Of Human Clay
1 New

Khaled Dawwa, And We Chanted for Freedom, part of Clay and Knife series, 2011-2014, clay, 1024 x 683 cm.

Khaled Dawwa (b.1985) first received widespread attention for his ‘Clay and Knife’ project (2011), in which golem-like men, signature figures for Dawwa, are arranged in a variety of tableaux. At times, they appear malevolent and oppressive, at others, full of pathos in their desperate outcry against injustice. For the artist, they embody social and political transformations, as well as an ongoing interest in mass and dimension. His interest in sculpture stems from his childhood, and he continues to use raw clay to explore the human condition. Here Dawwa tells us about the characters that have accompanied him on his travels from Syria to France.

As a child, I would use whatever was available at home to create new things – very much influenced by my mother. She is a woman who has the ability to create much out of little: toys, clothes, home decorations, even when cooking. This sense of innovation and creativity had a huge impact on me, and my parents both were supportive of the development of my artistic skills. I found it magical how one could create something harmonious and ideal out of the things around one – at least, harmonious to me.

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Khaled Dawwa, Up, 2017, clay, 30 x 28 x 24 cm.

When I began my studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, I had not planned on studying sculpture, but it made sense in its study of mass and material. I worked in order to support myself during my studies, but even then, I couldn’t always afford the professional tools required for sculpting, so I resorted to simpler and more primitive methods wherever available, often making my own tools.

My relationship with mass as a sculptural concept began in earnest with my graduation project, and proved important also in the development of the themes that I continue to explore. It would be my first serious project as a sculptor, and explored the concept of waiting – a tale of two countries where everyone is in stasis. I wanted to evoke the bipolarity/dichotomy of the people, on one hand, and the ‘authority’ on the other, which was represented by a character I called the ‘King of Waiting’. The large mass of the characters I sculpt came from my viewing them in terms of their respective power and strength. It was reflective of the sense of a gradual accumulation of mass as layers accrued over time from inaction – a lack of exploitation of themselves in any act, and this idea of layering is also similar to the process of building clay. The ensuing series, Waiting was reflective of the reality of our lives in Syria. After I graduated in 2007, I continued working on the series, though I had no ambition to display it, as political topics were taboo. What concerns me in sculpture (or art in general) is its relationship to reality, so I continued working on the project as personal research.

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Khaled Dawwa, Oh Home!, 2015, International Coalition, compressed sculpture.

The violence that we faced with the beginnings of the Syrian revolution forced people to find other platforms through which to protest. Social media provided a way or me, as a sculptor, to participate in the revolution. It marked the beginning of my deep relationship with sculpture as an act of resistance and a way of raising my voice. This was the most important catalyst – to be able to reach a diverse audience over the Internet that was not only a gallery-going art audience, but the wider population. That was a very special thing.

At the beginning of the revolution, while still in Damascus, I used my personal Facebook page to publish works. I would think of the work, make it, take a picture of it and then, out of a fear of arrest, smash it as if it had never existed. Alas I was arrested, and then drafted into the army, so my friends closed my Facebook page to protect me. I created the page ‘Clay and Knife’ after I left the army and moved to Lebanon at the end of 2013. When I sculpted for this new Facebook page, things were different: from the onset, I thought of the resulting picture. Sometimes I continued work on the sculpture after taking the picture...But during that period there was no plan to display these works in galleries, because of the sensitivity of my situation in Lebanon. When I left for France I again destroyed all the work I had done in Lebanon” most of it was made of raw clay and was therefore extremely difficult to transport. The idea of‚Äč‚Äčleaving my works somewhere where I knew I would not be able to return to soon, as had been the case with my work in Damascus, annoyed me immensely. I took only one work, And it is Autumn Bends. After I arrived in France, my handling of the works presented on the Facebook page became different again, for there was no longer a reason to destroy the works after taking the photo. I was also able to start physically exhibiting my works.

The holes that you see in some of my works, almost like shrapnel damage, are a result of my exploration of fragility, wear and tear. They were, at one point, my only way of taking out my personal frustrations against the corruption and devastation around me, and my own powerlessness in the face of those responsible for it. I spent long hours perforating statues. In these works there was an attempt to break and break through the block.

With my more recent series, Compressed, the situation was different. This project was inspired by my having lived in different places during a short period: detention and compulsory military service in Damascus for four months, then Lebanon for one year and finally arriving to France. Upon arrival in France, at first I felt liberated from it all. Then I realised that the French live their live in a complex system that turns them into ‘compressed people’, and that we had this in common. This is the first series in which I look at people beyond Syria.

A series that has continued over the years, no matter where I live, has been It’s Love. This work is my personal salvation. I return to it when I need even the margin of a dream. Even if it touches upon an idealistic world that is difficult perhaps to imagine at times, it allows a space for imagination and hope. A large-scale public commission of It’s Love will open later this year in Paris.