One on One: Tarek Al Butayhi

Damascus-born Tarek Butayhi is best known for his dreamy portraits of women – often captured in everyday private activities, as part of the artist’s desire to redefine the way in which women are presented in portraiture as banal objects of desire. Moving to Beirut at the start of the war, since returning to Damascus, his work has taken on a different dimension, capturing the plight of the people around him as together they navigate a broken city. 

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Tarek Butayhi, Untitled, 2020

The Journal: Since returning to Damascus from Beirut, your work has developed dramatically in its subject matter, while staying true to your painting style. Was this gradual, or was there a marked moment you thought: “I have to paint what I see here, I can’t paint those other portraits any more?”

Tarek Butayhi: The transition was somewhat gradual; at the beginning of 2011, I began making painting about the events in Syria, and after I moved to Beirut, I continued to paint a few paintings a year. I was enjoying my life there but sad at the same time about the conditions of the people residing inside Syria. I used to participate in group exhibitions and auctions to support families in need, and I continued to paint women until I held my second exhibition in Beirut. After that I began to feel that the subject had become part of an archive, and that it was time for a new challenge, though I did not know at the time that I would move onto the theme of the family. Immediately after that, I returned to Damascus. The move came after a difficult time, during which I felt torn between Beirut and Damascus – as if dispersed between their skies. Damascus was a broken city, a dark city. I was surprised by what I saw. Everything had changed and its people were not like the people I had known, their faces tired and desperate without hope. Even though I initially tried to continue on the theme of women, I did not success. That was when I realised I had left that theme behind, and entered a new one: the family.


The Journal: Some of your previous canvases are very large, as if the face or figure was looming over the room. How important is scale in your work?

Tarek Butayhi: I tend to go for large sizes as I feel I can express more of what is in me through the spontaneity of the brush movement, the emotion and the creation of large areas of colour.

The Journal: Since returning to Damascus from Beirut, your work has developed dramatically in its subject matter, while staying true to your painting style. Was this gradual, or was there a marked moment you thought: “I have to paint what I see here, I can’t paint those other portraits any more?”

Tarek Butayhi: The transition was somewhat gradual; at the beginning of 2011, I began making painting about the events in Syria, and after I moved to Beirut, I continued to paint a few paintings a year. I was enjoying my life there but sad at the same time about the conditions of the people residing inside Syria. I used to participate in group exhibitions and auctions to support families in need, and I continued to paint women until I held my second exhibition in Beirut. After that I began to feel that the subject had become part of an archive, and that it was time for a new challenge, though I did not know at the time that I would move onto the theme of the family. Immediately after that, I returned to Damascus. The move came after a difficult time, during which I felt torn between Beirut and Damascus – as if dispersed between their skies. Damascus was a broken city, a dark city. I was surprised by what I saw. Everything had changed and its people were not like the people I had known, their faces tired and desperate without hope. Even though I initially tried to continue on the theme of women, I did not success. That was when I realised I had left that theme behind, and entered a new one: the family.


The Journal: Some of your previous canvases are very large, as if the face or figure was looming over the room. How important is scale in your work?

Tarek Butayhi: I tend to go for large sizes as I feel I can express more of what is in me through the spontaneity of the brush movement, the emotion and the creation of large areas of colour.

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Tarek Butayhi, Untitled, 2020

The Journal: Your colour palette has also changed – in your previous women’s portrait series, it was incredibly pastel and soft, was this to evoke a dreamy quality? Were the women dreaming and was this to convey how we stereotypically see them, wrapped up, as it were, in pink?

Tarek Butayhi: The colours I used in my portraits of women were chosen to resemble the colours of Beirut, and I was simply conveying the reality I saw on the street or on the beach. I did not mean to paint in pink – this stereotype that we are bound to by society. In Beirut, I relied on bright colors, and this helped me communicate the ideas revolving around me.

 

The Journal: Your newer works have a bolder palette – there is a contrast between the background and brighter greens, blues and reds that bring your figures into focus - can you talk a little about this development in colour choice?

Tarek Butayhi: Life in Damascus is full of stress and tension, so, looking back now at the works I have created in recent years, it has most likely had an effect on the emotionality of the painter’s touch: the sharpness of the colour and the contrast between tones express the cruelty of the scene to be drawn.

The Journal: Your colour palette has also changed – in your previous women’s portrait series, it was incredibly pastel and soft, was this to evoke a dreamy quality? Were the women dreaming and was this to convey how we stereotypically see them, wrapped up, as it were, in pink?

Tarek Butayhi: The colours I used in my portraits of women were chosen to resemble the colours of Beirut, and I was simply conveying the reality I saw on the street or on the beach. I did not mean to paint in pink – this stereotype that we are bound to by society. In Beirut, I relied on bright colors, and this helped me communicate the ideas revolving around me.

 

The Journal: Your newer works have a bolder palette – there is a contrast between the background and brighter greens, blues and reds that bring your figures into focus - can you talk a little about this development in colour choice?

Tarek Butayhi: Life in Damascus is full of stress and tension, so, looking back now at the works I have created in recent years, it has most likely had an effect on the emotionality of the painter’s touch: the sharpness of the colour and the contrast between tones express the cruelty of the scene to be drawn.

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Tarek Butayhi, Untitled, 2020

The Journal: In your newer works, depicting beggars, children sleeping in the streets, sellers of roses etc, are you also seeking to challenge preconceived norms or artistic styles? 

Tarek Butayhi: I want to present the issues and concerns of society in an unconventional way, which, at the same time, is an attempt to empty myself of the anger that afflicts me and the feeling of helplessness when faced with the reality of what happens to children and the elderly. It is also my desire to document the difficult moments that remind every Syrian of what we have gone through over the last 10 years, and the difficulcircumstances of every Syrian inside or outside the country.


The Journal: Where do you see your work developing from here? In both your women series and your family series, there is still a focus on the everyday – on the small acts that fill our quotidian life; do these small acts take on a bigger meaning when captured on canvas?

Tarek Butayhi: To me they certainly take another feeling. In my opinion, the artist is a mirror of society and its worries, though not in the traditional sense of that description. The artist must express the important and crucial issues of his society. When I draw everyday life, I feel that I am being true to my times and am a son of my environment, and this makes me happier and more at ease.

 

The Journal: In your newer works, depicting beggars, children sleeping in the streets, sellers of roses etc, are you also seeking to challenge preconceived norms or artistic styles? 

Tarek Butayhi: I want to present the issues and concerns of society in an unconventional way, which, at the same time, is an attempt to empty myself of the anger that afflicts me and the feeling of helplessness when faced with the reality of what happens to children and the elderly. It is also my desire to document the difficult moments that remind every Syrian of what we have gone through over the last 10 years, and the difficulcircumstances of every Syrian inside or outside the country.


The Journal: Where do you see your work developing from here? In both your women series and your family series, there is still a focus on the everyday – on the small acts that fill our quotidian life; do these small acts take on a bigger meaning when captured on canvas?

Tarek Butayhi: To me they certainly take another feeling. In my opinion, the artist is a mirror of society and its worries, though not in the traditional sense of that description. The artist must express the important and crucial issues of his society. When I draw everyday life, I feel that I am being true to my times and am a son of my environment, and this makes me happier and more at ease.