Dark dreams at Ayyam Gallery

Syrian artist on the stories behind his 'Almost a Dream' exhibition

Safwan Dahoul
Safwan Dahoul

Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul reveals the story behind the paintings of his angelic muse and his creative process.

Safwan Dahoul’s varyingly haunting monochrome images of angels have shared the same title, ‘Dream’, ever since he first began painting them more than 25 years ago. Born in 1961 in Hama, Syria, Dahoul won a scholarship to study abroad in 1987 and relocated to Belgium, where he gained a doctorate from the Higher Institute of Plastic Arts in Mons in 1997. Today, having exhibited all over the world, he lives in Dubai, where his images are now on display as part of his ‘Almost a Dream’ exhibition at the Ayyam Gallery in DIFC. Here he reveal his inspiration, and how the tragic events that continue to unfold in Syria have affected him.

When did you first start painting your dreams?
The first painting I called ‘Dream’ was made in 1987. Personal stories lead me to the name. I had something that could not last and therefore I decided on the title, which then just stayed with me.

You’ve been interested in the line between reality and dreams throughout your career. How has this relationship changed since the troubles in your own country, Syria, started?
When we called this exhibition ‘Almost a Dream’, it allowed me to be closer to reality. Everything in life is somehow a dream – we think of success as a dream, love as a dream. Even our everyday life activities can appear as dreams when we think of them after they have occurred.

Why do you choose to paint in monochrome colours?
In Arabic history, there is a quote that explains the less you say, the better. I feel the same when painting – I like expressing my feelings through my paintings with as little tools as I can, which is why my palette is monochrome. I don’t feel the necessity to use colours as I’m able to send my message without colour. The monochromatic scheme captures the sum of everything I am trying to say, I don’t need more.

You have studied different artists, ranging from Flemish Masters such as Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Brueghel the Elder to the French painter and illustrator Toulouse-Lautrec. Is art that came before an important part of your own work and who are your main influences?
It is true that at a particular point in an artist’s career, he kneels towards a certain artists as he discovers different museums and different styles of painting. I always appreciated artists whose paintings consisted of simple subjects. I am not sure now with my experience who I really like as I have reached a stage where I just enjoy certain aspects of all artists.

Your depiction of angels has a very sombre, almost tragic element. Is that how you feel when you paint?
My angel is usually present to give a bit of hope. At the same time though I am a realist and I understand that we are living in sombre and tragic times. This angel to me represents the angel of reality.

When did you move to the UAE and how has that affected your work?
I moved to Dubai over a year ago. Obviously by coming here, the environment in which I live and work affects me. This change though is not drastic, as every day is different even if you’re in the same place.

What is your studio like and how long do you spend working each week?
I tried finding a studio that would look like the one I had in Damascus so I wouldn’t feel too much like an emigrant coming here. We say that work is worship and I believe this saying as I spend every working day at the studio in the same way any employee spends the entire day at the office.

Do you have any hope for a resolution to the conflict in Syria?
If I want to be too real I would be pessimistic. The human nature is to always have hope and believe that the future holds greater things.

I found your picture of Dream 67 haunting. It feels like the angel is looking at me – not the bodies. Is that intentional?
I wanted to show that even the angel was haunted by what was happening and even she could not do anything. She too felt helpless. I also was trying to show that kids should not be involved with the games of adults. They should not have to assume the consequences.

You’ve been painting the character in your work for over 25 years. Do you think you will ever stop painting her and will you ever find a new muse?
I don’t like planning things ahead and I can’t really know what will happen in the future. This narrator of mine has been a part of me and for now I do not see myself letting go of it.

I read that your work is commercially successful. Does that matter to you?
Not at all. On the contrary, it allows me to persevere and keep on doing what I feel I do best.

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Almost a Dream’ at Ayyam Gallery, DIFC (04 323 6242).
Runs: Until March 13
Artist: Safwan Dahoul

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