What you see isn’t always what you get

Nahas’ “Tahrir,” 190x100cm. AP - 7/28/2011

BEIRUT: Appreciating a piece of art can be not unlike peeling onions. You pull back layer after layer, in search of the heart of the piece, the source of its meaning. You may, as is often the case with onions, find that there is nothing of substance at the center. On the other hand you may also find that you have tears in your eyes.“I don’t think that artists,” said artist Jean Marc Nahas, “should have a direct approach to things.”

Nahas is nowadays exhibiting 22 drawings at an untitled show at Gemmayzeh’s Ginette Concept Store, all of them examinations of women. When asked why he chose women as the theme of his work, Nahas answered, “Why not?”

Nahas is a dynamic, constantly thinking Lebanese man who, like many of us, is haunted by traumatizing memories – whether related to the Civil War or not. He explained how he always takes peoples’ comments (whether on his work or not, complimentary or otherwise) into consideration.

Asked what are his sources of inspiration, the artist, making a broad embracing gesture with his arms, says he finds inspiration in mankind and his emotions. His work, he says, is a product of his gut instincts, not something derived from some intellectual conceptualization of what needs to be drawn.

Nahas is uninhibited about speaking his mind and, if this provokes his interlocutor to respond defensively, the artist said that he “always played [with] all his cards on the table.”

At the entrance of Ginette, a major part of the wall has been turned over to an untitled black-ink work that Nahas drew there on the opening night of the show on July 21. Gazing at this ink drawing is akin to plunging inside an anguished consciousness, patchworked with faces and symbols (knives, for instance, and snakes).

There is no intrinsic link among all the figures, no story to follow. It is as though these images came to Nahas’ mind while drawing, as though his hand were translating his tormented mind. His art is his therapy.

The drawings on display render a psychedelic impression, like images haunting one’s subconscious. Nahas confessed that, at some points, he transcribes his aggressiveness – through the symbol of the wolf, for example – into his art without thinking beforehand.

Though inspired from the revolutionary events in Cairo and the wider Middle East since the start of this year Nahas’ “Tahrir” (190x100 cm) also reflects his personal perception of what is happening in the region and, more particularly, among Middle Eastern women. In this drawing, mixed with blotches of red, blue and yellow paint, the spectator faces a confusing, lunatic representation of the female figure.

“There are no political or sexist connotations,” he said, “just a human one.” But the observer can notice that his depiction of women is assailed by wolves, knives and warriors, as though these archetypal forms welled up in his mind and imposed themselves upon the drawing.

For all its Middle Eastern inspiration, “Tahrir” looks more as though it has been influenced by “Guernica,” Pablo Picasso’s terrifying painting on the Spanish Civil War.

“Picasso is my wife, my muse,” Nahas said, “but I’m not Picasso. I’m Jean Marc Nahas.”

Nahas’ world has no beginning and no end. It is an aesthetic world constantly interrupted and augmented by ideas, images, memories and fears.

In his drawings, women seem to fall into two categories. There are the women who wear the hijab, the Muslim headscarf, and those who wear their hair exposed. “A headscarfed woman is powerless,” he said, “One day, she was fed up and raised her arms above her head.”

That is how Nahas’ veiled women are drawn, as though they were being represented calling for help or demanding freedom.

Still, the artist insisted on saying that when he draws nonveiled women there is no “obscene or sexual connotation,” even when they’re nude. They are just women, freed from any violence or torture – which is not to imply that a muhajiba woman is somehow deprived of her rights.

With his drawings, Nahas wants to demonstrate to viewers, Middle Eastern and otherwise, that we should probably escape Occidentalism, he said, and “return to Arab and Persian origins.”

Jean Marc Nahas’ exhibition is displayed at Ginette Concept Store in Gemmayzeh, until Sept. 15. For more information please call 01-570-440.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 28, 2011, on page 16.




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