Maya Gebeily

The rebellion against death

Abdelke tells NOW his work has been heavily influenced by Syria’s uprising


Galerie Tanit has become a gathering-place. Children and academics, as well as fans and friends of Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke, have flocked to the Beirut artspace to see the sketcher’s large, powerful grayscale murals.


There is universality and jarring potency in Abdelke’s images, which have been heavily influenced by the three-year uprising in his homeland. Some depict mothers mourning lost children. Many feature single organisms paired with sharp objects: a fragile bird lying on its back in front of an upright dagger; an animal heart – human, perhaps? – pierced by a needle. He told NOW that after years of drawing dramatic photos of generals and people in the army, he tried to transition to drawing “delicate things... like apples or a flower or a bowl of fruit.”


His transition to “peaceful” items didn’t last long. “The problem is that a human being can’t be someone else,” Abdelke chuckled. Little by little, violence crept back into his sketches. Now, daggers and hooks are paired with the original tiny birds and fragile butterflies. Tight coils of rope strangle a small fish, whose eyes stare out of the mural in defiance. A dainty teapot and matching cups are blasted with red, oozing paint.


Abdelke told NOW that this juxtaposition – animals and weapons, life and death – is what unites his latest exhibition. “The whole series is full of violent things, full of a rebellion against death,” he said. Indeed, adjacent to murals of tiny dead creatures are sketches of killed Syrians. A young woman’s head lies alone with open, pleading eyes. A bullet-ridden man appears to refuse to succumb, keeping his lids wide apart. Even in death, the people and animals in Abdelke’s sketches remain alive, insisting on holding the viewer’s gaze.


The Syrian uprising has had a profound effect on Abdelke’s art. “In the past three years, I’ve been working on people more,” he told NOW. He sketches iconic faces of Syria’s early civil movement in remembrance. A small photo of Hamza al-Khateeb, the Syrian child from Daraa who allegedly died in regime custody in 2011, peeks out from under a bouquet of flowers. The warm smile of Bassel Shehadeh, civil activist killed two years ago, is captured perfectly. The focus on life and death, too, is drawn from Abdelke’s experience of the revolution. He said that as the uprising in Syria continues, his art circles around the idea of death “the way a butterfly circles around a light.”


Beyond a shift in subjects, developments in Syria have introduced new techniques in Abdelke’s work. The rose and crimson Arabic words that bleed onto his work are a new addition, as are the “explosions” of red paint on flower vases and teacups. He told NOW the inclusion of color – specifically red – “tells of this bloody, violent moment in Syrian history.”


Last summer, Abdelke was detained for over a month by regime forces without reason, and remained in Damascus upon his release to continue his artwork. He’s prepared to return to the Syrian capital in the coming days, despite the growing instability and risk of being detained by the regime once again. “Of course I’m afraid,” Abdelke said. “There’s not a single Syrian citizen who isn’t afraid.” But, he said, it’s where he feels he should be.


Perhaps it is this shared experience of courage in the face of fear, its themes of life and death, that has made Abdelke’s work so popular for such a wide audience. On the exhibit’s opening night, there was barely room to walk around the gallery. Pockets of people crowded around paintings; others spilled out into the streets, wine glasses and cigarettes in hand, to catch up with old friends. Two days later, the scene was different: a group of Syrian children had been brought to the exhibit, clutching papers and pencils, to learn about Abdelke’s work and to try to recreate it themselves.


Surrounded by seven- and eight-year-olds, complimenting them on their renderings of his own sketches, Abdelke told NOW that Syria’s uprising will have an enormous effect on its art and its people.


“The Syrian revolution, the nobility of its goals, the courage of those who participated in it – all will leave an enormous effect on the country,” the artist said. “And on everything that has to do with culture.” 

"There's strength in its open eye that stares at you even in death," Abdelke said about this particular sketch. He told NOW it was one of the most powerful examples of rebellion against death in his series.

"Even in death, the people and animals in Abdelke’s sketches remain alive, insisting on holding the viewer’s gaze."