Street artist flees Syria’s civil war in search of more misery

SIDON, Lebanon: Syrian artist Basem al-Sayyed doesn’t like to be labeled a refugee. He prefers to consider himself a guest in Lebanon.Sayyed’s makeshift workshop occupies a street corner on Sidon’s Riyad al-Solh main street. Sayyed is a street artist making a living off local portraitures. He fled to Lebanon when working on the streets of Aleppo became too dangerous. His talent is for drawing faces, ones he prefers to be miserable and downtrodden; ones that hide a story or tragedy behind them, he says.

He likes to “draw the sad and miserable people because sadness and misery were born with me,” he says. “And I sympathize with all of them.”

Outside on his chosen corner, Sayyed is true to his word and turns down a woman who asked him to draw her. Her offer for payment was just fine, but he believed she would be hard to capture in a drawing, he says.

As he works, people gather around him to check out his artwork. People sometimes approach Sayyed with odd or impossible requests, he says. For instance, some ask for pictures to be recreated from their mobile phones, but Sayyed prefers to draw people directly from life or from his own fantasies.

“All the drawings of the girls you see in my portraits are from my imagination,” he says.

He discovered his talent during childhood and later joined Aleppo University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he also studied drawing and sculpting.

“I draw abstract and still lifes, in addition to the portrait,” he says.

Sayyed explains his reason for leaving Syria, which like so many other Syrians in Lebanon was for lack of opportunity amid a raging two-year conflict.

“I am a guest here in Lebanon and not a refugee,” he says. “I left my family in Aleppo and came here to make a living. The roads to Aleppo are blocked and unsafe and there is no place for art.”

Before his source of clients dried up, Sayyed drew on a university campus. There, he found plenty of work mainly doing portraits of children and tourists, he says.

“The portrait is essential in my work. I am passionate about it because it is real. It is the real drawing,” he says. “I see all the beauty in my drawings, but I respect criticism. I’m an artist, not a saint, and when the person I’m drawing is not satisfied with his drawing, I draw him another one.”

He laments that people in the West are more interested in the arts, though he takes comfort in the fact that many famous artists lived a life of poverty.

“I’m not a beggar, I’m an artist and people should know the difference. I draw to live,” he says. “I have worked in several Arab countries, where I was welcomed with respect. I drew people from all walks of life and I prefer the Arab beauty.”

Drawing is a kind of exercise in telepathy, since the artist says he tries to read his subjects and convey their truest selves.

“My pencil discovers the psychology of the people I draw,” he says. “The talent in drawing is to be able to convey the outside and inside of the person. If there is a mean person then you have to show his meanness in the portrait.”

Asked if he could draw his country in a state of joy, he says: “It is hard to imagine Syria laughing. Since I was born, I’ve watched my country cry.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 08, 2013, on page 2.




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