The French-Syrian artist discusses his emotionally charged, conceptual painting (pictured above) — currently on display at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris — to mark a year since the fire that engulfed Notre-Dame Cathedral.
I was in Brussels when the fire happened, and there were several of us standing close to the television screen. Our mouths dropped open in shock and disbelief. As I observed, everyone’s eyes were still — just like statues. As someone who is sensitive, I was deeply moved by this incident.
I was born in Lebanon and went to a French school. I was introduced to and enamored with France, before actually visiting it, through reading. Some of the most important texts we read were by Victor Hugo, who wrote “Les Misérables” and “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.”
When I went to France for the first time, Notre-Dame Cathedral was the first place I visited. It’s a place I love. When my father passed away a few years ago, the first thing I did was light a candle for him in this cathedral. I have a strong relationship with Notre-Dame and I adore its architecture. When it burned, so did my heart.
In my diptych painting, you will see that the gargoyles or statues have more emotion than my self-portrait. Because the fire was so overwhelming and dramatic, it was as if the gargoyles were transformed into human beings. As Victor Hugo wrote (in his fictional depiction of a fire in Notre-Dame), the gargoyles were crying from pain. Simultaneously, human beings — represented by my self-portrait — were lost for words and turned into statues because of the shock.
When I started working on this piece, I used red as the main color for the whole image. But then, little by little, almost without noticing, I turned it black. If you look closely, you will find red details. On the right side, one of the gargoyle’s eyes is red, reflecting the rage of the fire.