Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Dollhouse blues

Rania Khallaf is moved by the tragic lives of children in Syria, portrayed in a new exhibition through the toys they play with

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Al-Ahram Weekly

If the test of an artist’s work is its effect on the viewer, then the paintings of Syrian artist Souad Mardam Bey are very good indeed. Visitors to her latest exhibition, now showing at the Zamalek Art Gallery, will be left affected and even disoriented by her strong images.

“Playing with No Toys” is made up of over 20 oil paintings whose main subject is dolls, something rarely dealt with in contemporary art. For Mardam Bey, painting dolls is a way to deal with the tragedy that has befallen Syrian children since the revolution broke out more than three years ago. She has no doubt about it: the human crisis in Syria is what drove her to this theme.

Mardam Bey started working on this project in 2013, when her exhibition “Veiled Reality” was shown. The exhibition included a series of portraits of people wearing opaque glasses: it was her way of describing the impossibility of looking at the horrors unfolding in Syria. The present exhibition is no less grave.

“The war taking place in Syria is totally insane and absurd,” Mardam Bey said. “This is why I chose children’s toys, as a symbol of this absurdity. The toys in my paintings seem to have a human spirit.

“This is because, for children, toys represent living things. Children have endless fun talking to their dolls. Dolls are therefore a kind of virtual reality. I came to realise it was more effective to express the Syrian tragedy through children’s toys, injured toys that no longer bring happiness.”

She recalls the photo of a child’s corpse: he is lying on the ground, wearing his father’s worn-out shoes. “As children we all had this cheerful habit of wearing our mothers’ and fathers’ shoes. But this is no longer the case. Children are doing this out of desperation.” And it is her ability to recognise such heart-wrenching ironies, as if to counterbalance the straight news, that makes these paintings incomparable.

Mardam Bey’s interest in children is not new. She collects comic books and taped television serials. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is a central reference point for her.

“It’s a philosophical novel that examines the world through the eyes of a young prince fallen to earth from a tiny asteroid,” she says. “It is classified as a children’s book, but it is full of amazing evocations, unexpected and surprising details. I’ve spent a long time meditating on its rich symbols.”

Mardam Bey was born in Syria but grew up in Lebanon after her family moved there. She studied philosophy at the Lebanese University and visual arts at the Beirut University. She began exhibiting in 1982, and has had more than 20 exhibitions in various countries.

“I am not actually convinced by the so-called Arab Spring,” she said. “I am a practical person. I am all for the Arab armies, not for militias or imported theories. With such high rates of illiteracy and susceptibility to religious posturing all over the Arab world, democracy and freedom are just abstract notions.”

Best known for portraiture, Mardam Bey now delves into the psychology behind the faces she is so fond of painting. “True artists do not limit themselves to a fixed frame,” she says. But it is her long experience with the human face and figure that makes her doll paintings so powerful.

The stylish costumes that she has dressed the dolls in at times belie the misery of the tragedy they are meant to depict. These costumes somehow imply a sort of metal shield, or screen, that keeps reality out.

Mardam Bey made many sketches before she was satisfied with expressions and postures, trying to capture just the right sense of confusion and desperate search for happiness. That is why, despite their circumstances, the dolls still radiate hope. Misery does not obscure the beauty of their faces, but rather reveals itself in subtly powerful ways.

I am transfixed by one particular doll, whose features are typical. It has a large head, a tiny mouth and round, puzzled eyes. Its hands are tiny, its limbs spindly, something all the more evident in contrast to the hopelessly large shoes it wears.

On its chest is a pendant with what appears to be a picture of the child’s mother — dead or lost to her. White birds circle over its head, recalling the revolving mobiles that hang over baby cradles, often involving birds. They soothe and comfort the baby in the absence of its mother.

In other paintings, movement and posture give the dolls a truly human aspect. It’s as if the artist is playing with the viewer, making lifeless things seem alive, the better to draw attention to live things that are being killed or turned into refugees or orphans, psychologically if not physically injured for life. Other toys shown in the paintings — wooden horses, for example — are not nearly as powerful.

“The eyes in my portraits are the point of contact between me and the viewer,” Mardam Bey explains. She recalls her favourite doll as a child: a black boy wearing a red suit. “I still have it.” Certainly the layers of paint reflect the passage of time, with bandages dramatically covering a gouged-out eye, or a missing finger.

“Studying philosophy taught me to raise questions all the time. Equally, art is all about raising questions. However, I don’t like to take a philosophical stance,” she said. “Art should deliver a simple message.”

The exhibition runs until 2 February at the Zamalek Art Gallery. A parallel exhibition on the same theme but with different paintings is to be held in Beirut this summer.

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