by Rohan Rice

It’s an interesting time for an exhibition of the work of Syrian artist Marwan Kassab-Bachi, who is commonly known as Marwan. Images of Syria and its people have been on repeat on our television screens in the UK, giving Marwan’s work a greater sense of political immediacy. Yet, Marwan’s work supersedes today’s crisis. Not that there are no political connotations to his works, but they existed long before the ongoing Syrian crisis.

Untitled (1977)
Untitled (1977), 195x128cm, tempera on canvas

Since the 1950s, Marwan has produced paintings scattered not only with questions on Syrian identity but extending to a pan-Arab and human identity. Born in Damascus, Syria, in 1934, Marwan studied Arabic Literature at the University of Damascus, before moving to Berlin, Germany, where he studied painting. His paintings have been widely displayed across Germany and Europe more generally, but oddly the current exhibition at The Mosaic Rooms in London is his first solo UK exhibition. Not only that, but as I sit down to write this article and do the customary Internet search on the artist, I am surprised to find that hardly anything has been written on him in English. This is strange, considering he is one of the most widely celebrated Syrian painters in Europe, not to mention his working relationship with fellow Syrian and internationally renowned, modernist poet Adonis.

What is it about Marwan’s work that doesn’t appeal to the wider British public? Is it ugly? “My art is quite confrontational,” admits Marwan, “people don’t always like it, they often want something more ‘sweet’”. I doubt this is the only reason, given how well-received the work of artists such as Francis Bacon has been in the UK.

I look at the famous Marwanian faces for the first time in the flesh. I stare at this large, untitled oil on canvas piece and shiver. Not at its unsettled ugliness, but at the emotion that this depiction of a face encapsulates. The entire human condition appears inscribed across its face, affirmed by thick layer upon layer of oil paint – never has the human spirit been so well conceived. Disturbed and infatuated in equal measure, I find myself mimicking  the movement of Marwan’s painted faces, which are often half-turned away. I want to move on to the next one, but can’t let myself. Even just the eyes in some of his larger paintings, untitled (1977) in particular, evoke that human spirit. One eye is nearly always more complete than its counterpart, suggesting a history yet to unfold, or perhaps, a destroyed past.

Badr Shakir al Sayyab (1965) oil on canvas

The key to Marwan’s mesmerising faces is their rootedness in an image of a landscape. “It’s me, my identity, I can’t imagine life without this sense of being rooted in the soil,” says Marwan. The “face-in-landscape” is, in fact, what Marwan is now widely known for – the name of the exhibition alludes to a quote from an Adonis piece written on Marwan’s paintings and invoke the idea of a landscape more aptly – and, yes, it is so inescapably present. Whilst the faces in his earlier works are centred more on conventional form – including a plenary depiction of the deceased Syrian politician Munif al-Razzaz and of the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab – they are still depicted with elements of abstraction and tied to notions of a landscape. For instance, in the portrait of al-Sayyab, the poet appears to be crucified, his head  severed at the bottom and his feet unrecognisable at the top. Although the portrait isn’t so apparently focused on a landscape on first viewing, the centring of the work around  al-Sayyab indicates otherwise. An Iraqi poet, his work often connects the human with a landscape, similar to Marwan’s. “Your eyes are two palm tree forests in early light,” al-Sayyab writes in  Rain Song (1960). Al-Sayyab’s work has undoubtedly influenced Marwan, who often mingled in literary circles in both Damascus and, later, in Berlin. This shared intersection between the landscape and the human form has spawned an enduring artistic conversation between the two.

Munif al-Razzaz_1965_Marwan_130x89cm_oil on canvas
Munif al-Razzaz (1965), 130x89cm, oil on canvas

Why then have al-Sayyab crucified? Curiously, this characteristic is also present in the portrait of al-Razzaz, a Syrian, pan-Arab Ba’athist who was forced into hiding following the capitulation of the Syrian Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, in 1966. In Marwan’s artistic impression, al-Razzaz’s head sits atop a crucifix, so we can only assume that those are his legs in the portrait of al-Sayyab. Both revolutionaries in their own rights, one Iraqi and one Syrian, drew on ideas of a so-called Arab landscape to re-imagine a pan-Arab identity. Yet both are then metaphorically executed in a harrowing Marwanian fantasy. The intention is unclear. Is Marwan burying the possibility of symbiosis between the one and the other?

The dialogue between land and identity is not exclusive to Marwan’s work and is largely associated with the history of both Sufi poetry and Arab art, more generally.  Marwan invokes this tradition to expose how significant the “Arab” landscape was to the pan-Arab imaginary. In fact, to this day it inspires writers such as the Tunisian poet Amina Said and Palestinian Raja Shehadeh.  In Shehadeh’s novel Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape (2008), he laments, “the biblical landscape that would have seemed familiar to a contemporary of Christ, was being changed, in some part beyond recognition”. Whether this be change in terms of the violent transformation of Gulf States, or the ongoing devastation of the Syrian infrastructure by war, the traditional “Arab” landscape is undergoing an irreversible transformation which is reflected in Arab art.  

Marwan’s later works capture this observation. His paintings of faces become more abstract, the layering more intense: clumps of paint sometimes hang off the canvas, forming microcosmic landscapes in their own right. I spend more time searching for familiar features like a nose, mouth, and eyes. It’s only then that I become aware of the CCTV dangling in the corner of the exhibition space.

Untitled (1976)
Untitled (1976), 70x100cm, etching and watercolour on paper

The faces, the landscapes (for they are as much the former as the latter), become palimpsests: the charge of the terrorist climate; the rise of ISIS; the erasure of Sykes-Picot lines; while these pieces are faces/landscapes of history, another layer becomes traceable.

When I leave the exhibition,  I ponder again why I hadn’t been exposed to Marwan’s work in Britain before. And, back on public streets, I am transfixed by the faces of pedestrians. At a café, the television inside churns out images of Syrian refugees.  Later that evening, I read a line by the Roman poet Ovid that illuminates the parallel rejection of Marwan’s art as ugly and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa: “I am a barbarian here because I am not understood by anyone.”

Marwan, “Not Towards Home, But The Horizon” is on at The Mosaic Rooms, London until 12th December, 2015.

 

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Rohan Rice is a writer and photographer who graduated from the University of Kent. His writing covers a range of topics including, but not limited to: race, gender, contemporary art, literature, politics, film, and football. You can find both his writing and photography at: rohanpages.wordpress.com. Twitter: @RohanRice

This review was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article or feature please contact mend@mediadiversified.org

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