A Syrian Salah Jahin

Rania Khallaf , Tuesday 19 Apr 2022

Rania Khallaf talks to Youssef Abdelke

Quartets Salah Jahin
Quartets Salah Jahin

The great Syrian painter Youssef Abdelke’s new exhibition, which opened at the Mashrabia Art Gallery on 30 March, includes 35 lithographs illustrating the Rubaiyat (or “Quatrains”) of the late vernacular poet and cartoonish Salah Jahin as well as eight unrelated monochromatic pieces in charcoal and pastel. The 35 prints are just as powerful as the four-line poems. They are in conversation with Jahin’s words. The collection was shown in eight cities before Cairo, and will be shown in one more for a total of ten.

Abdelke was the victim of political persecution for his leftist views early on. Born in 1951 in Qamishli on the Turkish border, Abdelke was forced into exile soon after his graduation from the College of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1981. He fled to Paris, where he studied at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts, graduating in 1986, and earned a PhD from Universite’ Paris VIII in 1989. He was unable to return to Syria until 2008. Abdelke started out as a cartoonist, a passion that remained with him until 2005, when he stopped making cartoons for Arab newspapers and focused on painting and drawing.

“My interest in caricature dates back to the mid-1960s,” Abdelke told me. “Like many teenagers, I loved to draw. My dad, who was a politician, used to look at my drawings and say, ‘Look son, they are okay, but I guess caricature is much more significant.’ So I started drawing in that style to defy his political notions. And this gave me huge experience in graphic art, character design, and the perception of paradox in both the social and political sphere. This current exhibition pays attribute to Salah Jahin, the amazing multi-talented artist. The quatrains I worked on were written from 1959 to 1962, and they are exceptionally wonderful and full of life, sarcasm and philosophy. They reflect the paradoxes of life in general, in a way that can be seen in any Arab country. They made a very strong impact on me when I first read them some 20 years ago, then listened to them sung by Ali El Haggar to tunes by Sayed Mekkawi. I started working on them in earnest in black and white in 2015, and until 2019.”

Abdelke is deeply saddened by the decline in the art of caricature and especially the passing of many of its most prominent icons: “In the 1950s and 1960s, pioneering figures like Salah Jahin, Salah El Leithy and Hassan Hakim, among others, contributed to the foundation of a comprehensive cultural project in literature, theatre and art. Today the role of journalism cannot be compared to what it was in the 1950s. I believe there are some good emerging talents, but they are not politically empowered and not related to the everyday reality of the people.” In the eight drawings the humour subsides in favour of a poetics of silence and stability, with one square image of a pear about to fall onto a white plate evoking suicide. Another square image shows a knife cutting blooms, evidently a reference to state violence against young protesters in 2011. Faithful to his political commitments, Abdelke manages to strike a balance of realism, surrealism and symbolism. In the 1970s, for example, he painted rebellious horses in chains.

“In the 1980s, the beginning of my life in Paris, I felt uneasy about having to interact with a different culture and people with a different history and language. I had to rethink my identity as an Arab, so I worked on the relationship between the Western and Eastern perspectives on things and figures. And this lasted for almost a decade.” Until the mid-1990s, many of the artist’s works featured, in typical perspective, a central figure of authority adorned with medals and two silent figures on either side of him. After the mid-1990s he focused more on still lifes that evoke not only motion but violence. This is the work he is best known for:  knives, skulls, nails, dead birds and other bold reflections on Arab reality. More recently he has used the same motifs to reflect on the Syrian revolution. “Actually my work has nothing to do with still life,” he says. “This seeking after a style of drawing to express violence served me when the Syrian Revolution broke out in 2011, and when it sadly turned into a guerrilla war causing the death and imprisonment of thousands. I was deeply moved by the mourning mothers and the human aspect of this war. This war has definitely given me profound pain, which should be evident in some of these works.

“The human crisis has definitely influenced the culture scene in Syria. Most artists and writers have fled the country. However, there are still some figures like myself, Mounir Al Shaarany and Khaled Khalifa who refused to leave, insisting on producing art in their own land. And despite all the crises, there is still a good audience, eager to attend exhibitions and concerts. Life goes on. Artists will always have a vision for the future. When I complete one project, I am left with new themes. So I can tell you,” he smiles, “I still have a lot more to share with the world.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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