Seven figures are positioned solemnly before us. Two are seen in profile, three bow down their heads, and the last two are in a frontal position but with their eyes closed. They could be men or women, but their subtle breasts and elongated figures render them immediately akin to the female form. They seem to move but within what appears to be water and numerous floating little boats. Unlike Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul’s previous works, there is no pitch-black colour in these portrayals. Shades of grey are juxtaposed with pure white—creating lightness similar to the bright rays of sun on a sunny day evoking feelings of warmth and optimism. We are in the artist’s studio in Alserkal Avenue and this painterly vision drowns out the cacophony of Dubai. There’s a purgatorial feel to this unfinished work, one of several that will be exhibited in the artist’s upcoming Still Dreaming exhibition at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue. While certainly left open to interpretation, despite the increased violence in Safwan’s home country of Syria, this depiction makes us think of hope.
Safwan began his influential Dream series nearly three decades ago. The last few years have witnessed changes in both the narrative of the series and his aesthetic. In 2015, he began isolating his recurring figure and placing her in ambiguous settings. The artist rescued her from the barren landscapes and darkened streets of war-torn Syria and placed her within a gentler backdrop. She was found within a tempestuous rainstorm and also progressing through a sea covered in fog. However, what differentiated these works from previous ones was Safwan’s use of a white background and his protagonist’s rendering in soft gradations of grey.
Dream 108. 2015. Acrylic on canvas 180 x 200 cm.
The artist’s figures are sublime. Whether directly referencing Syria or simply focusing on the grace of the human form, there is a peaceful beauty in these new works. Whereas some artists are more direct in terms of reporting on the actual conflict through images akin to newspaper photographs, Safwan is focusing more on the human aspect of the conflict. The silent beauty of his protagonists is powerful during a period of war. “I keep asking myself if the colour white is the colour of life and optimism or if it is the colour of death or if it is both?” he says. For the artist, the answer is subliminal. But there are also other changes in these works. He has incorporated several new objects. There are the given objects, such as the figure, the chair and the table, but now there are also new elements: boats and water. The boats float around the figures as if nothing particular were taking place. But what do they signify? “We watch on TV almost everyday the refugees on the boats—fleeing from conflict,” says the artist. “You always see pictures of the boats with the refugees that are arriving on shore but nobody knows how many have sunk. These are never reported because they don’t exist; we only know the boats that exist in a photograph. And while we can only see the story of the boat arriving, we don’t see the stories of each individual on that boat and how they have been forced to become refugees. There are so many stories there but for us it is just the news of a boat arriving.” Moreover, these are paper boats. They are just like the ones we used to make as a child. Essentially innocent-like creations, they are placed in water and then watched as they sail. “Yes, when we were children we would make paper boats and they would make us happy,” says Safwan. “Now we paint paper boats because of their current significance in the news.” These are the boats that have altered Syria forever. Still, they are just boats at the end of the day—paper boats.
It’s nearly 28 years since Safwan has been creating his Dream series. Initially, Safwan would wake up and paint the dreams that concerned him and he would call it Dream. This continued until he started calling his paintings Dream instead of providing them with a title. When his late wife passed away, Khaled Samawi, the owner and founder of Ayyam Gallery, suggested that he begin numbering his works so that he could start an archive. And he did. Ever since his wife died Safwan has numbered his Dream works. But they are all called Dream because there is no other title that he would like to give them. “Safwan never likes to impose what he is trying to say onto the viewer,” says Khaled. “He wants each viewer to get what he or she wants out of his paintings; he doesn’t like explaining his art.” The artist intentionally leaves the meaning of his work to be resolved in the mind of the viewer.
Dream 114. 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 180 x 200 cm.
The creative process is always an experience in itself, and for some, an art in itself. “When I paint, I am painting everything concerning myself,” says the artist, who explains how he goes into his studio everyday at the same time. And while he is in his studio he interacts with the painting until it is complete. It is an aggravation of everything that happens in his life. “I don’t know what I am going to paint when I enter my studio,” says Safwan. “I might have a few ideas but it is as I am painting that the other parts come.” It just flows. There is no calculated move on his part. “He comes into his studio everyday at noon and leaves everyday at 7:00 PM,” says Khaled.
The figures in Safwan’s work are not necessarily men or women. “They are humans,” says the artist. “Actually, they are emotions more than they are humans.” In order to feel an emotion you need to see a human. We are seated facing one of his large unfinished canvases. The “humans” are lined up side by side with their head down as the little “paper boats” gently float by. What is the emotion that is rendered here? Safwan looks at the artwork and then closes his eyes. “I have lived this specific moment,” he says. “I have seen this. I have been there. When I started painting this work I had no idea it would be seven figures and seven strings and then seven black boats.” The figures continue to stand before us with their motionless and calm stillness. “The painting itself has a point of view; it’s not only the artist that has a point of view,” he smiles. It is ultimately a discourse between the painter and the artist that creates the painting. The artwork speaks to the artist and to the audience. The painting decides when it wants to be finished—not always when the artist decides it is finished.
As in all of Safwan’s work, notions of time and space appear to be nonexistent, except for what we can visually make out from his large canvases. In these new works, Safwan’s slender figure is now larger, seemingly more powerful. In Dream 116, for example, she seems to almost be part machine. Her head, torso, and limbs are screwed on as if she were a robot. Seated on no indicated object, in her hands she holds a circular form that seems to be the Milky Way. She stares down at it as if pondering its existence. Her kohl-lined eye is once again hollow—almost as if her life had already slipped away and she were looking down at the universe from the afterlife.
How, if at all, does an artist’s surroundings influence his or her oeuvre? It’s now four years since Safwan left Syria to move to Dubai. “Whether an artist is in Damascus, New York or Dubai, he or she will make a cocoon and generate positives from that cocoon,” says Safwan. “It’s not about saying, ‘I create art better here or there;’ it’s about realising as you grow older, that all you need is the discipline wherever you are to put in the hours and make it work.” Picasso, during World War II, created a series of still-lifes in Nazi-occupied Paris. From these works one doesn’t know where he was living or even that there was a war. But even Picasso, while he painted flowers and still-lifes, also created Guernica several years prior and The Charnel House (1945), a painting rendering an accumulation of distorted, mangled bodies. Time and place does influence an artist but ultimately, one can create art anywhere.
Dream 110. 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 180 x 200 cm.
“It is impossible not to think about the situation in Syria,” he says. “Any American or Japanese or anyone, for that matter, is also concerned with what is taking place in Syria. This is a humanitarian event. Everyone is influenced by the global deterioration of humanity.” Just steps away from Safwan’s studio is Tammam Azzam’s exhibition in Ayyam Gallery’s Alserkal Avenue space depicting Syrian city roads stricken by destruction; one immediately feels as if they have entered into a scene of conflict. Whereas here, when gazing at Safwan’s unfinished paintings, the experience is almost spiritual.
It doesn’t need to be stated that art is a crucial part of Safwan’s life. “I think that every artist should ask themselves on a daily basis why they create their artwork and why they are a painter,” says Safwan. “And you don’t always need to find the answer but you should try. You should always be asking yourself that question: ‘Why am I an artist?’ Being an artist is not romantic. It is something bigger than that. You have a need to say something, to explain something, to explore something, including the exploration of yourself, and you are able to do it through painting. And that is why you do it. It’s not a black and white profession, being a painter. It’s not a job, but you must treat it like a job because there is discipline involved.”
We gaze again at his dream-like canvases before us. When one has looked at them for so long it is easy to see the figures moving and proceeding before us. Stories start to evolve and the painting takes on a nature of its own. However, Safwan’s continual black and white palette, albeit with lighter touches this time, causes it to stay in a far away realm from everyday reality. It’s a world we cannot enter fully.
Negative space. This, more than colour, is what actually renders his figures. And now, instead of black, this negative space is created by the colour white—also the colour of Muslim burial shrouds, signaling death, mourning and also the afterlife. White envelops these figures like a protective shroud of warmth, hope and love. “I love colour but I don’t see that it adds value to what I am doing now,” says the artist. “Maybe someday I will use colour in my work. It will happen when the time is right.”
Still Dreaming runs at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue from 14 March to 30 May. Ayyamgallery.com