East–West: The Other and Me

Born in Qamechli, in North-East Syria in 1951, Youssef Abdelke is regarded one of Syria’s most celebrated painters, recognisable for stark yet visually rich monochromatic paintings that, in the words of Alain Jouffrey, are testament to his being as “a great observer of living phenomena, a meticulous, disciplined and methodical engraver, yet also a poet with images.” In 2005 he returned to Damascus after 25 years of self-imposed exile in France, where he had lived since 1981. In his works, recurring leitmotifs such as fish, knives and skulls are often depicted against empty backgrounds that only serve to throw his chosen subjects into even sharper relief, and his works can be found in the collections of institutions such as The British Museum in London and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Here, he sits down with fellow painter and close friend Fadi Yazigi, who is also based in Damascus to discuss issues of light, emptiness, the complex, symbiotic relationship between Eastern and Western schools of art and thinking, and the balancing of aesthetic and political value to artworks.

Artist in studio

Artist Youssef Abdelke in his studio

1

Youssef Abdelke, Shoe, 2005

Fadi Yazigi: I would like to begin with a general question I have had since you returned to Syria from France. After 24 years of absence from ‘here’, how different has the impact of light on your work been in Paris compared to Damascus? Personally, I believe that despite the usage of the light ‘there’, the light from ‘here’ has always accompanied you. What do you think of that? Also, through close examination of your work, I noticed that the “blackness” in your works has increased.

Youssef Abdelke: The impact of light in my work has a different intensity compared to that of other painters, whether their medium is oil, watercolour or acrylic. My works are black and white, and my themes are either political or still lifes. The political ones are paintings of people or horses, for example, and these were what I worked on during the 1970s and 1980s when my main technique was metal engraving.   

The second theme I have been working on over the last 25 years is the still life, using charcoal on paper and executed inside the studio. During both eras I have never worked on landscapes or portraits in natural light. 

Yes, there is a huge disparity between the light in Damascus and in Paris, whether in life or in nature. I kept myself, however, out of this equation as working in black and white leads to a sort of rigidity in the composition of the work and to an intensity of – rather than sensitivity to – light. I would like to note in this context that I started quite recently working on subjects from nature, namely landscapes of the Al-Ghab Plain and Mount Hermon. A sensitivity to light in these works is far stronger than in any of my oeuvre going back over the last 40 or 50 years.

Should I have been working on natural landscapes over the last decades in Paris or Damascus, your question would have been instrumental and pivotal to the nature of my production. As I told you, my works include figures, people, horses etc... Such works are built upon both the imagination and the balance of white and black. Also, my other still lifes are quite far from natural light. Therefore, I think the impact of the different light setting between here and there is marginal in my works. 

Fadi Yazigi: I am well aware of the setting in your atelier, where you use artificial light sources or studio lights. What I was asking about, however, is related to the psychological level. Have you sensed the difference between these two places? Is light for you a mere physical or chemical concept?

Youssef Abdelke: I was talking about the effect of the light on my artworks. 

Fadi Yazigi: Yes, on artworks… 

Youssef Abdelke: There is no doubt that sensitivity towards light is quite different between there and here. The brightness in the East here, in Syria, is not even comparable to cities like Paris, or even countries like France where the weather is rainy, foggy and cloudy half of the year, with a lack of the bright sunlight we usually enjoy in the East. 

Such light had a major effect on the works of many artists. For example, artists such as Paul Klee – who I think devoted huge efforts to becoming a painter when he travelled to Tunisia – sent a letter to a friend expressing the pure ecstasy of encountering the light “in here”, and of seeing the sun and noticing the colours. Klee continued by telling his friend that only “now” had he become a “painter”. So, before enjoying the light of the sun, he considered himself someone who only drew, and whose work was based on black, white and the line. Even though he already used colours, he missed the contrasts of warm and cool colours, as well as the nuances of other complementary hues. 

Thus, the difference between here and there is stark, and of great impact. However, the actual impact of light on my artwork is minimal for the aforementioned reasons. Still, that light is present in life, in the observation of one’s surroundings: forms, houses, people, heavy shadow and harsh light. All of that has a sizable effect – yet sometimes unconsciously – on a person’s perspective, and this definitely finds its way into artworks.  

4

Youssef Abdelke, Tea Set, 2007

Fadi Yazigi: Back in 2003, you sent me two books, the first about the German artist George Grosz whose oeuvre revolved around the two World Wars, the second on the Impressionist artist James Ensor. Like Grosz, you drew military officers adopting a critical vision, while my work has been Expressionistic like Ensor. This beautiful contrast – or moment of amicable revelation – leads me to a question: Are we an extension for a European civilisation when it comes to visual arts? Or have we started the journey, learnt a bit from the masters and each other? Is Fateh Moudarres, for instance, a prodigy of this place only, or an extension of European art? I always ask myself: Do we have an identity?  

Youssef Abdelke: These are three questions, not one, Fadi! 

As much as we are the product of a visual heritage in Syria in particular, and the East in general, we are also a product of European achievements in areas of painting, cinema, institutions, administrations, etc. The presence of the former does not negate the latter, and vice versa. Thus, retreating to old practices only leads us to redundancy. All artists, from prehistory through to the Common Era, including the 10th century and Arab, Mughal, Indian and Persian civilisations, were in one way or another a source of inspiration and sensitivity. And this covers areas of colours, painting composition, line, form, and even themes. We should, however, never forget that since the mid-19th century, European civilisation began to invade the world, and particularly the ancient word. This has left its markings and pivotal footprint on the entire human experience. I believe that as much as we cherish and hold dear our visual heritage, we are supposed to be quite sensitive to European heritage. In one sense, European accomplishments are mine, in the same sense that the achievements of my civilisation are theirs, and my ancient civilisation belongs to me . Thus, we need to tackle such issues with openness and not retreat into our own shell. We should say no to the blind bias to European art, and no to retreating to the arts of the East. 

I would like to go back to idea I presented and seems was not quite clear. Artists of the ancient East did not imitate their ancestors in the East. Rather, they were actually expressing their believes, lives, concepts, and imagination. Therefore, if we are to be truly honest to our heritage, we should follow their lead of seeking inspiration from their lives, not ancestors. 

Fadi Yazigi: Back in 2003, you sent me two books, the first about the German artist George Grosz whose oeuvre revolved around the two World Wars, the second on the Impressionist artist James Ensor. Like Grosz, you drew military officers adopting a critical vision, while my work has been Expressionistic like Ensor. This beautiful contrast – or moment of amicable revelation – leads me to a question: Are we an extension for a European civilisation when it comes to visual arts? Or have we started the journey, learnt a bit from the masters and each other? Is Fateh Moudarres, for instance, a prodigy of this place only, or an extension of European art? I always ask myself: Do we have an identity?  

Youssef Abdelke: These are three questions, not one, Fadi! 

As much as we are the product of a visual heritage in Syria in particular, and the East in general, we are also a product of European achievements in areas of painting, cinema, institutions, administrations, etc. The presence of the former does not negate the latter, and vice versa. Thus, retreating to old practices only leads us to redundancy. All artists, from prehistory through to the Common Era, including the 10th century and Arab, Mughal, Indian and Persian civilisations, were in one way or another a source of inspiration and sensitivity. And this covers areas of colours, painting composition, line, form, and even themes. We should, however, never forget that since the mid-19th century, European civilisation began to invade the world, and particularly the ancient word. This has left its markings and pivotal footprint on the entire human experience. I believe that as much as we cherish and hold dear our visual heritage, we are supposed to be quite sensitive to European heritage. In one sense, European accomplishments are mine, in the same sense that the achievements of my civilisation are theirs, and my ancient civilisation belongs to me . Thus, we need to tackle such issues with openness and not retreat into our own shell. We should say no to the blind bias to European art, and no to retreating to the arts of the East. 

I would like to go back to idea I presented and seems was not quite clear. Artists of the ancient East did not imitate their ancestors in the East. Rather, they were actually expressing their believes, lives, concepts, and imagination. Therefore, if we are to be truly honest to our heritage, we should follow their lead of seeking inspiration from their lives, not ancestors. 

5 + 6

Youssef Abdelke, Colour Tube, 2018

Fadi Yazigi: From their own world…

Youssef Abdelke: Yes, they do not just repeat old heritage, nor reproduce it under the pretext of ‘authenticity’ or other such banners. Going back to Grosz and Ensor, I noticed that, at some stage, you have become interested in, or rather, are sinking into Expressionism, especially in the works that came before your latest series. Ensor is a major figure in Expressionism, but we should note that all Expressionist artists, whether we talk about Ensor, or Oskar Kokoschka, Chaïm Soutine…  

Fadi Yazigi: … and Edvard Munch…


Youssef Abdelke: Yes, and Edvard Munch. These artists were all on the edge of something new, trying to present an Expressionist work in which they stretched their inner powers to the utmost. Yet, the sheer amount of embedded emotions they poured into their work could, however, lead to a redundant composition in their paintings, or at least in some of them: the artist could be honest in expressing his concepts, visions, thoughts and sufferings, yet the end result might be a imbalanced painting! In contrast, an exaggerated attention to a cohesive composition – as in the works of Fernand Léger – would dry up the artwork, and in other words, such calculations would kill the work. In this sense, an artist should always work on several fronts at the same time, without allowing any one to gain excessive power, lest the artwork gets messed up.

 I would like also to say that the appreciation for European schools of art that came up with modernism in Europe and the whole world should not make us overlook the fact that these ‘modernisms’ are innately imbedded with danger and should be subject to criticism. 

Fadi Yazigi: Do you mean modern schools of art? 

Youssef Abdelke: No, I am talking also about ancient schools, starting from the end of the 19th century up to now, whether they be Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Abstractionism, etc. George Grosz, for example, focused on the deadly consequences of the First World War on a whole generation of youth – artists, musicians and workers in all domains­ – with the number of victims reaching a staggering 75 million. After his immigration to America, he continued working, now with a focus on the atrocities of the Second World War. His works are characterised by their extremely harsh social criticism, featuring wealthy people, capitalists, military officers, the disabled, prostitutes, etc. This led Grosz into new territory, to a place in which he could express himself in a politically explicit way. But this might also have led him to the art of illustration where the focus is on political eloquence, rather than painting eloquence!

I have always believed that the real challenge in painting lies in building an expressive momentum without losing the work’s solid composition. In this sense, shouting is never considered sweet singing, neither is soft whispering. 

Something else I would like to reiterate. My head is buzzing with political and social ideas. But as much as I would like to express them in my painting, I should keep in mind that I am working on an artwork, and not a political manifesto. It is worth mentioning that thousands artworks produced since 2011 are characterised by haste and much superficiality. Artists are obsessed with showing their support of the revolution and also their opposition to the oppressive regime of Damascus. The results were, therefore, defined by urgency, and even shallowness at times. The revolution for which Syrians waited 40 long years, and before which they suffered from oppression and humiliation, deserves intellectually high-standard creative artworks that possess a vision and employ technical prowess. What we see today, nonetheless, is something else. There is no doubt we will see over the coming years magnificent and deep works by Syrian artists in response this seismic event that has stuck our country and the whole region. This is something that needs reflection upon, and time to materialise.

Fadi Yazigi: From their own world…

Youssef Abdelke: Yes, they do not just repeat old heritage, nor reproduce it under the pretext of ‘authenticity’ or other such banners. Going back to Grosz and Ensor, I noticed that, at some stage, you have become interested in, or rather, are sinking into Expressionism, especially in the works that came before your latest series. Ensor is a major figure in Expressionism, but we should note that all Expressionist artists, whether we talk about Ensor, or Oskar Kokoschka, Chaïm Soutine…  

Fadi Yazigi: … and Edvard Munch…


Youssef Abdelke: Yes, and Edvard Munch. These artists were all on the edge of something new, trying to present an Expressionist work in which they stretched their inner powers to the utmost. Yet, the sheer amount of embedded emotions they poured into their work could, however, lead to a redundant composition in their paintings, or at least in some of them: the artist could be honest in expressing his concepts, visions, thoughts and sufferings, yet the end result might be a imbalanced painting! In contrast, an exaggerated attention to a cohesive composition – as in the works of Fernand Léger – would dry up the artwork, and in other words, such calculations would kill the work. In this sense, an artist should always work on several fronts at the same time, without allowing any one to gain excessive power, lest the artwork gets messed up.

 I would like also to say that the appreciation for European schools of art that came up with modernism in Europe and the whole world should not make us overlook the fact that these ‘modernisms’ are innately imbedded with danger and should be subject to criticism. 

Fadi Yazigi: Do you mean modern schools of art? 

Youssef Abdelke: No, I am talking also about ancient schools, starting from the end of the 19th century up to now, whether they be Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Abstractionism, etc. George Grosz, for example, focused on the deadly consequences of the First World War on a whole generation of youth – artists, musicians and workers in all domains­ – with the number of victims reaching a staggering 75 million. After his immigration to America, he continued working, now with a focus on the atrocities of the Second World War. His works are characterised by their extremely harsh social criticism, featuring wealthy people, capitalists, military officers, the disabled, prostitutes, etc. This led Grosz into new territory, to a place in which he could express himself in a politically explicit way. But this might also have led him to the art of illustration where the focus is on political eloquence, rather than painting eloquence!

I have always believed that the real challenge in painting lies in building an expressive momentum without losing the work’s solid composition. In this sense, shouting is never considered sweet singing, neither is soft whispering. 

Something else I would like to reiterate. My head is buzzing with political and social ideas. But as much as I would like to express them in my painting, I should keep in mind that I am working on an artwork, and not a political manifesto. It is worth mentioning that thousands artworks produced since 2011 are characterised by haste and much superficiality. Artists are obsessed with showing their support of the revolution and also their opposition to the oppressive regime of Damascus. The results were, therefore, defined by urgency, and even shallowness at times. The revolution for which Syrians waited 40 long years, and before which they suffered from oppression and humiliation, deserves intellectually high-standard creative artworks that possess a vision and employ technical prowess. What we see today, nonetheless, is something else. There is no doubt we will see over the coming years magnificent and deep works by Syrian artists in response this seismic event that has stuck our country and the whole region. This is something that needs reflection upon, and time to materialise.

7 + 8

Youssef Abdelke, Dead Plant, 2018

Fadi Yazigi: But there are aesthetic values... 

Youssef Abdelke: Political or not is not an issue when it comes to paintings. Half of the paintings worldwide are political. The real challenge is: how to execute a political painting and how to build its composition? That is, first and foremost, how you work on it as a piece of art, before addressing its messages. Let’s take Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 tackling the topic of execution. Despite the importance of the connotation embedded by the artist, the visual eloquence is a result of its solid artistic composition, the stark contrast between light and darkness, its emotional intensity, and the robust Expressionism of its figures. This is much more present than the condemnation of the act of executing Spanish rebels by the French occupiers. 

Fadi Yazigi: But there are aesthetic values... 

Youssef Abdelke: Political or not is not an issue when it comes to paintings. Half of the paintings worldwide are political. The real challenge is: how to execute a political painting and how to build its composition? That is, first and foremost, how you work on it as a piece of art, before addressing its messages. Let’s take Francisco Goya’s The Third of May 1808 tackling the topic of execution. Despite the importance of the connotation embedded by the artist, the visual eloquence is a result of its solid artistic composition, the stark contrast between light and darkness, its emotional intensity, and the robust Expressionism of its figures. This is much more present than the condemnation of the act of executing Spanish rebels by the French occupiers. 

8.a

Youssef Abdelke, Girl, 2015

 

Fadi Yazigi: I would like to talk about the empty space in your paintings, which is of a great importance to you. Do you consider the empty space in the painting equal to the main subject or subjects?

Youssef Abdelke: Regardless of the issue of equality or inequality, I believe that the importance of each element in the painting is derived from two dimensions: the first is the subject itself and the way it is executed, and the second is the empty space in which it is presented. Consequently, if the same image was presented in two different spaces, the result would be two totally different paintings bringing about different sets of emotions. What I would like to say here is that the empty space is the ‘hero’ of the painting per se. Therefore, working on empty space is basically working on the second main element of the artwork. In this sense, the crucial point is the momentum created by the emptiness on the levels of expressiveness, artistic significance, or even the metaphysical relevance conferred to it by the artist. Accordingly, the empty space has never been a minor issue. On the contrary, it has been a major preoccupation in arts of all civilisations.  

Let’s consider, for example, how Muslim artists worked out the issue of the empty space. They populated paintings, carpets and pottery surfaces with elements, be they in the form of vegetal, decorative animal motifs or human figures. They had a strong belief that elements of the work should populate the whole space. This is derived from the religious belief that God is omnipresent everywhere. Thus, there shall be no empty space. And this applies to painting as well, in the sense that every single space should be populated, leaving nothing empty, as it might be filled by the devil. It is an artistic style derived out of a religious belief. Whereas, based on a conviction that the human being is the centre of the universe, since the Renaissance, the human body has dominated European art – in fact before the Renaissance, since the sixth century. Furthermore, vast empty spaces are remarkable in Chinese works dating back to 500 B.C and continuing to this day, in the way that the ‘subjects’ – whether humans, animals, boats or birds – constitute but tiny little elements in the painting’s empty space. This also is derived from their belief that the human being is not the master of our universe, but rather constitutes only a small element of it! This modest existence is reflected in vast empty spaces in paintings. Thus, the importance of the empty space in paintings is crucial in terms of the artwork’s overall composition, but also its psychological impact. It is not an issue of a skill, style, peculiar fad or a new movement; it is much deeper.  

Fadi Yazigi: I would like to talk about the empty space in your paintings, which is of a great importance to you. Do you consider the empty space in the painting equal to the main subject or subjects?

Youssef Abdelke: Regardless of the issue of equality or inequality, I believe that the importance of each element in the painting is derived from two dimensions: the first is the subject itself and the way it is executed, and the second is the empty space in which it is presented. Consequently, if the same image was presented in two different spaces, the result would be two totally different paintings bringing about different sets of emotions. What I would like to say here is that the empty space is the ‘hero’ of the painting per se. Therefore, working on empty space is basically working on the second main element of the artwork. In this sense, the crucial point is the momentum created by the emptiness on the levels of expressiveness, artistic significance, or even the metaphysical relevance conferred to it by the artist. Accordingly, the empty space has never been a minor issue. On the contrary, it has been a major preoccupation in arts of all civilisations.  

Let’s consider, for example, how Muslim artists worked out the issue of the empty space. They populated paintings, carpets and pottery surfaces with elements, be they in the form of vegetal, decorative animal motifs or human figures. They had a strong belief that elements of the work should populate the whole space. This is derived from the religious belief that God is omnipresent everywhere. Thus, there shall be no empty space. And this applies to painting as well, in the sense that every single space should be populated, leaving nothing empty, as it might be filled by the devil. It is an artistic style derived out of a religious belief. Whereas, based on a conviction that the human being is the centre of the universe, since the Renaissance, the human body has dominated European art – in fact before the Renaissance, since the sixth century. Furthermore, vast empty spaces are remarkable in Chinese works dating back to 500 B.C and continuing to this day, in the way that the ‘subjects’ – whether humans, animals, boats or birds – constitute but tiny little elements in the painting’s empty space. This also is derived from their belief that the human being is not the master of our universe, but rather constitutes only a small element of it! This modest existence is reflected in vast empty spaces in paintings. Thus, the importance of the empty space in paintings is crucial in terms of the artwork’s overall composition, but also its psychological impact. It is not an issue of a skill, style, peculiar fad or a new movement; it is much deeper.  

9

Youssef Abdelke, Tied up Skull, 2007

Fadi Yaizi: Isn’t there another dimension to emptiness in your works? A nihilist dimension, such as using a skull as a centrepiece? Doesn’t it imply a sort of fear or nihilism?           

Youssef Abdelke: As I have just mentioned, emptiness has the potential to provide a metaphysical dimension to elements of the painting. In addition to that, the concept of placing an element at the centre of the painting is derived from Arab and Eastern miniatures, not prevalent in European concepts.  

The issue of the golden ratio and the forms derived from it have been used since the time of the Greeks, then officially adapted in Europe in the 16th century. Europeans in general consider the golden ratio (1 to 1.61) to bring about the most beautiful and dynamic rectangular compositions with harmonious proportions! They also consider the most dynamic compositions of this rectangular frame are the four points resulting from the intersection between the two horizontal lines dividing the space into three parts and the two vertical lines also dividing the space into three parts.

Also, in contrast to the people of the East, Europeans adore movement in art. Thus, placing the main element at the very centre of the painting counts as a blaspheme for Europeans as it means the artist is opting for a static state, rather than a dynamic one. Artists in the East, however, were preoccupied with issues irrelevant to this golden ratio, and the concept of dynamism. The notion of stability and immobility is the most effective for them. That is why in Pharaonic, Mesopotamian and Indian archaeological objects – particularly their massive sculptures and statues of Buddha – we notice the concept of tranquillity, serenity and stillness is the most present, and not dynamic movement. So, when I place an element at the centre of an already square painting, that means I put my element in the most serene place, in its heart. Thus, I’m adding more stillness to an already still space.

This is derived in one way or another from our visual heritage. And for even more contrast, the element at the centre of the painting adopts the European concepts of imitation, shadow and light, stressing the third dimension. By this, I emphasise the unity of opposites or differences, i.e. interlacing East with West. Despite their impact on us here in Syria, the East in general, Latin America, and all the way to Japan, I consider European achievements as mere recommendations, neither absolutes nor sanctities.

Fadi Yaizi: Isn’t there another dimension to emptiness in your works? A nihilist dimension, such as using a skull as a centrepiece? Doesn’t it imply a sort of fear or nihilism?           

Youssef Abdelke: As I have just mentioned, emptiness has the potential to provide a metaphysical dimension to elements of the painting. In addition to that, the concept of placing an element at the centre of the painting is derived from Arab and Eastern miniatures, not prevalent in European concepts.  

The issue of the golden ratio and the forms derived from it have been used since the time of the Greeks, then officially adapted in Europe in the 16th century. Europeans in general consider the golden ratio (1 to 1.61) to bring about the most beautiful and dynamic rectangular compositions with harmonious proportions! They also consider the most dynamic compositions of this rectangular frame are the four points resulting from the intersection between the two horizontal lines dividing the space into three parts and the two vertical lines also dividing the space into three parts.

Also, in contrast to the people of the East, Europeans adore movement in art. Thus, placing the main element at the very centre of the painting counts as a blaspheme for Europeans as it means the artist is opting for a static state, rather than a dynamic one. Artists in the East, however, were preoccupied with issues irrelevant to this golden ratio, and the concept of dynamism. The notion of stability and immobility is the most effective for them. That is why in Pharaonic, Mesopotamian and Indian archaeological objects – particularly their massive sculptures and statues of Buddha – we notice the concept of tranquillity, serenity and stillness is the most present, and not dynamic movement. So, when I place an element at the centre of an already square painting, that means I put my element in the most serene place, in its heart. Thus, I’m adding more stillness to an already still space.

This is derived in one way or another from our visual heritage. And for even more contrast, the element at the centre of the painting adopts the European concepts of imitation, shadow and light, stressing the third dimension. By this, I emphasise the unity of opposites or differences, i.e. interlacing East with West. Despite their impact on us here in Syria, the East in general, Latin America, and all the way to Japan, I consider European achievements as mere recommendations, neither absolutes nor sanctities.

Thus, I can build upon these recommendations the way I want, exactly as I can build upon my Eastern heritage, as well as breaking all absolutes. This could be observed in almost all my paintings. A painting of mine might have a European perspective from one side, and also an Eastern one by adopting a flat chess-like approach based on superposition, rather than a succession of objects based on the relative distance from the viewer according to the European painting perspective. In this sense, the painting might feature a main element – a fish, an apple or a skull – yet, it is in fact a combination of sets of Eastern and European concepts. It adopts a European perspective and method in its analysis of light while employing at the same time Eastern configurations and perspective. I do not see this as a flaw, but rather as an element creating peculiarity, even uniqueness.         

On a related note, I do not consider the other to be an alien creature. The other and I create the very same human, and consequently the lines separating the other and me, East and West, European arts and Eastern arts, etc are arbitrary. Rather, inspiration could be drawn from all this rich legacy. A legacy for the whole of mankind, whether its source is a Chinese landscape drawing, a Japanese engraving, a European painting or the [visual] heritage of the East. The artist should absorb all of that as his own personal heritage. This is the only way to go beyond the limitations of each and every territorial culture, and therefore it has the potential to enormously enrich the artwork, and break the taboos adhered to by European and the Eastern artists for at least the past century and a half. Taboos immersed with a superior Orientalist viewpoint in the case of European artists, and an inferior self-derogatory perspective in those of Eastern artists. 

10

Youssef Abdelke, The Martyr's Mother, 2012

Fadi Yazigi: Is your use of symbolism in your 2012 work The Martyr's Mother, for example, aimed at making the painting accessible to the audience? Or does it only feed into it in a minor way, in the sense that in The Knife and the Rose , for example, the connotations are much deeper than the use here of the mother, which is somehow romantic and even direct? Is this a kind of tendency to address a certain type of people? Or merely a documentation of the era filled with oppression and suffering?    

Youssef Abdelke: Over the last 50 years, I have never considered addressing or appealing to anybody. This is something I have never, and would never, do. I simply draw my feelings, beliefs, vision, and what constitutes happiness and pain for me. This is my only compass, and I have no other orientation. I am not interested in addressing or appealing to anybody. Creating a symbolic work, or a work with a direct political connotation or a stretch of imagination is secondary to a factor of the utmost importance to me – a factor I might not succeed well in addressing – and it is that the painting should be coherent and enjoy a balanced relation between the strength of its structure and the power of its emotions. This is what I am concerned about, and anything else related – audience/viewer – is not a part of my calculations. This does not, however, negate the fact that The Martyr's Mother deals with an extremely painful theme for me personally, and also for millions of people. Thus, creating a personal artwork does not mean in any way that it is detached from others. Absolutely not. Being honest with yourself and expressing your beliefs, concerns, and pain put you in the epicentre of their agony. 

Fadi Yazigi: Is your use of symbolism in your 2012 work The Martyr's Mother, for example, aimed at making the painting accessible to the audience? Or does it only feed into it in a minor way, in the sense that in The Knife and the Rose , for example, the connotations are much deeper than the use here of the mother, which is somehow romantic and even direct? Is this a kind of tendency to address a certain type of people? Or merely a documentation of the era filled with oppression and suffering?    

Youssef Abdelke: Over the last 50 years, I have never considered addressing or appealing to anybody. This is something I have never, and would never, do. I simply draw my feelings, beliefs, vision, and what constitutes happiness and pain for me. This is my only compass, and I have no other orientation. I am not interested in addressing or appealing to anybody. Creating a symbolic work, or a work with a direct political connotation or a stretch of imagination is secondary to a factor of the utmost importance to me – a factor I might not succeed well in addressing – and it is that the painting should be coherent and enjoy a balanced relation between the strength of its structure and the power of its emotions. This is what I am concerned about, and anything else related – audience/viewer – is not a part of my calculations. This does not, however, negate the fact that The Martyr's Mother deals with an extremely painful theme for me personally, and also for millions of people. Thus, creating a personal artwork does not mean in any way that it is detached from others. Absolutely not. Being honest with yourself and expressing your beliefs, concerns, and pain put you in the epicentre of their agony. 

11, 12

Youssef Abdelke, An Ode to the Seventies Generation, 2005

Fadi Yazigi: I would like to talk about a specific painting, An Ode to the Seventies Generation, which is also sometimes referred to as ‘The Grip', in which you pay tribute to the generation of the 1970s. Featuring an amputated, yet tight fist and bleeding arm, is it relevant to the context of despair among that generation?   

Youssef Abdelke: The 1970s – or rather, starting from the late 1960s – is an era of an enormous political renaissance worldwide. Whether in Arab or non-Arab countries, this period brought in a generation of freedom and justice seekers and dreamers of a new world… a generation of hopefuls and fighters ready to grasp the cause tightly, like holding burning coals. A generation who had to pay a hefty price for their political aspirations. For example, some of my fellows from the Communist Labour Party in Syria served seven, 15, or even 17 years in prison, and some died under torture. So, this generation is genuinely entitled to have its cause reflected upon and be admired for its fighting spirit. In this sense, The Grip reflects the persistence of that generation and the potential power of its dreams, as well as the ferocity of the oppression and violence exercised by the authorities. An amputated fist might evoke misery, even despair! But I believe this is less important. What I clearly see in here is a great combative spirit embodied in a clenched fist!

Fadi Yazigi: I would like to talk about a specific painting, An Ode to the Seventies Generation, which is also sometimes referred to as ‘The Grip', in which you pay tribute to the generation of the 1970s. Featuring an amputated, yet tight fist and bleeding arm, is it relevant to the context of despair among that generation?   

Youssef Abdelke: The 1970s – or rather, starting from the late 1960s – is an era of an enormous political renaissance worldwide. Whether in Arab or non-Arab countries, this period brought in a generation of freedom and justice seekers and dreamers of a new world… a generation of hopefuls and fighters ready to grasp the cause tightly, like holding burning coals. A generation who had to pay a hefty price for their political aspirations. For example, some of my fellows from the Communist Labour Party in Syria served seven, 15, or even 17 years in prison, and some died under torture. So, this generation is genuinely entitled to have its cause reflected upon and be admired for its fighting spirit. In this sense, The Grip reflects the persistence of that generation and the potential power of its dreams, as well as the ferocity of the oppression and violence exercised by the authorities. An amputated fist might evoke misery, even despair! But I believe this is less important. What I clearly see in here is a great combative spirit embodied in a clenched fist!

Fadi Yazigi: You also drew A Knife and A Bird. How far could the dead bird resist? Does this painting evoke despair?  

Youssef Abdelke: I believe there is much more than despair in this painting. I see the ferocity of the violence and the destruction inflicting our societies. In fact, I personally feel the bird conveys feelings of tenderness, beauty and kindness. Thus, one’s feelings are aimed at the harshness and cruelty of the knife. The painting becomes a condemnation, rather than an expression, of the violence. Despite the dark night, there is always a glimpse of hope in my heart. Due to violence, robbery, wars and the short sightedness of our authorities and them being held hostage to foreign powers, our societies have gone through catastrophic periods over the last 50 years. This is, however, not the end of our history. Eventually, and whether they like it or not, we will gain our freedom, dignity and citizenship.  

Bird and Knife

Youssef Abdelke, A Bird and A Knife, 2011