New Syrian art

We check out four emerging Syrian artists that Ayyam have tipped to be the next big thing…


Ayyam Gallery has offered us a good education in Syrian art. Head to three or four of its shows, and the characteristics of so much of Syria’s contemporary art soon become clear.

The latest show – of artists who have come through the gallery’s Shabab programme – challenges some of these characteristics, but follows others. As Ayyam has demonstrated to us with its past shows, a fascination with texture is common among Syria’s contemporary artists. So often the canvas morphs into the roughened and chipped surface of a Damascus wall, or the grained texture of Latakian soil: greys, heavy browns, a depth of paint.

This interest in texture is present in Thaier Helal’s huge canveses. Layering paint into a rough, cracked texture, Helal, embosses strings of numbers and symbols into the acrylic. Splashes of softened colour weave through the canvases. In ‘Heaven’, easily the strongest piece in Helal’s body of work presented here, a vague, shifting shape seems to sit within the recesses of the canvas.

Occasionally we can glimpse a body behind the rough texture, but it creates the effect that colour is constantly fading and moving – like dimmed lights that just push through the fog – while a number of his works fade into the background, ‘Heaven’ is nonetheless a very impressive piece.

But the most impressive offering in this new batch are the pieces by Kais Salman. These sickly figures – evocations of the fashion world that have been swelled and stuck in garters and stilettos – appear like crude panel portraits. Sparkling dully with the dripped gold paint and cheap trinkets that Salman has slapped on them, even the perfectly formed toad-like faces suggest the artist has taken great pleasure in rendering his subjects in this way.

Yet, despite this repulsion, there’s something so delicate in the composition of these works. Exaggerated bodies are created with shards of colour, and there’s a refinement to their composition that takes on the appearance of a subverted and smashed mosaic.

Most strikingly different from the usual works we see in Ayyam are the pieces by Mouteea Murad (inset). Thick white bands of tape slice through a number of the works, and form grids across the canvas. Mourad then places vivid, sometimes garishly coloured, geometric shapes behind this structure. While there’s nothing strikingly new about Mourad’s pieces as a whole (there’s more than a nod to the contructivists in here), we are quite impressed with the many layers of perspective that he manages to introduce into each canvas.

He can create alternating planes of perspective within each of the sections, so an undulating blue line can disappear off into the distance, while contrasting triangles of neon battle for the viewer’s gaze. It works well, and Mourad’s pieces have an incredible depth even if they feel a touch timeworn.

On a whole different slant, Yasser Safi presents a very awkward group of figures, reminiscent of the sort of simplicity we’d see in a David Shrigley scene. The simplicity of these figures, composed of featureless blocks and strands of colour, is offset by a face floating ominously in each canvas. Glaring out at the viewer, an uncomfortable yet arresting face draws you into the canvas and cleverly creates a central point to the image.

It forms a howling void in an otherwise childlike image, the situations become suddenly sinister. These works, perhaps a little familiar in their subject, demonstrate Safi’s understanding of how to draw a viewer in towards a point. It’ll be interesting to see what he comes out with in the next few months as he’s nurtured by Ayyam’s clearly successful creative incubator. The new wave of Syrian art is here, and it’s looking good.

Ayyam Gallery (04 323 6242). Until March 19

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