Nour Asalia sits down with Syrian artist Monif Ajaj (b. 1968, Deir Ezzour), who has been living and working in France since 2012. Here, he shares his story and talks about his artistic career, recounting all the difficulties, obstacles, opportunities, transformations and successes involved. Our casual dialogue with the artist begins with a talk about the outcome of the Syrian issue today – nine years after the onset of the revolution – and the fates of Syrian artists in the wake of all the confusion, pain and feelings of despair that have followed. We talk about the ways we can extract ourselves from this debilitating cycle amid a strong desire to advance, renew and restore both the human self and the artistic self.
“I studied interior design in Russia with the intention of returning to Syria.” This is how Monif Ajaj begins talking about his career in art. “At the academy in Russia, the basis for all art was in drawing and illustrating the nude model in its multiple forms, as well as learning artistic anatomy: it represented the key to mastering drawing, whatever the specialty,” he continues. “Upon my return to Syria in 1996 and as a delegate of the Ministry of Education [he was on a scholarship and therefore had to ‘serve’ back home], I was given the position of art teacher in the tiny town of Mouhsein in Deir Ezzour. Later on, I completed my compulsory military service, after which I resumed teaching. As for working in design and interior design, it proved very hard to start a career in that particular field, for it required the right kind of connections.” Teaching was difficult as well, “due to the shortage of the necessary equipment and the inability to adjust the curricula. In addition to that, drawing classes were often given over to teach other subjects,” he explains. “Society was not interested in artistic culture as hoped”. It was around this time, at the turn of the millennium, that Ajaj decided to move to Damascus – both to teach there, but also to be close to its art milieu and nurture his own artistic practice. He continued teaching until 2012, when he relocated to France to join family there.
In Damascus, in addition to his teaching job, Ajaj would take on commissions. “I drew all that was needed in the commercial art market,” he explains, “whether this was copies of famous paintings, or depictions of Damascene neighbourhoods. One day, an art dealer, Ahmad Koteit, asked me to create my own, original artworks instead, so I began working in aquarelles, oil, charcoal and pencil.”
With characteristic spontaneity, Ajaj then tells me how his academically honed skill in drawing found its way quickly to painting. He began taking an interest in exploring specific issues, in particular the reality of political tyranny and the confiscation of freedoms. Ajaj says: “When the events of the war in Iraq started, I was deeply affected by images of Abu Ghraib prison and the assassination of Saddam Hussein and his sons.” The resulting artworks were displayed in Zara Gallery in Jordan in 2007. Marianne Sahoury, then director of the gallery, was, according to Ajaj, undaunted by the harshness of the artworks, instead she was primarily concerned with their artistic, rather than commercial, value, even though it is a natural right for galleries to sell. Some of these works did not depict human faces but, rather, faces of a donkey. When I questioned him as to whether the donkey symbolised something specific, he replied that, “there is no specific symbolism, it is simply a creature concealing different personalities behind its face”. Ironically, he explains, without any explanations, most viewers made a connection between the donkey face and the concept of men in power. “In fact, an American lady who specialised in the history of art insisted that one of the pictures represented Saddam Hussein.”
These donkeys, in fact, had played a rather important role in Ajaj’s life. Prior to this, he had embarked on something very few dared to do. In 2003 he sent a large artwork featuring dignified portraits of three donkeys as his submission to the Lattakia Biennial. In spite of his public protestations that the donkeys did not symbolise anything specific, deep down he knew that they referred to certain personalities, and questioned himself over the potential consequences should the gravity of that act ever come to light. Nevertheless, the incident passed unnoticed and his painting won the third prize in the festival!
In 2008, Ajaj moved to the Damascene district of Almouhajireen. “During my daily walks, I saw secret service men everywhere and a phone dangling from every tree where a member of the intelligence agency would be sitting,” he recalls. “Kiosk vendors by the roadside would stare at me in a way that made me extremely tense. We were being suffocated and tales of imprisonment and torture started percolate until they penetrated my paintings. I drew acts of torture and humiliation, such as beating and pulling out moustaches.” The result was the 2009 exhibition The Moments Before the Tragedy, his second exhibition at Zara Gallery, which featured works depicting the conditions of the victims of this brutality. “Shortly after, I portrayed the executioner.” Ajaj displays the executioner as nude, and I ask him if this is a paradox, if it makes the executioner a victim. What does the nudity indicate? For him, nudity in the portrait is “an aesthetic, visual element and drawing the body has become an axiom. It is spontaneously manifested.
In 2010, Ajaj held an exhibition in his own atelier in Damascus, regarded a bold step. In that neighbourhood, where security members were planted on every street corner, here was an artist displaying pictures that opposed the military and conveyed a repulsive image of the prison wardens and officers. Just a year later, the revolution broke out. “The revolution broke all the taboos and demolished all the walls in one go,” says Ajaj. “We started drawing without equivocation and portrayed events in an explicit manner. We had to declare a clear position supportive of the Syrian revolution and to work on documenting its daily events as much as possible.”
After moving to France, Ajaj continued his artistic practice with his usual intensity. However, in 2014 he went through a period of frustration and helplessness. All Syrian artists were similarly affected in that specific year: it was the year of the chemical weapon massacres that killed thousands of Syrians, and the lack of reaction from the international community became evident. In time, his artwork regained its old intensity, and, in addition to several group exhibitions, Ajaj held three solo exhibitions, the most notable and pivotal of which was held in the city of Limoges in 2017. Its significance lies in the symbolism of the location, for the gallery space was previously a slaughterhouse. Ajaj chose to have his paintings suspended from the butcher’s rails, as animal carcasses would once have been, all topped by a portrait depicting Bashar Al Assad.
In 2019 Ajaj joined a gallery in Peregueux in Dordogne in the South of France where he has been involved in a rich and profound experiment, for which he has set up art workshops with patients at the old Vauclaire psychiatric sanatorium in Dordogne. So successful were they, that he has received a request from the John Bost Foundation to perform a similar experiment. “The experiment started by chance, but when I visited Vauclaire, I recalled a text by the Syrian writer Fadi Azzam, in which he recounted his visit to the Ibn Sina Psychiatric Hospital in Damascus, as well as receiving extremely shocking and poignant pictures from another hospital for mental illness, built in the north of Syria to address the effects of war,” says Ajaj. “I imagined that I would be seeing patients with cases similar to those of the Syrians who had lost their senses due to the madness of war. But soon I saw the matter differently. I worked hard with the patients and tried to explore any expressive abilities they possessed. They were also trying to explore me. After the first experiment, I became more able to identify the needs as well as logistic and moral requirements in order to achieve satisfactory and convincing results. Most of the patients were very happy upon seeing the results”. The results of Ajaj’s collaboration with John Bost will be an exhibition of portraiture at the Foundation’s museum, the Maison John et Eugenie Bost, this coming May.
Today, Ajaj intends to take up a three-month residency in one of the accommodations of underage immigrants in the city of Toulouse. These are the children who crossed the sea without their families, and they are cared for by the French state until they reach the legal age for living on their own. Once there, he will hold an art workshop for them in the hope of providing them with an outlet for expression or a door to self-exploration or, perhaps, even a path to inner peace.