Tales of Broken Wings, Brides & Yellow Barrels

Walking along two different paths, the sculptural works of Safaa Alset and Yamen Youssef may differ in content, style and lived experience, but on another level, are united in a use of natural materials, investigation of scale, and, perhaps most importantly, in the deep effect of Damascus – and the larger situation in Syria – on their work

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Yamen Youssef, On a Cliff, 2016

Over the last decade, working as an artist in Syria has not been easy. For both Safaa Alset and Yamen Youssef, two sculptors based in Damascus, it has been a struggle against limited opportunities, materials, and trying to find space – both mentally and physically – to create amidst the instability. “Scrap metal no longer existed, although the country became scrap,” says Alset, an artist whose work is predominantly made from rough metal items previously found at scrapyards, but now only available through regulated retailers. Youssef, while also feeling the limited flow of goods, uses a wide range of materials in his work, which enables him to be more flexible. However, the rise in prices has changed the game for him and many other artists, meaning they cannot afford the costs of their chosen materials, and are often at the mercy of gas or electricity shortages. Nevertheless, they have continued working, managing to get by in a country that has been brought to its knees time and time again, and with no end in sight.

Youssef was born in the coastal city of Tartous in 1982. After moving to the capital to study at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus, he stayed to pursue his Master’s degree and never left. His sculptures, which tend to be predominantly figural, each tell their own story and stir a range of emotions. Alset’s work is equally expressive and bears a sophistication in her handling of materials which many take a lifetime to achieve. Born in 1974 in Homs – one of the cities hit hardest over the last nine years – she also moved to Damascus to study at the Faculty of Fine Arts, graduating in 1997. Whilst their work could not be more different, both artists’ experiences in Damascus have many parallels, as do their individual approaches to their craft. Where Youssef’s chosen materials vary between bronze, wood, stone and clay, his typically natural, earthy oeuvre stands in contrast to Alset’s striking use of fused iron, copper, bolts and nails. Indeed, the contrast between the harsh, industrial quality of the latter’s artworks with the elegance in which they take their final form creates works that both confuse and captivate.

Over the last decade, working as an artist in Syria has not been easy. For both Safaa Alset and Yamen Youssef, two sculptors based in Damascus, it has been a struggle against limited opportunities, materials, and trying to find space – both mentally and physically – to create amidst the instability. “Scrap metal no longer existed, although the country became scrap,” says Alset, an artist whose work is predominantly made from rough metal items previously found at scrapyards, but now only available through regulated retailers. Youssef, while also feeling the limited flow of goods, uses a wide range of materials in his work, which enables him to be more flexible. However, the rise in prices has changed the game for him and many other artists, meaning they cannot afford the costs of their chosen materials, and are often at the mercy of gas or electricity shortages. Nevertheless, they have continued working, managing to get by in a country that has been brought to its knees time and time again, and with no end in sight.

Youssef was born in the coastal city of Tartous in 1982. After moving to the capital to study at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus, he stayed to pursue his Master’s degree and never left. His sculptures, which tend to be predominantly figural, each tell their own story and stir a range of emotions. Alset’s work is equally expressive and bears a sophistication in her handling of materials which many take a lifetime to achieve. Born in 1974 in Homs – one of the cities hit hardest over the last nine years – she also moved to Damascus to study at the Faculty of Fine Arts, graduating in 1997. Whilst their work could not be more different, both artists’ experiences in Damascus have many parallels, as do their individual approaches to their craft. Where Youssef’s chosen materials vary between bronze, wood, stone and clay, his typically natural, earthy oeuvre stands in contrast to Alset’s striking use of fused iron, copper, bolts and nails. Indeed, the contrast between the harsh, industrial quality of the latter’s artworks with the elegance in which they take their final form creates works that both confuse and captivate.

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Safaa Alset, Child Marriage, 2019-2020

Scale and colour play critical roles in the artists’ work. Some of Youssef’s sculptures are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, whereas others are large enough to be public monuments. Whilst the size can be affected by emotion and artistic vision, it often changes due to practical and financial constraints, stuck in his small studio in Damascus where rent is high, and the countryside largely inaccessible due to the war. Until Youssef can find a safe area to set up a larger studio, he relies on public sculpture forums, but even then, the situation is still a struggle. “If I make large sculptures,” he says, “I cannot store them, market them or send them outside Syria because of the restrictions.” Alset, too, has always felt more inclined to make large works, despite the fact that she also struggles with welding and manoeuvring pieces inside a small workshop in Damascus, having had to leave her large studio space in the countryside after it was destroyed. Alset explains that being able to make large sculptures fills her heart and soul to sufficiency, while, “for some balance”, she may later add smaller touches. Alset also works on a smaller scale, such as her life-sized multicoloured resin calves’ hooves (featured in an exhibition entitled Death Dwells Near Me at Beirut’s Dar el-Nimer in 2017). By attaching cutlery to them – knives, spoons, forks etc – she endows them with a larger, intimidating presence, exploring the idea of people left dead in the desert much like animal carcasses left for other animals to feast on; a metaphor for the state of society during the war. This series is also a vivid example of Alset’s rare use of colour, preferring usually to rely on the colour of the iron itself, fusing and melting different iron elements together during the welding process, to create blacks and silvers to natural gold and copper red gradations. 

Scale and colour play critical roles in the artists’ work. Some of Youssef’s sculptures are small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, whereas others are large enough to be public monuments. Whilst the size can be affected by emotion and artistic vision, it often changes due to practical and financial constraints, stuck in his small studio in Damascus where rent is high, and the countryside largely inaccessible due to the war. Until Youssef can find a safe area to set up a larger studio, he relies on public sculpture forums, but even then, the situation is still a struggle. “If I make large sculptures,” he says, “I cannot store them, market them or send them outside Syria because of the restrictions.” Alset, too, has always felt more inclined to make large works, despite the fact that she also struggles with welding and manoeuvring pieces inside a small workshop in Damascus, having had to leave her large studio space in the countryside after it was destroyed. Alset explains that being able to make large sculptures fills her heart and soul to sufficiency, while, “for some balance”, she may later add smaller touches. Alset also works on a smaller scale, such as her life-sized multicoloured resin calves’ hooves (featured in an exhibition entitled Death Dwells Near Me at Beirut’s Dar el-Nimer in 2017). By attaching cutlery to them – knives, spoons, forks etc – she endows them with a larger, intimidating presence, exploring the idea of people left dead in the desert much like animal carcasses left for other animals to feast on; a metaphor for the state of society during the war. This series is also a vivid example of Alset’s rare use of colour, preferring usually to rely on the colour of the iron itself, fusing and melting different iron elements together during the welding process, to create blacks and silvers to natural gold and copper red gradations. 

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Yamen Youssef, A Wrapped Up Woman, 2018

Using tones found in nature, including shades of orange and green, Youssef finds solace in the blue tones from windows of old houses and antique ceramics found in Syria. Youssef often uses no paint at all, preferring to stick to the natural tones of the clay he uses, considering it vital material from the cycle of life, “for it is the dust from which we are created and our bodies return to it.” The clay also retains the finger and handprints of the artist, even after it emerges from the kiln, creating a natural synthesis between all elements. Wood is another material, and, using a chainsaw, Youssef leaves intense markings on the surfaces of his wooden pieces, a legacy of the violence that has surrounded him now for many years. In using dry wood and reviving it as a work of art, he likens the material to human skin, both in its texture and in its resilience, retaining deep, painful scars but persevering. The impact of living amidst a violent war has also not been lost on Alset. In many of her works, she sculpts the bodies of animals as fragmented, abused remains: “unknown corpses with no identity… left in the open and in the desert without burial.” Somehow, she has also found the capacity to add an element of hope to some of these animals, constructing them as though they were standing, dancing or walking and retaining a glimmer of life.

Using tones found in nature, including shades of orange and green, Youssef finds solace in the blue tones from windows of old houses and antique ceramics found in Syria. Youssef often uses no paint at all, preferring to stick to the natural tones of the clay he uses, considering it vital material from the cycle of life, “for it is the dust from which we are created and our bodies return to it.” The clay also retains the finger and handprints of the artist, even after it emerges from the kiln, creating a natural synthesis between all elements. Wood is another material, and, using a chainsaw, Youssef leaves intense markings on the surfaces of his wooden pieces, a legacy of the violence that has surrounded him now for many years. In using dry wood and reviving it as a work of art, he likens the material to human skin, both in its texture and in its resilience, retaining deep, painful scars but persevering. The impact of living amidst a violent war has also not been lost on Alset. In many of her works, she sculpts the bodies of animals as fragmented, abused remains: “unknown corpses with no identity… left in the open and in the desert without burial.” Somehow, she has also found the capacity to add an element of hope to some of these animals, constructing them as though they were standing, dancing or walking and retaining a glimmer of life.

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Safaa Alset, Shoe, 2011

 

Aside from the harsh impact of violence, different aspects of recent lived experiences manifest in both Youssef and Alset’s work, evident in a quietly expressive quality in some of their childlike figures and faces. Youssef’s particular rendering of pleasant childish features – anonymous and without gender, a certain personality which has developed over time – is intended to represent the child within every adult and encompasses the gamut of happiness, hope and pain. Raw and unconcealed, each feeling is unfiltered and expressed with the pure honesty of a child. Alset similarly explores this notion of innocence, especially in the context of war and society, sculpting small, intricate figures which appear to float in their environment. With a futuristic and robotic quality, beautiful dresses make them appear almost bridal, but they hang limp and dejected with expressionless faces. Alset had heard many stories about child brides across the Arab world, but especially in Syria over recent years. Parents, desperate for money and hoping for a better life for their children, marry their daughters off to much older men. These young girls, quietly and innocently walking to their unknown fate, come to life in Alset’s metallic structures, triggered by her sadness and anger upon hearing these stories.

Indeed, Alset often highlights women’s issues, femininity and sexuality in her work, sometimes depicting pregnant women – a figure of beauty and fascination for the artist – and constructing characters (both male and female) with raw, sharp faces, contrasting with other faces sculpted as round and smooth. Intended to represent the relationship between a man and a woman, these contrasting shapes symbolise the thorny, complicated and harmonious experiences in any intimate relationship. Her large and deadly high-heeled shoe sculptures express the many female personalities she has encountered throughout her life as well as aspects of her own personality. Believing that the shape of each shoe reflects the woman who wears it, this extreme symbol of femininity and womanhood has become a distinct feature in Alset’s work, forming the basis of an entire exhibition which has toured many countries.

Aside from the harsh impact of violence, different aspects of recent lived experiences manifest in both Youssef and Alset’s work, evident in a quietly expressive quality in some of their childlike figures and faces. Youssef’s particular rendering of pleasant childish features – anonymous and without gender, a certain personality which has developed over time – is intended to represent the child within every adult and encompasses the gamut of happiness, hope and pain. Raw and unconcealed, each feeling is unfiltered and expressed with the pure honesty of a child. Alset similarly explores this notion of innocence, especially in the context of war and society, sculpting small, intricate figures which appear to float in their environment. With a futuristic and robotic quality, beautiful dresses make them appear almost bridal, but they hang limp and dejected with expressionless faces. Alset had heard many stories about child brides across the Arab world, but especially in Syria over recent years. Parents, desperate for money and hoping for a better life for their children, marry their daughters off to much older men. These young girls, quietly and innocently walking to their unknown fate, come to life in Alset’s metallic structures, triggered by her sadness and anger upon hearing these stories.

Indeed, Alset often highlights women’s issues, femininity and sexuality in her work, sometimes depicting pregnant women – a figure of beauty and fascination for the artist – and constructing characters (both male and female) with raw, sharp faces, contrasting with other faces sculpted as round and smooth. Intended to represent the relationship between a man and a woman, these contrasting shapes symbolise the thorny, complicated and harmonious experiences in any intimate relationship. Her large and deadly high-heeled shoe sculptures express the many female personalities she has encountered throughout her life as well as aspects of her own personality. Believing that the shape of each shoe reflects the woman who wears it, this extreme symbol of femininity and womanhood has become a distinct feature in Alset’s work, forming the basis of an entire exhibition which has toured many countries.

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Yamen Youssef, Memorial, 2011

For both artists, however, Syria – and Damascus in particular – is not only a physical space, but an inherent part of them, their being and their practice. For Youssef, the challenges of living and working in Syria have caused what he describes as a “big crack in the relationship between artist and society… what is around me no longer resembles me.” He takes photos of Damascus regularly, searching for beauty in its ageing surroundings to construct an alternative visual world around him in his imagination, “to build what cannot be built in reality, and thus protecting myself.” In some of his works, figures appear with boats as feet, or wings as arms, as though they’re all discreetly looking for an escape. However, the wings are often flawed – one is whole while the other is broken, much like the Greek Winged Victory of Samothrace, which inspired Youssef – and these winged creatures are not angels or gods, but humans with human feelings, hopes and dreams.

For both artists, however, Syria – and Damascus in particular – is not only a physical space, but an inherent part of them, their being and their practice. For Youssef, the challenges of living and working in Syria have caused what he describes as a “big crack in the relationship between artist and society… what is around me no longer resembles me.” He takes photos of Damascus regularly, searching for beauty in its ageing surroundings to construct an alternative visual world around him in his imagination, “to build what cannot be built in reality, and thus protecting myself.” In some of his works, figures appear with boats as feet, or wings as arms, as though they’re all discreetly looking for an escape. However, the wings are often flawed – one is whole while the other is broken, much like the Greek Winged Victory of Samothrace, which inspired Youssef – and these winged creatures are not angels or gods, but humans with human feelings, hopes and dreams.

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Safaa Alset, Death Dwells Near me, 2017

Wanting to stay close to her home, workshop and the few loved ones who have remained, for Alset, the emotional ties have proved impossible to overcome. She describes Damascus with such love and affection, it would be easy to forget the last decade had ever happened: “[Damascus] is a city that has a soul no other city possesses for me and everyone who visits it… a tender city that embraces you with its warmth and splendour.” That everlasting warmth has kept her and many others there, but it doesn’t shield them from the pain of the war, with Alset herself regularly seeing people who have lost limbs, wounded and homeless on her journey to her workshop every day. This feeling – love mixed with fear, loss and loneliness – is what inspired her 2015 exhibition Yellow Barrel at Beirut’s Art on 56th Gallery, encompassing so many characters within society who have felt the impact of Syria’s recent struggles. 

Changing her work regularly and exploring new ideas, Alset’s imagination and inspiration is boundless despite the circumstances. Youssef also continues his visionary artistic endeavours with dedicated fervour, although he often struggles to see how his role as an artist can exist “in a society looking for bread.” Both artists have an unquenchable commitment to their craft, their people and their city. When asked about the challenges of living in Damascus, Alset explains: “just like love is a mystery, this city has a beautiful mystery.” It is this mystery – this aching love – that keeps these artists going. 

Wanting to stay close to her home, workshop and the few loved ones who have remained, for Alset, the emotional ties have proved impossible to overcome. She describes Damascus with such love and affection, it would be easy to forget the last decade had ever happened: “[Damascus] is a city that has a soul no other city possesses for me and everyone who visits it… a tender city that embraces you with its warmth and splendour.” That everlasting warmth has kept her and many others there, but it doesn’t shield them from the pain of the war, with Alset herself regularly seeing people who have lost limbs, wounded and homeless on her journey to her workshop every day. This feeling – love mixed with fear, loss and loneliness – is what inspired her 2015 exhibition Yellow Barrel at Beirut’s Art on 56th Gallery, encompassing so many characters within society who have felt the impact of Syria’s recent struggles. 

Changing her work regularly and exploring new ideas, Alset’s imagination and inspiration is boundless despite the circumstances. Youssef also continues his visionary artistic endeavours with dedicated fervour, although he often struggles to see how his role as an artist can exist “in a society looking for bread.” Both artists have an unquenchable commitment to their craft, their people and their city. When asked about the challenges of living in Damascus, Alset explains: “just like love is a mystery, this city has a beautiful mystery.” It is this mystery – this aching love – that keeps these artists going.