In series of sculptures entitled Cut in Dry Skin(produced between 2004 and 2010), Bassel Saadi (b. 1970) created cuboid shapes filled with various shapes. Their finishing and colour gave them the warmth of cardboard and paper, delicate yet hardy, boxes full of a myriad objects, stories and shapes. Yet, cardboard they are not – for the finished pieces are mad of metal – hard, cold steel. They are raw, resonating with direct emotion – too rough to be polished, too filled with content to be devoid of meaning. 


The work we are spotlighting here is part of a series of 10 painted steel wall-pieces produced in Damascus between 2015 and 2016, and just 500 metres from the line of fire in the city’s Jaramana area. The 10 pieces come in various iterations, part of an in-depth exploration of shape, colour and three-dimensionality. With their framework of triangular cut-outs, some exist as assemblages of plain, grey uncoated metal, while others glimmer in various colour combinations, from bright primary tones to surfaces covered in polka dots. The effect is of a particular playfulness at odds with – and at times disguising – the brutalist overtones of the material and shape. This opposition of aesthetics is in line with the opposing influences within the artist – what he refers to as “the person inside me who is tragic, and the other, a boy trying to reclaim his childhood.”


It was in 1999 that Saadi first became interested in the potential of flat surfaces as three-dimensional works, and by the early 2000s, he was working with iron, which appealed for its “harsh, direct and aggressive capabilities,”, leading to the Cut in Dry Skinseries of boxes. The harshness of the metal, of course, can easily be seen as a metaphor for the harshness of the political situation within Syria, but, it was appealing to Saadi for a different reason, and one that had to do with challenging the establishment. That is, its rebellion against the more accepted, ‘noble’ materials so prevalent in Syrian sculptural practice, that holy trinity of marble, wood and bronze. “I wanted to create works that were technically good, but made out of a ‘poor’ material with great potential,” Saadi explains. “It was very much about questioning how we, in the Arab world, value an artwork.”


In this particular piece, Al Saadi’s signature bent and folded triangles are found in a predominantly yellow, green and red palette, against a muted background of greys, with just the smallest hint of blue. These colourful Calderesque triangles, contrasted against this background, take on the appearance of birds in flight, a sense of movement in spite of the harsh, angular framework to which they appear immutably bound. Movement from the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional, from wall to sculpture, and from basic material to elevated thought.


Bassel Saadi’s newest solo show, at Immaginaria Gallery in Florence, takes place from 26 Oct