The songlines are invisible pathways that run across Australia. Every Aboriginal tribe has its own line with its own song; each represents an ancestor of that tribe. A songline can stretch across the desert. They are sung poems that tell the story of an ancestor. When sung aloud, they can guide a tribesman across the desert by following features of the landscape that figure in each story. A dipped hill might be the place where the lizard ancestor sat down, a group of mounds might be where the ancestor ate dingoes and buried them. These are oral maps of the Outback.
The songs figure heavily in much indigenous Australian art. The galleries dedicated to works by artists from the tribes in and around the northern, central and western deserts of the country – the Papunya, the Yuendumu – are often full of works with titles like ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’, ‘Water Dreaming’, ‘Emu Dreaming’. They are each representations of the ancestor stories that feed into the songlines. The works are often complicated, geometrically inspired compositions. Undulating, swirling patterns – infused with movement, they quite often bear the marks of nature in some way: the paths that veins in a leaf might take, the precise rivets found in dust.
Jump to ’80s Syria and artist and engraver Moustafa Fathi heads into his native Syrian countryside to find perfection. He wanders through the whole country collecting materials, textiles and stories from rural workers. He examines the soil and the shapes of hills, meets Bedouins, studies rock paintings.
When he returns to Paris his style abruptly changes and he begins to use woodblock printing techniques to create detailed, visually complex but conceptually simplistic works on silkscreen. There’s something similar in these works to the organic compositions of many of the modern Aboriginal artists. His canvases swarm with paint. Like the indigenous Australian works, the works form paths and lines that writhe with an internal harmony.
When we tracked Fathi down in Paris he insisted that it’s a search for simplicity that drives his art, citing Jackson Pollock as one of his main influences: ‘His work was so very simple, Pollock simplified everything.’ Simplicity, harmony and the use of ‘biologic materials’ are at the root of Fathi’s frank, immediate style. ‘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.’
Yet he’s insistent, as we talk, that he’s not attempting to copy nature. The artist, he claims, is in contradiction to nature from the start. The kind of harmony he identifies in nature cannot be framed by human hands, instead his work has been to harmonise himself with that nature. ‘Nature does its work without any human interaction. But I want to harmonise my own self with that in some way. Take the human body, the way we breathe. Look at the shapes that make up our lungs, they look like branches or leaves. There are similarities here with the way nature moves in its mechanical way.’
The critic Michel Bohbot, a friend of Fathi’s, has noted the intense energising effect that nature has on the artist. Bohbot recounts how, driving to his studio a few years ago, Fathi suddenly became very animated, pointing to the hills outside of Damascus and shouting, ‘Look at these hills, look at the colours of the soil here, you won’t find anything like this anywhere else in the world. As for these rocks, their shapes and colours are simply amazing – I have to keep working until I come close to their simplicity and perfection.’ Yet, as the artist says, it’s not imitating nature that interests him, it’s more the canvas of a landscape that he can draw on. The colour of soil is just a colour, the shapes of rocks are simply contours, but there’s a perfection to each that we can harness through art.
There are echoes of the Aboriginal songlines in Fathi’s obsession with how we can connect with nature through art. As much as the songs are a map to guide nomadic societies across an inhospitable landscape, there is also a clear line of ritual to these songs of ancestor worship. They are a way to reconnect that society with the past, and to harmonise and humanise the landscape around them. As we talk, it’s clear that place itself is unimportant to Fathi. There’s no idealism in his love of rural Syrian life. It’s more of a search for simplicity, a way to guide the imagination through the landscape and to sing it, in his own imperfect human way, into an existence harmonious with his own.
Works by Moustafa Fathi appear in Ayyam Gallery (04 323 6242) as part of a group show including Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik, Moustafa Ali and others. Until January 8