Omran Younis: Blood and Watermelons

With an intensity so characteristic of his work, Omran Younis clearly expresses Syrian suffering. Filled with horrific scenes of corpses and coffins, dismemberment, fear and panic, his work traces the symbols and inhumanity of war in a way that evokes heart wrenching emotions. Grisly details are rendered in charcoal over layers of acrylic paint in a strong reaction to – and social commentary on – the world around him, often with the use of recurring motifs such as hellish dogs, burgeoning prickly pear cactuses or red, red watermelon slices. Born in Hassakah, Younis (1971) received both his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the Department of Painting, Faculty of Fine Arts, Damascus University and his work has received critical acclaim both at home and abroad. He remains based in Damascus.

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Artist Omran Younis in his studio

In 2015, at the height of the Syrian conflict, Younis described the experience of viewing his artworks as tantamount to ending up “with the murderer in the same room” – the marks of thick, dramatic brushstrokes on once unsullied canvas appearing like the slashes of knife wounds. The resulting works, he said, were caught between “Edward Munch’s Scream and Goya’s Nightmares.” Amidst the savagery of the war, the horrible reality surrounding him had invariably seeped into his work, as it has for so many Syrian artists. "In this human slaughterhouse, art becomes a protest against pain, the invisible,” he said, “the human moment of fear and death develops into screams on this white canvas until it becomes painful and the black painted lines penetrate the body of the earth like a plough to make art a clear line of certainty: Its price is only life itself."

In 2015, at the height of the Syrian conflict, Younis described the experience of viewing his artworks as tantamount to ending up “with the murderer in the same room” – the marks of thick, dramatic brushstrokes on once unsullied canvas appearing like the slashes of knife wounds. The resulting works, he said, were caught between “Edward Munch’s Scream and Goya’s Nightmares.” Amidst the savagery of the war, the horrible reality surrounding him had invariably seeped into his work, as it has for so many Syrian artists. "In this human slaughterhouse, art becomes a protest against pain, the invisible,” he said, “the human moment of fear and death develops into screams on this white canvas until it becomes painful and the black painted lines penetrate the body of the earth like a plough to make art a clear line of certainty: Its price is only life itself."

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Omran Younis, Cactus, 2019

Five years on, he reflects on how the experiences and words of a moment in time can come to inadvertently define one. “The purpose of that statement was to explain work that I had created at the very apex of the war and violence which characterised that period of time,” he says. “What is art if not a reflection of the issues preoccupying an artist? Yet that is only a part of the picture – I belong to this geographical area in its entirety, and that means all that comes with it – the joys, sadness, peace and war. But how can you turn your back on what’s going around you, and dream of a garden of flowers while war occupies every second of the day and each second brings with it news of a new death?”

The elements that imbue his works with their visceral sensations of violence – such as dog-like savage beasts and corpses – are less memento mori than they are defiant stand against wonton destruction. “Violence is not an option,” Younis says. “Violence is a state imposed upon oneself, and the way in which it is imposed determines the way in which we each resist it. I face it through drawing – my art is my weapon in this confrontation.”

Indeed, it would be easy to mark these the paintings of a ‘war artist’, but the work of Younis resists direct classification. “I work within the culture that I acquired, along with my experience in painting,” he says. “My artistic work is my daily language. I never ask myself which classification I fall within, which may cause some disagreement among critics who consider me to be within the postmodern stream. For me, art has always been inherent in every development, and it is a reflection of the reality with which one comes into contact. That is all.”

Five years on, he reflects on how the experiences and words of a moment in time can come to inadvertently define one. “The purpose of that statement was to explain work that I had created at the very apex of the war and violence which characterised that period of time,” he says. “What is art if not a reflection of the issues preoccupying an artist? Yet that is only a part of the picture – I belong to this geographical area in its entirety, and that means all that comes with it – the joys, sadness, peace and war. But how can you turn your back on what’s going around you, and dream of a garden of flowers while war occupies every second of the day and each second brings with it news of a new death?”

The elements that imbue his works with their visceral sensations of violence – such as dog-like savage beasts and corpses – are less memento mori than they are defiant stand against wonton destruction. “Violence is not an option,” Younis says. “Violence is a state imposed upon oneself, and the way in which it is imposed determines the way in which we each resist it. I face it through drawing – my art is my weapon in this confrontation.”

Indeed, it would be easy to mark these the paintings of a ‘war artist’, but the work of Younis resists direct classification. “I work within the culture that I acquired, along with my experience in painting,” he says. “My artistic work is my daily language. I never ask myself which classification I fall within, which may cause some disagreement among critics who consider me to be within the postmodern stream. For me, art has always been inherent in every development, and it is a reflection of the reality with which one comes into contact. That is all.”

Younis’s paintings veer from the spectral to the bold, including large canvases populated by multicoloured heads in muted colours, floating against dark backgrounds, while others present ghostly figures so wrapped in what appears to be mist and fog that even in the act of viewing them, they appear as if being erased – a reflection of a vision that the artist likens to a recurring dream, in which faces emerge blurry, hard to discern. “Each medium has its own characteristics,” explains Younis. “Moving from one material to another creates different shapes accordingly – ranging from the transparent to the thick. When I work with transparent colours, I am normally preparing for a new work, sketching or undertaking mental exercises, experimenting with lines and shapes and testing their ability to convey the right idea of ​​pain or death, for instance. When I do this, the chosen materials impose their characteristics on the work. As for the completed works and the gaps in the faces and the black paint between them, they are an expression of torment and pain – people from which life has been stolen.”

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Omran Younis, Beasts on a Corpse, 2014

In yet other works, as in the case of two untitled pieces from 2007 in the Atassi Collection, lean dogs, like some sort of ravening hellhounds, fill the canvas with frenetic and dangerous energy, as if released straight from the underworld. They create a sense of anxiety so in contrast to the strange, dark serenity of those floating heads and bodies – in particular, in works from 2014, harkening to Hans Holbein the Younger’s Body of the Dead Christ in The Tomb, these dogs tear at coffin-like boxes inside which we see broken corpses, glowing red and green against the monochrome night of the canvas. The sensation is absolutely stifling, as the bodies are at once shielded from, and trapped by, these figures. Their rampage of madness feels limitless, living embodiments of violence, fear and rage metamorphosed into the proverbial mad dog.

In yet other works, as in the case of two untitled pieces from 2007 in the Atassi Collection, lean dogs, like some sort of ravening hellhounds, fill the canvas with frenetic and dangerous energy, as if released straight from the underworld. They create a sense of anxiety so in contrast to the strange, dark serenity of those floating heads and bodies – in particular, in works from 2014, harkening to Hans Holbein the Younger’s Body of the Dead Christ in The Tomb, these dogs tear at coffin-like boxes inside which we see broken corpses, glowing red and green against the monochrome night of the canvas. The sensation is absolutely stifling, as the bodies are at once shielded from, and trapped by, these figures. Their rampage of madness feels limitless, living embodiments of violence, fear and rage metamorphosed into the proverbial mad dog.

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Omran Younis, Shreds, 2016

Where there is death, however, there is life too – prickly pear cactuses and watermelons, ubiquitous Syrian summer delights, appear often enough to become signature leitmotifs in Younis’ work. In a series of paintings from 2018 and drawings from 2019, for example, gigantic cacti grow and spread like monumental succulent fortresses of geometric spines: “The cactus invites everything to scream, for it shows that even earth gets its fair share of destruction, nothing is immune, war spares no one and nothing,” he says. “But, as a plant it is also highly symbolic, for not only does the cactus resist through its protective spines, it can form a protective fence around more gentle plants, sheltering them as a mother protects her children. As with everything I paint, whether cacti or the faces of screaming people, it shows the complexity of life – wonderful and terrible, resisting and feeling.” As for the watermelon? What of the luscious juiciness of that bountiful fruit, so sustaining in its sweet sugariness and deep, vivid colours? “I wanted to capture a scene I personally witnessed in a market when the red of the watermelon mixed with the red of splattered blood. It is an image that is imprinted in my memory.”

Where there is death, however, there is life too – prickly pear cactuses and watermelons, ubiquitous Syrian summer delights, appear often enough to become signature leitmotifs in Younis’ work. In a series of paintings from 2018 and drawings from 2019, for example, gigantic cacti grow and spread like monumental succulent fortresses of geometric spines: “The cactus invites everything to scream, for it shows that even earth gets its fair share of destruction, nothing is immune, war spares no one and nothing,” he says. “But, as a plant it is also highly symbolic, for not only does the cactus resist through its protective spines, it can form a protective fence around more gentle plants, sheltering them as a mother protects her children. As with everything I paint, whether cacti or the faces of screaming people, it shows the complexity of life – wonderful and terrible, resisting and feeling.” As for the watermelon? What of the luscious juiciness of that bountiful fruit, so sustaining in its sweet sugariness and deep, vivid colours? “I wanted to capture a scene I personally witnessed in a market when the red of the watermelon mixed with the red of splattered blood. It is an image that is imprinted in my memory.”

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Omran Younis, Vacuum, 2018

Stylistically, over the past two decades, Younis’s works have taken a slow progression towards organic shapes. Where works in the early 2000s reflected linear, geometric compositions, starting around 2013, they began to fill with floating miasmas of people, faces, limbs and animals. Yet, look closer, and there is still order in the chaos, for they appear suspended on an invisible geometric frame, as if rigid scaffolding had been softened into sinuous pipes, a hidden framework on which these phantasmagorical scenes are hung. In others, such as 2018’s Last Supper series (and one of the few series to be given a title by Younis), figures appear skewed and stretched, as if drawn into the centre of a black hole, faceless, shrouded, sucked into some prevailing gravitational pull that leaves the viewer disoriented and dizzy. “As an artist one is in a state of permanent research, and sometimes after a work is complete, I might find that the straight lines, for instance, do not successfully depict the movement I want in the work, and when I realise this, the spaces turn into a kind of silence. Once I rethink the movement and transform the shapes into curved lines, they start to move, and become organic and soluble forms. In doing this, I try to draw the moment – the seconds – between life and death.”

So. Is there hope amongst the darkness? In the mingling of blood and watermelons, of glowing red spots amongst the choking soot of charcoal, what can we cling on to? “There is an idea in Postmodern theory that posits that after major narratives fail, all that remains is the individual meaning of each language and word,” says Younis. “I think of the colour red in this fashion, and what its individual interpretations are. To me, red can be resistance, but for the viewer, perhaps it the colour of blood. In the endless possibilities of potential meanings, what is important for me is how I see it – and I see red as a two-sided coin, the colour of life, as well as pain. But, on a compositional level – that red spot, amongst all those shades of grey and black, becomes an attempt to restore life.”

Stylistically, over the past two decades, Younis’s works have taken a slow progression towards organic shapes. Where works in the early 2000s reflected linear, geometric compositions, starting around 2013, they began to fill with floating miasmas of people, faces, limbs and animals. Yet, look closer, and there is still order in the chaos, for they appear suspended on an invisible geometric frame, as if rigid scaffolding had been softened into sinuous pipes, a hidden framework on which these phantasmagorical scenes are hung. In others, such as 2018’s Last Supper series (and one of the few series to be given a title by Younis), figures appear skewed and stretched, as if drawn into the centre of a black hole, faceless, shrouded, sucked into some prevailing gravitational pull that leaves the viewer disoriented and dizzy. “As an artist one is in a state of permanent research, and sometimes after a work is complete, I might find that the straight lines, for instance, do not successfully depict the movement I want in the work, and when I realise this, the spaces turn into a kind of silence. Once I rethink the movement and transform the shapes into curved lines, they start to move, and become organic and soluble forms. In doing this, I try to draw the moment – the seconds – between life and death.”

So. Is there hope amongst the darkness? In the mingling of blood and watermelons, of glowing red spots amongst the choking soot of charcoal, what can we cling on to? “There is an idea in Postmodern theory that posits that after major narratives fail, all that remains is the individual meaning of each language and word,” says Younis. “I think of the colour red in this fashion, and what its individual interpretations are. To me, red can be resistance, but for the viewer, perhaps it the colour of blood. In the endless possibilities of potential meanings, what is important for me is how I see it – and I see red as a two-sided coin, the colour of life, as well as pain. But, on a compositional level – that red spot, amongst all those shades of grey and black, becomes an attempt to restore life.”