BEIRUT: The gently smiling figure has stayed with Syrian sculptor Yamen Yousef throughout his career. Bottom-heavy, nameless and genderless – yet closer to a her, than a him – Yousef says he knows her intimately. Her experiences, mood and temperament haunt him. The subject and her creator have shared a mostly loving, occasionally hostile, relationship over the course of his 10-year career.
Recently this relationship has undergone some changes, brought about, in part, by the circumstances in which subject and artist now find themselves, in the middle of a civil war.
“She is sensitive, and a little childlike inside. She has a sense of novelty,” Yousef says of his creation. “She is like all humans. They mostly want to play, nothing else.”
Before the war, Yousef’s subject would take her form in hard wood or bronze. More recently, however, the artist has molded her in clay. A large portion of his most recent works – currently on show at Art on 56th gallery alongside the paintings of countryman Nawar Haedar – are smaller than his previous works and sculpted using this new medium.
“Clay feels every touch,” Yousef explains. “Wherever you put your hand, it stays. It’s more fragile. And it breathes. ... I started using the material in 2009 but discontinued it. ... I have just suddenly gone back to it.”
Yousef’s figure has typically appeared in larger forms, her thick body often planted to the ground, or suspended and cross-legged in modesty, eyes always raised in hope. Sometimes she appears winged but, Yousef says, she is always unable to fly.
In some of his more recent clay works, she appears shrouded in cloth, lying down, face up, eyes straight ahead. Her blunt face is still recognizable as she peers out of her cocoon but her distinct body is hidden or missing altogether.
Other wooden works find her inverted – her head on the ground, limbs contorted skyward.
In “I Deserve to Live,” a small, clay work, she prizes herself out of her cloth shroud with her hands, tearing at the opening as her neck strains upward and out.
“Untitled 19,” a large wooden work, finds the figure fully inverted, head supporting her heavy legs, suspended, feet crossed, in the air. From the base, an arm reaches around her contorted shoulder, hand covering what Yousef says is a hidden smile.
“She doesn’t want to tell,” Yousef says. “Her smile is for herself.”
Yousef is certain that recent changes in his practice arise from the violence that has overtaken his country, rather than natural evolution.
More than just the materials used and the form his subject takes, he says, his own method has undergone a transformation. “It’s not just her,” Yousef says. “I have really changed. It’s now more emotional.”
Currently participating in a one-month residency at the Art Residence, a nonprofit program for Syrian artists in Aley, Yousef says his technique has also changed dramatically over the country’s 2-year-old conflict.
Previously he used a chainsaw to cut heavy pieces of wood, later refining the form and surfaces. Nowadays he uses this blunt device to gouge deep gashes on the surface of his figure’s body.
“The [pieces] I am working on now, I am only using the chainsaw,” he says, “leaving the marks untouched. The artist can’t help putting whatever you get from outside into his work.
“I have noticed I have these emotions toward it that are more aggressive and that is sometimes felt in the work,” he continues, pointing to the jagged cuts in the surface of one of his standing works. “The violence has come to the surface.”
Not all Yousef’s current work is a reflection of violence, pent-up or displaced emotion and aggression.
In “The Wish,” a polished bronze that stands at around 30 cm, his long-term companion finds herself standing strong and tall, feet pressed together. Her shoulders are slightly raised, with hands clasped firmly in front of her belly. Her head is inclined slightly upward, her eyes averted skyward, the playful smile still apparent.
“I wanted this color and this texture,” Yousef explains, “I wanted the yellow. I wanted her to shine. There is hope here.”
Yousef’s current exhibition, “Nawar Haedar and Yamen Yousef,” is up at Art on 56th gallery until May 11. For more information please call 01-570-331.