Natalie Shooter

Shattered faces

At Galerie Janine Rubeiz

Shattered Faces

In what is one of the oldest art spaces in Beirut, Gallery Janine Rubeiz hosts the joint exhibition Shattered Faces in which the subject is bitingly current. The work of Kurdish-Syrian artist, Ahmad Kleige, based in Beirut for the past 17 years, and Lebanese artist Sandra Issa gives voice to ordinary people that often, between the handshakes of politicians and the faces of gun battles, don’t always make it to the media. Through their work they’re essentially documenting the victims of conflict. 


Kleige’s haunting acrylic paintings that line one side of the gallery show the impact of the Syrian war on its people. Through his paintings he creates a solitary, anxious world in muted greys; a gloomy palette that adds to the claustrophobia. Solemn faces stare out with empty eyes, trapped against a stifling backdrop; a woman sits on the ground against a pile of her possessions; families cling to each other, standing nervously, staring ahead. Kleige’s paintings are the victim’s cry, an expression of ongoing suffering and an unknown future. 


Made from mixed media, Issa’s paintings on misshapen pieces of newspaper sprawl across the wall, like a pin board of press clippings on the Arab uprisings. In brightly-colored hues, inspired by comic book culture, graffiti and pop art, Issa’s paintings express an optimism missing from Kleige’s work. “I really use these colors to stay close to the people, these very pure feelings and state of mind. That’s why I like to use these very raw colors,” Issa tells NOW. Unlike Kleige’s stationary figures, Issa’s characters are in full motion. A young refugee plays with a tin pot helmet in shades of the sunset; a bandana-wearing Syrian revolutionary releases a battle cry; a crowd of women, fists in the air holding banners exclaim ‘my pussy, my choice!’ and ‘keep your rosaries off my ovaries!’ Though there’s an acknowledgement of suffering – three children peer round the corner of a wall in a painting titled ‘Where can we go?’ – Issa’s overall sentiment is one of hope. “I guess I’m still hoping and dreaming that the Arab Spring has hope left,” Issa explains


Both the work of Kleige and Issa has long been shaped by political events in the region. It was the massacres in the North Iraq town of Halabja in 1988, under the regime of Saddam Hussein that made a big impact on Kleige, since then his work has become progressively more political. In Shattered Faces he shows the unnamed sufferers of the Syrian war. “The people I am painting live the same fears as me, the same worries, the same hope or despair,” he says. “I’m summarizing the history of a people in one child or woman. Through their situation they represent the destiny of a nation.”


For Issa, it was the impact of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah that begun to shape her work. At the time based in France, shocked by the distortion of the Arab world through the European media, Issa’s work became increasingly political as she worked to readdress the media’s misrepresentations. “I realized the influence of mass media on people’s beliefs and ideas of the Arab world and Lebanon,” Issa says. “People were saying ‘oh they deserve to die. Lebanese are all terrorists anyway.’ I started working from the media trying to analyze and deconstruct the language of media, remove the judgment and just give a pure image.”  The materials Issa uses in her paintings have their own significance; after the mass media became her main subject, it also became a physical material. Over the newspaper she would write, draw or paint. “It was a technique to put my voice and the voice of normal people over the voices of the media and politicians.”


Issa’s work within Shattered Faces shows a desire to almost rewrite the media’s perceived history, to move away from its authoritative voice and focus on real people’s stories. “For me the newspaper is the identity of the memory. They constitute the history they want us to remember, the history that is dictated that we should know. For me I took the newspaper as a skin, the mental skin we are living in,” Issa says. By working with everyday materials such as leather, fabrics and newspaper she grounds her work in day-to-day life; again connecting her subjects to the people. “I’m trying to make a parallel history, the history of normal people, our situation, our daily life. Not the numbers of dead, or the price of oil rising, depending on conflicts or interests.”


The grey world of Kleige’s paintings has an emotional impact, also revealing pessimism about Syria’s future. Though for him there is some lightness in his palettes of grey – “it’s the space between dark and light, black and white” – the greyness reflects the reality of a country at war - its ashes. The characters within his paintings are helpless, isolated and devoid of hope. “I am very sad for what is happening,” Kleige says. “Whatever will happen in Syria it will never be as it was before; even if things get better it will need a lot of time to return to a normal country.” Kleige isn’t trying to send a message to the outside world though, through the questioning eyes of isolated figures against empty backgrounds in his paintings we are drawn into their internal worlds. “For me the outside world is not important. It’s what is inside these people we’re seeing.”


In the energy of revolution, defiant faces and crowded protests of Issa’s paintings, for her the hunger for change sparked in the Arab Spring will continue to drive people forward towards real change. “The young people going down in the street in the Arab Spring asking for change was a great hope for me,” she says. “Although it turned out very bitterly, I’m still hoping that the younger generation will keep fighting, standing for their rights and asking for a better way to live. I believe that personal initiatives and the strength of individuals can bring little changes to society that can grow into bigger changes.”


Essentially, in Shattered Faces, Kleige and Issa have archived a moment in time, documenting the voices of the ordinary. “I think it’s very important to keep records of what is happening in our world today, but through a different angle. This will complete the official archives that are kept in the official places,” Issa laughs.


Of course, with war and conflict comes creativity. The work of Issa and Kleige is part of a bigger movement of expression for the Syrian war and Arab uprisings; under which art scenes have blossomed and grown in strength. For Kleige, Syrian art had already begun to shape its own identity over recent years, before the war, but has since grown even stronger. “Before there was a clear direction within Syrian art, but lately it has found more solidity, strength, and maturity. Now we can imagine that a new school of Syrian art is being created.” The role of art within periods of conflict is to challenge and question the status quo; as with Kleige and Issa’s work it’s the voice of the people, the offer of an alternative. “Art is a reflection of the society we live in,” Issa says. “It’s a physical atmosphere for the ideas people have in mind.” Kleige adds  “It can bring some changes in mentality too, in the long term.”



‘Shattered Faces’ will be on display at Galerie Janine Rubeiz until Saturday September 21.

(Image courtesy of Galerie Janine Rubeiz)

“Before there was a clear direction within Syrian art, but lately it has found more solidity, strength, and maturity. Now we can imagine that a new school of Syrian art is being created”