BEIRUT: Galleries in this town have long played host to the work of Syrian artists. Thanks to the ongoing revolution-cum-civil war in that country and its attendant human tragedy, the interest in the work of Syrian artists has – ironically perhaps – blossomed.
Some of the exhibitions of Syrian work staged in Beirut since 2011 have been accompanied by the codicil that it is important to see this work now, regardless whether it’s any good or not.
With “Syria’s Apex Generation,” the exhibition of work by five young Syrian artists now up at Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery, curator Maymanah Farhat argues for the intrinsic worth of the art itself.
The “apex generation” represented in this 15-work exhibition is comprised of Abdul Karim Majdal al-Beik, Nihad al-Turk, Othman Moussa, Mohannad Orabi and Kais Salman.
Farhat is an art historian as well as a curator, and the exhibition opening served as a platform for the launch of her monograph of the same name. The book, as Farhat writes, sets out to see “post-uprising art as an introduction to the rich history of painting in Syria.”
Most of the artists were on hand at the opening to discuss their practice and how their art has evolved through the years of difficulties Syrians have experienced since 2011.
Some in the audience during these talks remarked that the flood of Syrian art at Beirut art spaces has had a negative impact on Lebanese artists – who complain they cannot always find the necessary support.
Though such remarks are a trifle inappropriate – given that the Ayyam network of galleries was founded in Damascus before the present conflict with the goal of providing a platform for Syrian artists – it does reflect the legitimate frustration with the small number of professional gallery spaces in Beirut relative to that of prolific artists.
These artists, Farhat wrote, “are collectively extending the boundaries of representation and perceived functions of art, that have shaped Syrian visual culture for over 60 years.”
Depicting the evolution of the Syrian art scene, Farhat notes that mid-20th-century Syrian works mostly reflected “the lived realities of Syria” through rural landscapes, cityscapes and portraiture.
In the late 1950s, the aesthetic shifted to embrace modernism. Expressionism became dominant, with “the deconstruction of figuration and the reinterpretation of space.” It is from this formal experimentation that a new generation of Syrian artists was born.
With their work, modernist artists are inherently activist in their relationship to their public. As Max Raphael wrote in his 1941 essay “Toward an Empirical Theory of Art,” art should “activate a sensory process of perception through the merger of form and content, objectivity and subjectivity.”
The aesthetic of the Syrian scene was given a new direction in the 1980s with explorations of the body and its possible deformations. “The figure in Syrian art,” Farhat writes, “became disproportionate, fragile and transitory.”
Within the broad trends of these developments in Syria, these five artists’ works are utterly distinctive.
Majdal Al-Beik is known for the range of materials he brings to bear in his mixed-media, abstract figuration – burlap and charcoal and techniques of artificial ageing among them – concerned especially with social transformation.
Farhat characterizes Turk’s colorful mixed-media works as “thematic explorations of the endurance of man amidst the power struggles of good and evil.”
The work has undergone some shifts: A few years back, it was not as colorful as now. The artist’s vivid palette may be read to suggest a hint of optimism absent in his previous pieces. Given the present state of his country, it may also be read as a representation of the hope for a brighter future.
More recognizably figurative, the childlike figures in Orabi’s canvasses are inspired by a range of sources that include social media and are linked to the present situation in Syria. Orabi’s “children” – their faces, large-eyed and streaked as if with tears, the epitome of innocence – tend to be juxtaposed with weapons. The result is an emotional representation of the loss of innocence.
Perhaps the most intriguing of this “Apex Generation” art are Moussa’s photo-realist paintings, which have surprised many visitors with their depictions of banal objects – a baby bottle, a clutch of zucchini, a watermelon. Combined with wires, firecrackers and tape, these dietary staples are implicated into sculptural forms that mimic improvised explosive devices.
Moussa’s technique is so refined that each canvas conveys the impression that onlookers are looking at actual photographs – at times even more striking, as though these objects are present before one’s eyes.
“Syria’s Apex Generation” sets out to present the works of these artists as the peak and climax of Syrian artistic production. Whether that’s the case or not, their work responds to the turmoil in their country via a range of languages – from satire and irony to realism to abstract expressionism.
This art may be read as a barometer of the present transformation of Syrian art, at least that of artists working with paint and canvas.
“Syria’s Apex Generation” is on show at Ayyam Gallery until Aug. 2. The book is available at the gallery. For more information, please call 01-374-450.