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Syria’s Apex Generation Art Exhibition By Othman Moussa

Painted with photorealistic detail, the golden apple sits on a red table against a dark background. It is reminiscent of Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings of the 17th century, and it takes a sharp eye to spot the detonating cord sprouting in place of the stalk. Labelled Untitled (2014), the work is from the Terror Group Series by the Syrian artist Othman Moussa. It is the cover image for Syria’s Apex Generation, a publication that matches the eponymous exhibition that is running concurrently at three of Ayyam Gallery’s spaces – two in Dubai and one in Beirut. In his early works, Moussa painted with a poetic mastery mundane items from daily life in Syria. But in this series, which he began last year, he turns those mundane items – fruits, vegetables and other everyday objects – into bombs and explosive devices. “The idea is that daily life in Syria now is so precarious,” explains Maymanah Farhat, the exhibition’s curator. “It is also important to note that he is drawing on the rich tradition of satire in Syrian painting.” Moussa is one of five artists selected for this exhibition, which shows different pieces from each of their work in all three venues. Farhat based her selection on two important criteria – they had to be from a group of artists who took part in the gallery’s incubator programme Shabab Ayyam, which offered emerging artists the chance to receive representation back in 2007; and they had to be committed to the medium of paint – something that Farhat says has not been easy, particularly with the continuing unrest. “The problem that a lot of Syrian artists are facing right now is that there is an urgency to comment on everything that is taking place – the destruction of cities, displacement of people, deaths of so many and political rifts – so artists find that digital media and graffiti are quick and consumable aspects of visual culture that are easier and more appropriate for the time,” says Farhat. However, she says these artists have been equally successful within their chosen medium, as there is more room for nuance. Besides, painting has a long history within the region and the country specifically. Moussa’s work is expertly crafted; as Farhat pointed out, it’s drenched in satire. Kais Salman also uses satire to subvert the norm, depicting exaggerated figures with deformed features to underline the psychological violence that ensues when something extreme becomes accepted. Also in the show is Abdul Karim Majdal Al-Beik, who has a history of working with different surfaces and mixed media, but since the outbreak of war in Syria, he has physically woven items of conflict into his work. In Syria, The Fires from 2012, he has scorched the canvas and sewn kitchen knives to it – not much explanation is needed to convey fear and violence. A personal favourite is Nihad Al Turk, whose work Farhat describes as “deeply psychological compositions”. His work is based on allegory and symbols and is drawn from many years of literary research. In Isolation, he layers newspaper clippings and other found images upon each other, such that there is no semblance of meaning, and then paints them over in black. The information is contained within the shape of a tree, which appears in many of his works as a form of narrative. Although the exhibition itself contains only a few works, the accompanying publication shows the artists’ previous paintings and progression. The final painter in these shows is Mohannad Orabi, whose works are dominated by childlike figures in various scenarios. A single look at their eyes is enough to register pain and fear. In a series titled It’s No Longer About Me, Orabi has painted his figures on martyr posters, as Facebook profile pictures and in other imagery to represent the visual environment through which many people are witnessing the war that is happening in his own country. “What makes this show important,” says Farhat, “is that these artists are preserving painting, and in the broader theoretical trajectory of commenting on society, we can understand this period by seeing how visual culture is created and socially engaged.” Syria’s Apex Generation runs till August 2 in Ayyam Dubai’s DIFC and Al Quoz branches and in Ayyam Beirut.

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