Born in Damascus, Abu Subhi Al Tinawi (1888–1973) was one of the most well-known Syrian folk artists of his time. Originally named Muhammad Harb, it was when he opened his shop in Damascus that he began signing all of his artworks Abu Subhi Al Tinawi, a familiar Arabic way of calling someone after their eldest son.
Hailing from a family of reverse glass-painters and tapestry artisans, Al Tinawi made his own paint using the traditional technique of combining natural pigments with Arabic gum. He became known for reverse glass painting – a technique which, having originated in Europe and become popular throughout Central and Eastern Asia in the 17th Century, was already fading in the Levant by Al Tinawi’s time. Continuing his work on glass and other media – such as metallic paper or cloth – he is known for his use of bright colours and simple representations of characters with straightforward expressions. Fascinated by traditional verses and stories, Al Tinawi’s oeuvre explores folk epics, historical events and religious themes. Over the decades, his prolific depictions made him a spectacular visual storyteller who was able to express the emotions of his community through popular concepts.
By the time of his death, Al Tinawi had accumulated unexpected fame. Though he never left his shop to see the exhibitions of his work, pieces had travelled to Europe and beyond. Rumoured to be one of the first Arab artists to participate in an exhibition showing Picasso in Paris, his work was acquired internationally by individuals and art institutions, including the Louvre. As a visual storyteller, Al Tinawi’s work has greatly influenced contemporary Arab artists and has also found its way into numerous publications and films.