The art of finding beauty in the midst of the Arab Winter

By Carolina Montenegro

I met Houmam Alsayed in Beirut. It was the winter of 2012 but still seems as yesterday. I remember to quickly saw that he was shy. His smile was timid but his eyes very blue were shining, full of life.

He didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Arabic. Alia Nohra, owner of the Art Circle gallery helped translating the interview. She was the person who also introduced us after I knocked on her door, where Alsayed works were exhibited. He painted, sculpted and drew.

It was easy to recognize his work. The figures of deformed human beings, plants, ants and red were his marks. One drawing showed a hand coming out of a vase, like a plant. Another, had a man dressed in red throwing a small rock with a catapult made of wires; his hands very big in perspective, the face far behind, it was like if the stone was going to hit the person watching. In the rock very tine it was written “Freedoom” (حرية), the same name of the drawing.

Alsayed_1 Alsayed_2

All the human beings depicted had a bit of Alsayed. The shining eyes, or his hat or his round face, as if he was looking for himself or into himself when doing his art. He painted no dreams, no nightmares, but his own reality. It reminded me of Frida Kahlo, the brave Mexican painter, who once said: “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.”

Somehow the more an artwork seems to be about the author himself it actually can make others to feel closer. Only one knows what it means and what it takes to be oneself. I felt related to Alsayed work immediately. I interviewed Alsayed for a book I later wrote about the Arab Spring and it was published in October 2014 in Brazil: “Sobre jasmins, bombas e faraós” (About jasmines, bombs and pharaos).

Here below is the text I published in a free translation from Portuguese to English. I’m sharing it here now at from.sham.with love because Alsayed work is stunning and because almost 3 years after speaking to him in Beirut I, he or nobody would never imagined that the war in Syria would still be going on. A tragedy for millions of Syrians like him.

Later, Alia introduced me to the painter Houmam Alsayed. He was in Beirut for three months  living by himself. Like artist Anas Homsi he spent almost his whole life in Damascus. His last eight months living in the Syrian capital, though, were hell. He could not work, it was impossible to concentrate or to find inspiration to create. Conclusion: in the period, he produced only two paints. In 90 days in Lebanon, he had already created  40 pieces of art. He worked intensively, going out of his house only to have a coffee or read a newspaper sometime during his journey. The rest of the day he was reclusive painting in his small apartment in Hamra.

Houmam was preparing for his first solo exhibition in Beirut in a few days. And he has more plans for another exhibition in Paris in March 2013.

In Syria, he had displayed his work twice in art galleries. “Life was great in Damascus, the city was always full of people in the streets. But all the suddenly life changed completely, the Army took the streets and all this violence started”, he told.

Houmam realized that when he resumed painting in Beirut he hadn’t left the war in Syria behind. “The conflict started to reflect in my work, but not on obvious ways, like me creating images of war or soldiers. I noticed that I was using more the red and the black. Some of my drawings had blood, shootings”, he explained.

With smiling blue eyes, white skin and almost bold, he was speaking with me in Arabic. Alia helped translating it to English.

“It is not acceptable that the Army is attacking its own people. In a building bombed, half of the people living there was against the regime and the other half was in favor. Syria is divided like this”, he continued.

One day, Houmam was watching on TV images of explosions in Syria that showed pieces of bodies flying through the air. He remembered the cactus he cultivated and thought that inside Art those dead members could be replanted and borne again. This was the inspiration for one of his works in which a hand appears standing in a vase, cultivated and growing like a plant.

“I’m against the overexposure by the media of violence in Syria. Art is noble. Drawings have blood but they are beautiful. An artist objective is on a long term. It is like in the kitchen: if you let the food cooking to fast, it can get burned”, he explained.

According to Houmam, poverty was the main cause of the crisis in Syria. “Instead of investing the government chose violence”, he sighed. He was not in favor of the regime, neither in favor of the rebels. And he couldn’t tell if he would go back to Syria one day. He did not know what could happen with the country. For him, the result of the conflict depended a lot on other countries and external factors.

“Every man or women in their 25 or 30 years old would be thinking about stabilizing, buying a house and getting married. But even before the war it was impossible to buy a property with the medium wage in the country around 200 dollars”, he explained.

Anyway, he admitted that his art would always reflect his country. “I like to show the beautiful aspect of what is ugly. Life is always black and white, without the beautiful it wouldn’t be the ugly. It is not a mathematics formula, it is more about chemistry”, continued Houmam. For him, ugliness was beautiful, like in Picasso’s “Guernica” pieces of bodies could be beautiful.

Houmam believed that a Syrian artist should produce the maximum possible about the war because Art was something universal that could reach people all over the world. “If people in other countries pressured, not for a military solution, but for a solution with marches in the streets, maybe things would change”, he said.

When we talked, he intended to try a new life in Paris and one day buy a house. “But do you speak French?”, I asked. “No, I’m going to learn there”, he answered me. “Most part of the young people want to leave Syria, but not everybody has the means. In the next five years nobody knows what will happen, but later it will improve. I’m afraid of what can happen when the regime falls, for example. We do not know if the revolution is a spring, a summer or an autumn. Probably it is a Arab Winter. The spring will come only after.”

I left the interview with two books with Houmam’s works and an invitation for his next exhibition in Beirut, in a few days in another gallery downtown.

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