In the spirit of beginnings, in this issue we highlight two works by pioneering artist Tawfik Tarek (1875-1940). Among his contemporaries, Tarek was one of the first to attend art school overseas, travelling to Paris at the age of 20, where he was to spend the next six years studying oil painting at the Academy of Fine Arts before returning home.
These two particular works stand out for their choice of subject, albeit for different reasons. In Dummer Road (1908), painted in the Western pastoral style popular at the time, we see the railway line connecting Damascus to Beirut. Brought into service in 1895, it ran through Riaq. From here, in the early 20th century the line was connected to the Orient Express, running onwards through Homs and Aleppo. Today, this area is unrecognisable, as it lies in the heart of a heavily built up area, dreamy vistas of trees and fields lost over time to the pressures of a growing population and burgeoning urban development.
The second work, an undated and untitled portrait, depicts a whirling dervish and is notable for several reasons, least of all because of the choice of subject itself. The early 20th century in Syrian art marked a time that notables and other top figures of society were usually the sole subjects of portraits – such as this Mawlawi dervish, the chief of a dance group. It was painted during the time that Syria was under French Mandate (1923–46), and is, as such, also immensely significant for what it tells us about cultural exchange at the time: the two badges the dervish is wearing bear the French and American flags, markers that his troupe had taken part in international exhibitions in Paris and Los Angeles.