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Face factor
by Muhammad Yusuf August 20, 2015
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Call it its DNA or call it a well-designed selling point, but Ayyam Gallery, Dubai (Al Quoz and DIFC) now and then comes up with innovative art ideas, that makes one’s head shake in appreciation.

Its Young Collectors Auction was one of them and its Young Artist in Residency Program is another. To last for six months, the first beneficiary of the latter is Syrian artist Noor Bahjat. The gallery also hosts her graduation exhibition (Aug. 3 – Sept. 15).

Bahjat presents a selection of her new work produced under the mentorship of established artists Tammam Azzam and Mohannad Orabi, in a purpose-built studio at the gallery’s Al Quoz space. It is not that Bahjat was an unknown quantity before Ayyam – she graduated at the top of her class from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus, last year.

She works from detailed sketches and self-portraits in a painterly, expressionist style, with a primarily figurative subject matter. Her main subject is often herself. But in her canvasses, she is also surrounded by ordinary folks and their mundane activities.

The face is the point of departure for her paintings. Sometimes finely chiselled, but most times carrying the impress of untold suffering, Bahjat’s portraits are eerie. They haunt and taunt, with compelling unspoken stories.

She fiercely says no to the idea that the current political situation in her country has influenced her work consciously. “But perhaps it is in the subconscious”, she says. “My paintings are the result of my life. It is the result of what I have learnt”.

Her art has echoes of film noir. The portraits have strong doses of fatalism, surrealism and cynicism, with large amounts of loneliness and bleakness. Many of them serve as memento mori. The aura they create crackles with uneasiness.

This is most amazing, since Bahjat in real life is a very sunny person. “I am a happy person!” she avers. “Perhaps it needs a therapist to see why my art creates this impression!” She is also daddy’s girl. She has hung a portrait of her father in her space in the gallery, at which she looks fondly. Her references to her father are full of affection and warmth.   

Her paintings are interspersed with recurring, allegorical objects. For example, a globe represents human existence; a crow signifies wisdom, flowers and skulls symbolise life and death, light and darkness
Some have counted post war artists such as Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon among her influences. Indeed, one could not be faulted for seeing reminders of Freud’s impastoed portrait and figure paintings, with their psychological penetration and their often discomforting examination of the relationship between artist and model, and Bacon’s bold, emotionally charged raw imagery, in Bahjat’s works. But the artist will have none of it.

“To be influenced by an artist and to like an artist are different things”, Bahjat says, firmly putting herself in the latter category. “Actually, my favourite all-time artist is Van Gogh. I like the way he sees colours”.

Russian painter Chaim Soutine’s concerns with shape, colour and texture over representation and Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s intensely evocative treatment of psychological themes, also find favour with her.

Her paintings are interspersed with recurring, allegorical objects. For example, a globe represents human existence; a crow signifies wisdom, flowers and skulls symbolise life and death, light and darkness.   

She credits her innings with Ayyam to luck. “There are other artists in Syria who are more deserving than me”, she says. “But maybe not every Syrian has the luck to come to Ayyam!” That is one of the times when the bright sun of her person peeps through the dark clouds of her art.

Of her mentor Azzam she says that he encouraged her to continue with collage – a medium whose immense possibilities she has begun understanding. “He gives me ideas to try out”, she says of Azzam. “He asks me to expand my material and not stay with traditional mediums”.

Orabi for her is a fix-it man, generous to a fault. “He fixes problems in a painting”, she says. “He is a very positive person, a very generous human being, always ready with advice”.

Her art journey is not without bumps. “It is very hard to decide when a painting is finished”, she says. “I feel it always needs editing, in the sense of something to be added or deleted. But when I come to the moment I think it is finished, when I am completely satisfied with the results, I stop. But all this could be because I have just started my journey!”

“The Residency has expanded my oeuvre”, she observes. “It has helped change my concepts”. She has started using collage seriously, clipping images from the pages of glossy magazines and forging narratives around them.          

Born in Damascus, Syria, in 1991, she now lives and works in the UAE. Having previously taken part in several group exhibitions, this is her first solo show.

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