We are proud to announce Youssef Abdelké’s solo exhibition in our Hamburg space. This show marks the debut of his collaboration with Galerie Sfeir-Semler.
Born in Qamischli, Syria in 1951, Youssef Abdelké has been engaged in politics and human rights activism throughout his life. In 1976 he produced a large-scale work on Black September - portraying the massacres of Palestinians in Jordan in 1970, which revealed a militant artist who, ever since, has been relentlessly denouncing violence, fighting for freedom of thoughts and human rights.
Abdelké was arrested for nearly two years in 1978, and then moved to France. Unable to return home, he lived and worked in Paris for twenty-four years. In 2005, despite the risks involved, he decided to travel back to Damascus, and was allowed through border security; but in 2010 his passport was confiscated by the authorities, who held him prisoner in his own country. He was arrested again for five weeks in 2013.
Speaking about his activism, Youssef Abdelké says: “I still believe today in progress and freedom of societies, I believe in the value of human life, and the respect of human rights. No one should ever be imprisoned for their opinions. An opinion should be faced with ideas, and not responded to with imprisonment”.
His time in prison and in exile deeply affected his practice, leading him to focus on drawing and etching. Using tools that scrape the surface of paper, he produces sharp compositions that convey a lucid and rational approach to life; transposing on paper what human bodies endure under dictatorships or in times of war.
He largely focuses on still-life, revisiting a genre that is traditionally associated with ornamental arts, and valued for its aesthetic qualities, in order to highlight the violence that governs humanity. His drawings systematically depict delicate beings, or objects linked to his practice as an artist, that are faced with harsh and cruel elements: a paintbrush is depicted with a dead fly besides it, a fish is nailed to its background and a bunch of lilies is threatened by pins. His still-lifes acutely express incomprehension and indignation in reaction to loss and death. His subjects also include portraits of prisoners’ families, or severed human or animal limbs, proposing a more direct reference to Syria’s recent political history.
The artist exclusively produces work in black and white, and, despite the stillness of his drawings, they overflow with rage at injustice and abuse of power. His personal approach to perspective and his exploration of lines through drawing and etching reveal a multi-layered practice, that highlights the fragility of men and unexpectedly celebrates human life.
A conversation with Youssef Abdelké:
Andrée Sfeir-Semler (A.S.S.): What is the starting point of your drawings? How do you decide what to draw?
Youssef Abdelké (Y.A.): There is a very wide array of encounters that move me. For example, I could hear a word, or witness a scene on the street, hear something on TV or listen to an old song. All of these inspire me, and that’s why I always keep a small notebook in my pocket. I have a large number of them compiled over more than thirty years, on which I draw draft ideas that occur to me and that I’d like to work on. I could make a drawing out of a first draft, but I could also put thirty drafts on paper, and not produce a single drawing from them. Turning ideas into actual works is often a complex process.
A.S.S.: Can you tell me about the most recent encounter that inspired a drawing?
Y.A.: Sometimes I think of things that have nothing to do with any word, or song, or anything like that ... I think, for example, of those who died under the bombs, I think of their families, I think of the children who lost their mothers. All this has nothing to do with my immediate physical surrounding, but originates in my own mind and leads me to put ideas down on paper. For example, Al Jum’aa al ‘azima, a song by Fayrouz that says “I am the sad mother, with no one to console her" does not make me think of the Virgin Mary nor of the Christ. It reminds me of the Syrian mother who had to live through hardship, lost her home, her husband and children to war. In this sense, anything can inspire me and lead to ideas and drawings; but it is all linked to what I myself have lived through. I am one of those who are wronged, and dying, and whose homes are being destroyed, and that’s why I have thoughts like these, which often end up drawn on paper. Ultimately, it is your own perspective that transforms ephemeral encounters into ideals and causes that would shake you to the core.
A.S.S.: These ideas often take the form of a still life in your drawings, with no people represented. How does it express your thoughts?
Y.A.: For as long as I can remember, perhaps since I was 17 years old, I’ve always held-on to two ideas: the first is that the painter (or musician or playwright, the artist in general) is the son of his environment, and therefore, in the process of creating art, the artist cannot dissociate himself from his surroundings. A Canadian artist presents work that is different from those of a Senegalese or Japanese artist. This is not due to differences in their talents or ideas, but is the result of the different backgrounds they come from. The second idea relates to the fact that I feel upset, or even angry, at all the political artworks circulating out there, that are not of very high quality. Nothing can justify the weakness of a work, not even the most noble causes and subjects. In my opinion, a weak artwork is a crime against the work itself and against the viewer. It is true that an artist is intimately linked to his environment, but he has to fully master the right tools to express his ideas. With this in mind, I will address your question on still life in my work. As you know, still life has been a main subject in Europe since the seventeenth century, the Dutch in particular have made extraordinary contributions to the genre in terms of accuracy and detail. However, it was not considered over the past centuries as seriously as themes related to religion and its symbols, battles and wars, portraits of kings, nobles, merchants and so on. Unfortunately, over the last three centuries and up until today, still life is considered an ornamental subject; we put a painting of fruits and a pipe (or a similar object) in the dining room or in the living room. We hang a still life in our home for its sweetness and beauty. Cubists made a great leap, still life became a field for formal innovations, with thousands of works exploring various original concepts of the genre. My work expresses a personal approach to still life, from a point of view that has nothing to do with the gentleness and sweetness usually associated with it. It is harsh to draw a skull or a nail planted in a flower or in a fish. The subject might be taken from still life, but in essence it conveys contradictory ideas: my work is at the exact opposite of what hangs on living room walls and which we enjoy looking at. What I want is to highlight the violence and cruelty that govern human life.
A.S.S.: What about symbolism in your work, and the relationship between what you draw and what is actually happening around you?
Y.A.: I do not consider that there is symbolism in my work at all. Symbolism is to draw something that refers to something else, like painting a dove to symbolize peace or drawing a chair to symbolize power! I never do that. What I present in my drawings are elements that don’t bear signs beyond themselves: I do not paint roses or fish because they refer to something else. I paint a rose with a nail to express the violence and cruelty in our societies or in politics. They are therefore elements of expression, not symbols. A fish is simply a fish to me, a beautiful living creature brutally beaten. Tenderness, softness and beauty, are faced with cruelty, brutality, and violence; and this confrontation is central to my work. I feel an urge to condemn violence in society and life. Violence is death, and stands at the opposite of a Human society.
A.S.S.: I know you started drawing in black since 1995. Before that, what subjects did you paint in color? Why did you start using black exclusively?
Y.A.: What you say is only partially true. Since the 1970s I have categorized artists into two types: painters or colorists, and drawers or calligraphers. The categorization does not depend on technique alone, nor on aspiration, but on the artist's essence. For example, drawers are often rational people, and their compositions are therefore more solid, while painters might be more emotional, and therefore have more fluidity in their paintings. Similarly, drawers use harsh materials, such as pencils, or steel tools for etchings, or charcoal, which all scrape the surface of the paper, while painters use soft tools, such as brushes.
A.S.S.: This means that when you use sharp tools to draw, you are actually using violent instruments?
Y.A.: Yes exactly. If you look at the works of Monet and Picasso, for example, you will notice what comes across for the former is softness and beauty while the latter expresses more rigidity. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, I’m only referring to the difference between them in order to distinguish between the two types of artists. We must also understand that all drawers are also painters, and similarly all painters are drawers but colors come across more strongly for them. I don’t think Picasso was a painter, although he has produced a large number of oil paintings. There are of course rare cases throughout art history where the artist was at the same time an extremely gifted drawer and painter, such as Degas or Horst Janssen. It sometimes is a very thin line between the two categories. When I was at the Faculty of Arts in Damascus, I felt I was a drawer, not a painter, so I went towards etching instead of painting. Then I went to Paris where I also spent five years working with etching in a studio at the Beaux-Arts.
A.S.S.: I would be interested to know why you chose etching.
Y.A.: I picked up etching for all the reasons I just mentioned. I felt more comfortable using lines than colors. When in Paris I produced many etchings and lithography works, in addition to drawings using pencil and natural charcoal.
A.S.S.: Are these works still with you?
Y.A.: Most of them are in Damascus. In the seventies, even after graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts, I was producing etchings, drawings and Chinese ink on paper works. My graduation project was on Black September, which is the political subject par excellence. It was a pencil drawing, 5.5 x 1.25 m. This was a real challenge for me: how to control a large area with a tiny tool.
A.S.S.: Can we get an image of it?
Y.A.: Yes of course.
Y.A.: In this phase, I often painted horses. Tied horses, dumped on their back, being tortured. After I went to Paris - from 1981 - I kept working with etching, but my subjects changed, and I became more interested in integrating the European approach to perspective with the completely different Eastern one from the Arab, Persian, Turkish, Mongolian and Indian traditions.
A.S.S.: In what sense?
Y.A.: The European perspective in drawing or painting is realistic, for example subjects in a work become smaller the further they are from the viewer’s standpoint. Europeans, since the sixteenth century, have developed an approach to perspective that follows the human eye logic and how we actually see things. While for the Orientals a realistic perspective was never a priority, and their perspective is based on the concept of beauty. For example, they would paint two lovers sitting on a carpet in an orchard. It would be painted like a square, as if seen from above, because the painter thinks the carpet beautiful and has to reflect that, without considering a realistic perspective.
A.S.S.: Do you think that a realistic perspective does not exist in the Oriental traditions because artists simply did not take it into account, and not because they did not know how to reflect it?
Y.A.: I'm not sure. But the important thing here is that these are simply two different concepts. Take, for example, Pharaonic or Sumerian and Assyrian drawings and sculptures, in which kings would always be represented bigger in size than the common people or larger than their enemies. Of course, they knew the king was like any other human being, but it was all about concepts.
A.S.S.: What, in your opinion, distinguishes your work, as an artist from the Middle-East, versus art from the West?
Y.A.: In the 1980s, I sought to merge the two approaches to perspective together. In my drawings, I use perspective as conceived in the West as well as perspective from an Eastern point of view, because I consider that Europe and the Middle-East are actually intimately connected. We live in one world, there is no limit separating us from them. We are as European as they are Oriental. I would think of everything the Greeks borrowed from Pharaohs or Mesopotamian civilizations in the arts, philosophy or sciences in the first millennium BC. Ten centuries later Athens was spreading sciences and philosophies in the Islamic Eastern world. Today it is no secret that many achievements in the East, at least over the past 150 years, have been borrowed from Europe. So, over the millennia, exchanges even out. We are the children of the world itself, there is no hard borders between us. There are undoubtedly differences in political systems and in technical, administrative and industrial development. But we love, hate and hurt in the same way, and that’s why I draw using both perspectives, which gives me a lot of freedom in my work. At the end of the day, I am an artist, and consider myself free: I can choose what to take, depending on my own will. Where I come from enriches my work and gives me more freedom, but I don’t want to limit myself to a boxed identity. Incidents of history show catastrophic consequences of locked identities. My personal identity does not conflict with the fact that I am a citizen of the whole world and we all have a common culture and history in a broader sense. I identify with European civilization, as Eastern civilizations are also European. If I hear someone playing the flute in Mexico I feel happy, because it is beautiful, and I consider it inspirational at a personal level, and a complement to the Middle-Eastern Ney.
A.S.S.: Can you tell me about your time in France, and why you were imprisoned for your political ideas when you returned to Syria?
Y.A.: My intention was to go to Paris for my doctorate, and then return to Syria. Two years after I left, my name was flagged at the border as an opponent to the regime, and I could not go back home. I had to stay in France for twenty-four years. Throughout my life, I have always firmly believed that freedom is vital in societies, and that the regimes in Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia and other countries in the region oppress their people. As I advocated for the necessity of public freedoms, freedom of the press, unions, publishing, etc. I had to stay out of the country all that time. When I found out I was able to go back, I simply decided to travel to Syria without thinking about the consequences or the seriousness of this act. I still believe today in progress and freedom of societies, I believe in the value of human life, and the respect of human rights. No one should ever be imprisoned for their opinions. An opinion should be faced with ideas, and not responded to with imprisonment. This is what kept me twenty-four years away from my country. Freedom is not a luxury; it is the essential condition for progress towards a human society: without freedom, without free elections, free press, free parties and trade unions, we will continue to be ruled by corruption, oppressed by regimes and only led to destruction and war.
A.S.S.: You were imprisoned because you advocated for freedoms that are not respected by certain political regimes, not only in Syria but in every non-democratic and authoritarian state. Tell us a bit about the situation in Syrian prisons.
Y.A.: I was imprisoned for two years in 1978 and then imprisoned for five weeks in 2013. When the authorities detain someone, they do so in order to break their will to freedom, to prevent the dangerous "virus" of freedom from spreading. Our political systems are not based on a right wing and a left wing that could balance each other out, it is a fascist government that defends itself by brutally repressing the right, the left and everyone in between. I myself belonged to a left-wing group, but in prison I met right-wing people or nationalists who originally belonged to the party in power. Prisoners are subjected to terrible torture. There are countless forms of torture; flogging for example, with lashes applied to the back and legs of the victim, or the insertion of bottles in their private parts. There is much talk in Arab novels about terrible types of torture. The authorities don’t have to invent extraordinary forms of torture, when they tie you to a wheel and hit you on the soles of your feet, that hurts enough! Being tortured will create a huge fracture in your life, and you may not realize it directly, but your life will be forever divided in two: the phase before the first strike of a bamboo rod on the soles of your feet, and everything that comes after. Because with that first blow, you lose your humanity! You become an insect, which they can torture at will. It is not only the physical pain that you feel, but you are deeply insulted in your dignity as a human being. This leaves an indelible mark that will never fade. Each victim deals with torture differently. Many are crushed, but others become stronger in their minds, and grow even harder in their resistance to the regime and the defense of freedom because they can feel on their very skins the meaning of oppression. What happens then is the exact opposite of what the authorities are trying to do by using jail and torture. There are people who did not commit criminal acts and who are prisoners of conscience. They are imprisoned for five, ten or fifteen years when they only are peaceful opponents. This is a grave crime. One of the paradoxes is that prison turned some activists into intellectuals, wonderful novelists, or translators, advocating for freedom. Actually, prison gives you time to read. Prisoners cannot read during the first months in jail, because it’s an interrogation phase during which they are deprived of everything. Later on, families start smuggling in books. During my time in prison, I read more than at any other time in my life. In the few weeks I spent in prison in 2013 I witnessed barbarism itself. In the 1970s, the killing of a detainee under torture was a huge issue. Now, murder has become a daily practice. From 2012 to 2014, five or ten bodies per day would come out of the intelligence services cells. The war has unleashed the crouching monster that lives in the hearts of politicians and security services.
A.S.S.: Do you write?
Y.A.: Yes, I write from time to time, not much.
A.S.S.: What do you write? Poetry, for example?
?Y.A.: Most of the prisoners I shared cells with were writing poetry! An effective way to relieve pain. I wrote poetry in prison, but it was not good (laughs) I threw it all later. Since the early seventies I have been writing about visual arts from time to time. Maybe one article per year. I wrote articles about artists close to the regime, who would terrorize everyone in the field because of this immunity! Writing about them was a political challenge of course, but also a technical one. I wanted to write about them to face the fear. I would ferociously criticize them and publicly condemn their actions, with no regard to their political protection. Today, forty years later, I can say that what motivated me to write about them was not their political position, but the weakness of their work. I also wrote about artists whom I truly appreciated, and respected, I once published a thorough study about Syrian artist Nazir Nabaa and the Egyptian graphic artist Mohieddin El Labbad. These are stars who flutter with light in a desert night.
A.S.S.: Thank you, Youssef