] like needles.
“You see the television, the bodies, and you feel like you are eating the skulls of birds. It is very harmful. The food sticks in your throat and you can’t swallow,” he adds.
In spite of the grim, at times outright gruesome, elements to the show, “Is It Time to Tell?” retains an element of hopefulness and light-hearted experimentation.
An inspiring, thought-provoking and often moving collection of works, the exhibition maintains a balance between sculpture, wall installation and painting, making it one of the most varied and imaginative solo shows to appear for some time.
Fadi Yazigi’s “Is It Time to Tell?” is up at SMO Gallery in Karantina until May 17. For more information please call 01-572-202 or see www.smogallery.com.