Dubai’s Ayyam Gallery holds posthumous retrospective of pioneering Syrian painter.

At a time when the world’s attention is turned to the Syrian conflict and refugee crisis, Dubai’s Ayyam Gallery reminds us of the country’s rich cultural heritage by spotlighting an influential figure in the country’s art historical and cultural development. Dubbed by some as the “Picasso of Syria”, Moustafa Fathi led the development of abstraction in Syrian art, combining Western and Eastern aesthetics.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 1986, mixed media on canvas, 122 x 207 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 1986, mixed media on canvas, 122 x 207 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi is a pioneering figure in Syrian contemporary art, one that sought to fuse Western and Eastern aesthetic approaches, fine art and folk art, as well as harmonise man and nature. A posthumous retrospective of his work, entitled “Towards the Absolute of Nature”, is running at Ayyam Gallery Dubai from 5 October to 12 November 2015. The Gallery also represents the late artist’s estate.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 1985, mixed media on canvas, 190 x 250 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 1985, mixed media on canvas, 190 x 250 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

The show delves into the development of Fathi’s theoretical treatment of abstraction, presenting works from several periods of his 40-year career, including a selection of his paintings and works on paper, as well as some tools such as the intricate stamps he used in the latter part of his career.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 2006, mixed media on canvas, 141 x 85 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 2006, mixed media on canvas, 141 x 85 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi in his atelier. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi in his atelier. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

An academic and an artist

Moustafa Fathi (1942-2009) was born in Deera, Syria, and received a Diploma in Engraving from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus in 1966 and a Diploma in Engraving and Lithography from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, Paris in 1978. From 1966 to 1987, Fathi taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus, further contributing to the Syrian art scene.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 1994, mixed media on canvas, 193 x 167 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 1994, mixed media on canvas, 193 x 167 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

His academic excellence was equaled in his artistic practice, through which he is recognised for establishing new formal and theoretical frontiers with the development of a unique painting style rooted in the traditional visual culture of the region. Fathi started painting during the latter half of Syria’s modernist renaissance, he was thus a pioneer of the new abstraction, who sought to merge influences not only from Western modernism but also from his immediate surroundings and their traditions.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 2006, mixed media on paper, 23 x 32 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 2006, mixed media on paper, 23 x 32 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Fathi admired Western masters such as Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock, from whom he adopted his reliance on intuitive methods of painting. Although inspired by the geometry of Syrian folk art patterns, Fathi re-interpreted them in an approach including the use of free-flow gestural marks that allowed the composition to grow organically.

Moustafa Fathi's tools: stamps. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi’s tools: stamps. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

From 1987, Fathi researched folk art throughout Syria, such as Bedouin textiles. He then used his findings to produce a series of carved woodblocks. He applied these designs to canvas employing plant-based pigments, typical of fibre art practices. His elaborate mixed media works recall both the brushwork of Abstract Expressionism and the pictography of ancient hieroglyphs.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 1989, mixed media on canvas, 87 x 186 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 1989, mixed media on canvas, 87 x 186 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

As written in his Fathi’s profile on Ayyam Editions,

The result was a large body of work that set small cells of complex designs against flat color planes. The use of symbolist and colourist explorations produced an innate tension within the composition. Carefully arranged, the works possess a visual harmony that reduces nature to its most organic state, as pockets of dynamic force are contained within an infinite vastness.

Moustafa Fathi's moulds in his atelier. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi’s moulds in his atelier. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 2005, mixed media on paper, 112 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 2005, mixed media on paper, 112 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Mankind’s connection to nature

Fathi’s life-long use of manmade materials, as opposed to manufactured tools and media, was part of his search for a connection with nature. In a 2010 catalogue essay on Fathi, art historian Michel Bohbot explains the artist’s approach to art by citing Joan Miró, who claimed to have “escaped into the absolute of nature”.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 1986, mixed media on canvas, 125 x 190 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 1986, mixed media on canvas, 125 x 190 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Fathi did not intend to imitate or copy nature, rather he based his work on the “mechanics” of nature or the “visible patterns that form during different stages of natural phenomena”, as written in the press release. In his last interview with Time Out in December 2008, Fathi revealed:

Nature happens very mechanically. Look at a tree, from the branches to the leaves, right down to the roots, there’s a perfection to its processes which I think is almost mechanical.

Moustafa Fathi, 'Untitled', 2002, mixed media on paper, 21 x 33 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Moustafa Fathi, ‘Untitled’, 2002, mixed media on paper, 21 x 33 cm. Image courtesy Ayyam Gallery.

Fathi’s lifetime search was geared towards finding balance and harmony with the environment, and being able to express its effortless simplicity and perfection, as Ayyam Gallery explains:

The patterns found in the artist’s works are a reflection of a personal attempt to ‘harmonise’ with the surrounding environment, to capture the ‘simplicity and perfection’ of its forms: the rocks, soil, discarded animal bones, and leaves that sprinkle the Syrian landscape. Evoking the inherent movement of nature, Fathi’s motifs are layered or scattered across the canvas as though rendered from an aerial view, teeming forms that at times resemble the congested grid of Damascus […].

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related Topics: Syrian artists, painting, woodcuts, abstract art, gallery exhibitions, picture feasts, events in Dubai

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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