Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 6th November 2015

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Every face tells a story in Bachi exhibition

Works from 81-year-old Syrian artist adorn walls and show continuous creative output of paintings, drawings and works on paper that span more than five decades.

Marwan Kassab-Bachi

Work on paper from Marwan Kassab-Bachi exhibition in London

London - Walking into the Mosaic Rooms Gallery in west London is like walking into Marwan Kassab-Bachi’s cave of treasures. Works from the 81-year-old Syrian artist adorn the walls and show a continuous creative output of paintings, drawings and works on paper that span more than five decades.

Bachi has only one subject – the face. But every face tells a story.

On some of the faces, the colours are blurred and the facial features merge. There is an underlying theme of pain, questioning, quest for understanding and search of identity. Sometimes the viewer has to look for the face and discover the eyes, always mysterious and expressive.

In his portraits, Bachi does not just reproduce faces but conveys emotions and tries to express what is happening in the mind of his subjects. He focuses on the agony of the human condition and the enduring pain of everyday aspects of life such as loneliness, longing and homesickness.

“My art is confrontational. People don’t always like it, as they often want something more sweet. I don’t like sweet. Sweet is ugly,” said Bachi, echoing the words of Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

Speaking to The Arab Weekly at the opening of his first solo UK exhibition, Not Towards Home But The Horizon, Bachi reminisced on his first painting, produced at the age of 13. It was a small oil on canvas of the village of Jabra in Syria.

“I started painting at a very young age and I did not stop since then. If I am born again, I would still be painting,” he said.

Bachi grew up in the Old City of Damascus. Frequent visits to the countryside and the family’s land outside the city put him in touch with the rural landscape, an influence that never left him.

A gentle, humble, engaging man he chooses his words carefully and gives little away. The Syrian writer Adonis wrote 75 prose passages in homage to Bachi. The title of the exhibition is taken from one of them.

But when asked about the significance of the exhibition’s name he says: “It’s a nice name.”

The highlight of the exhibition is the acclaimed 99 Heads, a series of 99 etchings made in 1997 and ‘98 that refer to Sufism and the 99 names of God in Islam. Also on show are a number of smaller pieces, works on paper and artist’s books. These include works painted directly onto oil colour boxes.

Bachi said he paints to get in touch with the world.

“I have no particular message. The paintings and the art itself is the message. They are an expression of my dreams. Everybody has something to say to the world and I do this through my paintings,” he said.

“If you feel happy when you see my paintings, it is a message. And if you do not like them, that is also the message. Many people do not have to like my paintings. They portray my life. They come from my heart.”

The Syrian painter, based in Berlin, said his art is not dictated by the market or his audience. “I don’t think about anything other than expressing myself. I dig inside myself and try to see what comes out, but I never know what direction it will go in,” Bachi said. “My art is like a river that is constantly moving. It goes and goes until it comes to the sea and then the river ends.”

Bachi is one of the foremost artists of his generation, not only in the Arab world but around the globe. In 1994, he became the first Arab member of Germany’s distinguished Akademie der Künste.

But life has not been easy. Born in Damascus, he studied Arabic literature at the University of Damascus (1955-57) before leaving for France. The Suez crisis prompted France to sever diplomatic links with Syria and he ended up in the former East Germany. He has a studio in Berlin’s Pankow district where the former communist government established purpose-built artists’ quarters.

Between 1962 and 1970, he worked in a fur factory during the day and spent his nights working on sketches that were transformed into large oil paintings. He describes the paintings from this period as “the jewels of my career”. They include a painting of Munif al-Razzaz, the former secretary-general of the National Command of the Syrian Ba’ath Party.

This was also the time when the political situation in Syria changed and his family’s lands were confiscated, leading to an acute homesickness. “I was homesick everywhere. A sense of longing for elsewhere is deep within my soul,” Bachi said “For this reason I’ve kept my sense of ‘home’ [Syria] rather more than some of those who still live there.”

Bachi has held a professorship position at Berlin University of the Arts since 1980. He has exhibited mainly in Germany but also in the Middle East and the United States. He has works in many public collections, including the Abdul Hameed Shoman Foundation in Jordan, Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, the British Museum and Tate Modern in London.