This issue’s Spotlight focuses on Alaa Abou Shahin (b. 1985), a sculptor who predominantly works with metal and paper, his figures ranging from moustachioed faces to animals such as donkeys and chickens. His paper technique, as evidenced in this Untitled piece from the Atassi Foundation collection, is created through a technique he refers to as paper recyclé, in which paper, often with his own text on it, is turned into a malleable paste.
Alaa Abou Shahin first experimented with metal began during his studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, and upon graduation he explored direct plaster, then wax, and finally bronze, though his move to France in 2013 forced a change in material due to the lack of smelting facilities, a situation he managed to rectify in 2016. However, since the onset of Covid-19, he has been forced to return predominantly to paper works, and has also been experimenting with clay substitutes.
For Abou Shahin, the difference between paper and metal is psychological more than anything else. “Paper is so soft and tangible to work with,” he explains. “I allow myself the pleasure of experimentation, for it makes the whole process of creation playful and relaxing. Metal is tough and physical, particularly the stamina required for welding and smelting. Working in metal is a case of unloading my negative energy and pouring it into the work.” Paper, too, carries with it a psychological weight, in spite of its more delicate nature. “When I get angry I find that writing down that anger purges me of it; messages that would never be sent to the person concerned. Later, I started making sculptures from all these letters I’d written. I layered them, so the actual words and content became obscured, yet did not entirely disappear.”
The characters, which come to life in pieces of welded metal or paper, are often sarcastic in tone (different, Abou Shahin points out, from caricature-like – sarcasm, as a commentary on the world around him, he feels has more bite). “The various motifs I use, be they men, children, or even dogs, chickens and donkeys, are spontaneously created yet they represent events and feelings I have been subconsciously parsing through. These sincere feelings may bubble up a long time after, detached by time from the event itself, yet taking shape as I work on a new sculpture. In that sense they are not pre-conceived ‘themes’ or motifs – rather, spontaneous results of experiences and feelings.”
The biggest shift in Abou Shahin’s work came in 2017 with the inclusion of his daughter Rita in his works, and he began to draw children. “I acquired a children’s book in which a father writes letters to his young daughter. I began to do the same, creating letters for her the only way I know how – through art. Sometimes we work together too, though this is not play time, for I like to teach her the proper techniques. She may at times also add some drawings to paintings I am working on, which is a lovely way for father and daughter to unite through painting.”