Author: 
Marriam Mossalli, marriam.mo[email protected]
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2010-11-24 16:43

The exhibit is a rare invitation into the intimate realm of self-portraiture. The works challenge the limits of self-representation to reveal an uncensored perception from a region that is often cloaked behind cultural taboos and religious adherence.
Art, like beauty, is subjective. What one deems beautiful, another may see as distasteful or even drab. But often, this surface ugliness reveals a hidden narrative of genuine commentary that can no longer be overlooked and ignored, just as Sabhan Adam and Hanan Bahamdan have dauntingly proven in their unconventional works of “beauty.”
Featuring prominent artists Ayman Yossri Daydban, Ara Azad Oussama Baalbaki, Anwar Al Rahby, Raouf Rifai, Nadia Safieddine, Saddek Wasil and Chawki Youssef, the exhibition is an eclectic collection of contemporary art, with today’s artists exposing themselves to the viewer to analyze, judge and finally, accept.
Yet, these works transcend self-portraiture, which is often another artistic mask — unconsciously artificial as the automatic smile most of us wear once placed in front of a camera. Instead, they are liberated from a single perspective and evoke their connections through others. Therefore, the portraits are imprinted with the viewer’s own experiences and prejudices, transforming the works into obscured mirrors that reflect the viewer through the dogma of the artist.
“I don’t like the word ‘beauty.’ I live with truth; I live with myself. On one hand, there are the words ‘painter,’ ‘color,’ and ‘canvas.’ On the other, the word ‘soul.’ I don’t see anything else,” revealed Syrian artist Sabhan Adam, as he explained the grotesque faces, distorted frames and piercing eyes of his solitary protagonists.
“The figures I paint have so many things in common with me. I draw myself with everything that exists inside: The sadness, the misery, the shocking things I have faced, the isolation and the feeling of not belonging to this world,” stated Adam.
These overt depictions of alienation are exposed in their public context, and thereby transcend their solitude by the viewer’s presence. This shared “solitude” is an existential journey through which the self is liberated, freed from the burden of representation and earthly conditions, such as desolation and alienation.
Hanan Bahamdan, a Saudi artist, whose works aim to capture the true essence of the human form, shares a similar message of somberness, but through her exquisite emotive figures in oil. Set in her cultural landscape, Bahamdan’s paintings are filled with a sense of suppressed agitation or latent distress through the disconcerted expressions of her subjects. A lone woman sits at a table, at first glance appears picturesque, but upon a second meditation is actually quietly unnerving. These depictions of surface calm juxtaposed with the emotional instability of the subjects incites intrigue and puts the viewer in uncomfortable unrest.
“The heroes of my paintings are living stories in front of me, existing around me. I witness what is inside them and faithfully portray it on my canvases. Happiness is an emotion we share among each other. However, moments of silence are these true moments that reveal hidden treasures once exposed and unveiled,” stated the artist whose work has been auctioned at Sotheby’s inaugural sale of Modern & Contemporary Art of the Middle East.
Recognized for her acute depiction of the human condition, Bahamdan’s works are sometimes jarring and discomforting for the viewer, subtly yet radically challenging currently accepted customs. Her depiction of a domestic girl silently screams the same alienation and psychological imprisonment of the character Diouana, from Ousmane Sembène’s popular and controversial short film, “La Noire de... “(Black Girl, 1966).
Lebanese artist Oussama Baalbaki often attracts controversy with his labored approach to painting and complex subject matter. His work is the calm before the storm with his depiction of the stillness that exists amidst the tedious moments of life, yet simultaneously evokes a striking introspective.
Images of objects from our daily realities possess concealed narratives. “The first appearance that inspired me artistically is the visual image of the world, with all the condensed material that it includes and that hides in it’s condensed virtual spiritual meanings,” stated Baalbaki.
His untitled piece is a black and white portrait of a man, whose unconventional demeanor is depicted through an unstarched and wrinkled collar and bohemian curls that cover his eyes — much like the infamous black hoods placed on today’s political prisoners. His tapered arms suggest that they are bound behind or at the very least, complacent at their sides. Here, Baalbaki’s portrayal of a modern, nontraditional subject conceals a narrative of restraint and forced inhibition.
“We are only tumbling in what we perceive to be reality. I like to make portrait out of context, out of time and out of technical reality to be the image symbol of our culture,” stated Raouf Rifai whose works are dissected fragments of different wholes that are then re-composed into a single harmonious tapestry of visual pastiche. 
This process of formal simplification creates intriguing marriages between figuration and abstraction; thereby, defining of a new visual language that taunts the viewer into strangely familiar spheres.
Speaking of the familiar, Ara Azad depends on the universal language of emotions. “If excitement, joy, surprise, distress, anger, disgust, contempt, fear, shame and guilt are facial expressions and could really be interpreted as representing a specific emotion by people in all cultures, then these emotions could be said to be universal,” suggested the artist who since 1986 has held over 62 exhibitions worldwide, while still continuing to garner admiration from the art industry even today.
Many of his works, including the “Witness Series,” are expressive portraits, utilizing these universal emotions. Their features possess exaggerated proportions and distorted placement, while the paintings are characteristically dark.
Starting in 1995, Azad began mailing his artwork unwrapped using the domestic postal service. “My painting travels hand handled, from city to city, country to country, until it reaches its destination. Thus, it evolves from being a painting, into the subject of my performance and then that to happening, unharmed and in perfect condition,” revealed the artist.
By giving his art to another, he submits to the fate of the universe, allowing unsupervised contact and turning the work into a marker of experience. Thus, the work transforms into a sort of communal art by unaware participants, each contributing to the raw and genuine journey of the piece.
Ironically, Saudi customs confiscated the artwork he had mailed to Jeddah for the exhibition.
Shawki Youssef uses the human form as his marker. “My work uses the body as an inscription tool, a tool that registers the discourses in which I live; discourses that dominate, manipulate, inform, deform and fragment,” stated the Lebanese artist and designer. “This metaphoric body is a recurrent theme in my drawings, paintings and video installations.”
The core of Youssef’s work relates to the body as an unbiased recorder, a body that witnesses everyday life’s marks and traces, even eccentric ones at times. His Rorschach-esque work is a blurred hysteria that resembles something cohesive — the face.
Just as inkblots are often used to reveal someone’s inner psyche, Youssef uses his work to expose societal issues and anxieties. And, while spanning over numerous mediums, Youssef questions the sociopolitical sphere of Lebanon and its placement in a global context. Experimenting with almost everything, such as text, audio-visuals, drawings, paintings, performances, and installations, Youssef has captured the attention of both curators and collectors from across the seas.
Another artist who is rapidly gaining international recognition and success is Saudi sculptor, Saddek Wasil, who brings his “Faces of Tin: Neglected portraits of a neglected humanity” — a 2010 masterpiece to Athr Gallery. By flattening numerous local soda cans, cutting out eyes and pinching noses onto them, Wasil has created a sharp commentary on the conflict between tradition and modernity.
“His powerful sculptures exuberate a rejection of binding stereotypes, an iron will to defeat material subjugation to achieve spiritual freedom,” reads Athr Gallery’s description of Wasil. “His artwork is not to be understood as a present state, it holds the promise of future success in overcoming chains, locks and closed boundaries.”
Nadia Safieddine, the French-Lebanese artist and pianist, currently resides in Berlin where she’s held several solo exhibitions. Her work too is an interpretation of the abstract. Her series, “Hungry Face” (2006), consist of 15 dark canvases all saturated in paint and covered in disconnected, undulating brushstrokes.
“When nothing happens, solitude becomes inevitable,” lyrically stated Safieddine. “Love in mourning, I saw my full solitude, my being, with thirst and hope for another kind of exchange.”
Syrian-born artist, Anwar Al Rahbi, explores the region’s folklore, traditions and environment, while mixing in his own intimate perception of reality and fantasy. The figures in his paintings come out from behind a shadow of tranquil azure to boldly announce their presence and reveal their narratives of a time long passed.
Al Rahbi’s paintings are set at night, a time known for revelations and secret sharing. It is behind dark shadows that the unveiling of old fables of love and passion is divulged. It is only in the safety of the dark that his women strip their inhibitions and reveal their intimate secrets to one another.
His subjects are generally depicted during times of meditation and dreaming, while nestled in comfort and safety. Al Rahbi’s paintings are a social commentary on a previous era where things were simpler and women experienced an unmatched freedom that has since been lost.
One of the most famous women of the past, the Mona Lisa, is the subject for Jeddah-based artist, Ayman Yossri Daydban, who is known for his use of pop culture imagery. The artist depicts the famous subject with a red line drawn across her neck against a background filled with the word “Sakakeen,” meaning “knives” in Arabic. It is in reference to the Kingdom’s practice of censorship, in which students had to draw a line between a head and a body in any picture that featured a portrait to state the absence of a soul. The canvas is then veiled with a sheer fabric, referring to the duality of each individual: What is revealed and what could be revealed, and what is experienced and what could be experienced.
“I don’t want anything I make to be still; my objects must not die. Instead, I want to keep them permanently in a state between birth and death,” stated the artist.
With this latest exhibition, Athr Gallery journeys into unfamiliar artistic territory in a region that is plagued with censorship and a clear banning of freedom of speech. In doing so, the gallery has created a must-see exhibit for art connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike.
“Self-Portraits: Mirrors on the Wall” will run until Dec. 2. For more information, contact ATHR Gallery at 056-865-8888 or visit www.athrart.com.

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