‘Nature happens very mechanically. Look at a tree, from the branches to the leaves, right down to the roots, there’s a perfection to its processes which I think is almost mechanical.’ Moustafa Fathi had an unshakeable fascination with the patterns found in nature, as he told Time Out in December 2008. This was Fathi’s last interview.
A week later he passed away at the age of 67. In respect of his immense artistic talent and sense of originality, Ayyam Gallery (who normally focus on emerging artists) is showing a retrospective on the artist featuring two decades of his work – the first time they’ve ever exhibited an artist posthumously. Gallerist Hisham Samawi says that his creations are so important because they can be seen as a bridge between old Syrian masters like Fateh al-Moudarres and the country’s contemporary artists who are experimenting within their field. ‘He was one of the pioneers that moved Syrian art from the modern into the contemporary field.
Right now the big thing is contemporary art, but it’s also important to see where this stuff comes from.’ Famously reclusive, spending most of his time in his huge studio in Deraa, one hundred kilometres away from Damascus, Fathi was known to be a humble and down-to-earth man – a refreshing change from many tightly-wound and self-indulgent artists. His works are certainly echoed in the contemporary creativity bubbling today, but there is an undeniable homage to folk art in both his aesthetics and technique. In the late ’80s, Fathi researched traditional Syrian folk arts, which led to his woodblock printing technique.
He would engrave the blocks to make them like giant stamps and then imprint their patterns onto canvas or cloth. He often layered the imprints on top of one another, making the process difficult to discern. But the air of traditional art is still very clear, meaning that his art appeals to many people. It’s not jarring, it’s not highfalutin, but – just like the patterns of nature that inspire him – it just makes sense to the eye.
A piece by Fathi reached around Dhs150,000 at a Christie’s auction in October 2008, showing that he’s a major player in the investment scene. But, more importantly than that, go and see his work. Moustafa Fathi is, in many ways, like the Picasso of Syria, in that he represents a key crossroads in his country’s art.
See his work at Ayyam Gallery in Al Quoz until April 19.
Three friends of Fathi reflect on the man as an artist...
Khaled Samawi, founder of Ayyam Gallery
‘Fathi was one of the rare artists who was able to take folk art from Syrian Bedouin tribes and reinvent it to become cutting edge, modern day contemporary art.’
Abdullah Murad, Syrian artist
‘All of Fathi’s canvases belong to a magical world of shapes and lines merged in a way that carries the soul of traditional Syrian art and handicrafts. Fathi spent most of his life searching for and exploring the basics, and this is the secret of his technique.’
Mounzer Kamnakache, Syrian artist
‘I was once on a trip with Moustafa, one of those silent trips we used to do in the villages next to Damascus. While we were both busy looking around, I suddenly broke the silence and asked Moustafa, “Do you like poetry?” He remained silent, and then pointed to a corner of a very old wall and said, “Look, that’s poetry.” I looked and looked at where he was pointing: there were a few leaves mixed in with remnants of worn cloth and rusty metal pieces. It was just before sunset and while I was watching the sunlight touching and moving strangely over these things, I felt they were alive.
‘Each time I see one of Moustafa’s artworks I remember this day and I feel the presence of those small things, full of poetry, energy and depth which are hard to find in another artist.’