Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

An eloquent silence

Rania Khallaf listens to a the sound of the paint

An eloquent silence
An eloquent silence
Al-Ahram Weekly

Titled “The Music of Silence”, Syrian artist Suheil Baddour’s first Cairo exhibition — the 32nd in his career — featured some 20 acrylic paintings of women playing music in different positions. The colours are bright and cheerful, but the expressions of the women are melancholy and pained. Held at the Nile Art Gallery last week, it came in the wake of exhibitions in Luxor, Sharm Al-Sheikh and Hurghada. Cairo, Baddour said, is “a culturally fertile society — a very competitive atmosphere”.

Born in 1957 in the village of Slinfa near Lattakia, Baddour had a difficult childhood during which he played with sand, water, tree branches and objects collected from rubbish dumps. He studied sculpture at University of Damascus, practising sculpture for years before switching to painting.

“I have been working on the concept of the wait,” Baddour explained the concept of the exhibition, “which is something we all engage in for no reason, always waiting, expecting something to happen. The anxiety of waiting is the idea behind a previous, significant project, but then there is the double anxiety of the peculiar space between one wait and another. It yields a kind of music, the music of silence.

“I wanted to discover what feelings waiting will induce in me, because I am someone who waits, and I chose to orchestrate it in the form of female music players because  women are the most beautiful, spacious and welcoming space in the universe.

“There is a special treatment of the women’s hands, which are somewhat elongated because, for me, hands are the tools of living: we use them to eat, communicate and work. The feet too, which are bare most of the time, and somewhat flattened, to give evidence of the figures’ attachment to earth.

“From the dawn of history, art has shown interest in the female figure. Women are the greatest inspiration ever, and music too is a feminine creature. Actually, most musical instruments have a feminine shape. However, I used the flute in most of the paintings because, even though its shape is masculine, its sound recalls to me the female spirit. The nostalgic, blue tunes of the ney resemble women’s warmth...”

But women have not been Baddour’s primary theme, coming into his work relatively recently. He has always portrayed human beings, playing out their pain and suffering to question the meaning of existence.

“I was born to a very poor family,” he recalled. “I had to find ways to work at an early age to feed myself. During this painful journey, I met with different kinds of people, and they later became the subjects of my paintings. During this time I realised the true meaning of need, poverty and pain.”

They are themes he depicted in two huge murals: Sonata of My Country’s Pains, and War and Demolition.

“I still cannot digest the horrible events taking place in Syria and other Arab countries. This horrible violence is unprecedented in human history. It definitely has nothing to do with democracy or freedom. It has to do with implementing schemes that aim to destabilise and eliminate the human race, regardless of religion or nationality.”

The murals, four by two metres, were painted in Dubai three years ago, when violence first escalated. They feature a band of female music players, chanting for their country and grieving. “Although the bloody picture is clearer now,” Baddour said, “I still can’t paint anything directly related to the absurd events.”

Mixing abstract and expressionist techniques, Baddour said he was not interested in art schools. “Freedom implies that the artist can combine different styles. That requires sincere study. To this day, I maintain the routine of working for ten hours daily.”

Baddour’s 30 years of travel have earned him much experience and given him the opportunity to study and later teach art in various institutions, notably in the US. Yet he holds the somewhat old-fashioned view that painting and sculpture are the sole mediums of fine art.

“I respect all cultures,” he said, “especially the European culture to which I owe a lot but I do believe in my own Oriental and Islamic culture. The Westernisation of our arts is becoming stranger and stranger, and this will eradicate our identity in time. I am not against video art, and it could be effective in spotlighting a cause or an issue, but it has nothing to do with fine art. There is no such thing as postmodernism. It is just a critical term, a lie. Modernism is normal law of life. Every new day drives closer into modernism.”

His main concession to modernism is that he uses acrylic colours. “It is only because I am too sensitive to the smell of oil paint and other chemicals. It is, however, not an easy thing. I spent two years studying the nature and beauty of acrylics.” Nor are knives allowed to touch the surface of his canvases.

Baddour is committed to a unique routine: he wakes up early in the morning, has an hour-long run or swim followed by breakfast at his favourite cafe then moves onto the studio.

“I have a grey African parrot at the studio, Kooky, and I usually spend an hour playing and talking with him. He knows all the bad words,” he smiles, “and he encourages me to paint. Kooky and I enjoy an intimate relationship. He is the only one who is allowed to talk while I am busy painting. Every single morning, Kooky welcomes me, saying, ‘Good morning honey, come and kiss me.’ We have lived together for 11 years now. Luckily enough, parrots can live up to 60 years.

“Before I start painting, I usually invite children of my neighborhood to draw anything on the surface of the white canvas

I am to work on. I give the kids brushes and colours and invite them to draw, as the whiteness of the canvas doesn’t evoke any special ideas. Such small details, I found out, are the most important in the artist’s career.” Baddour is musically talented too, a good singer who plays the oud. “I usually play classic Arabic songs by Um Kolthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. I never liked western classical music...”

Baddour emigrated from Syria some 30 years ago, and he says that, for Arab artists, immigration is a must. “When an artist spends the prime of his career in his homeland, he usually suffers from being imprisoned in a closed circle, a vicious circle. Anyway, the Arab cultural elite were the first to jump off board in times of political crises, though this is not a general rule. What I want to add, to my fellow artists, is that when you can do nothing to help your country, at least do not cooperate with the enemy, do not betray your country.”

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