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So close and still so far: The work of Syrian artist Safwan Dahoul

Through love, loss and war, Safwan Dahoul never stopped painting his dreams. I've been fascinated by his work since I first came across it in 2013 – at the very beginning of my art writing and Art Radar journey. As Ayyam Gallery Dubai (DIFC) shows new works from the veteran painter’s ongoing “Dream” series, which he has been creating for three decades, I delved deeper into Dahoul’s practice. This article was originally published on Art Radar, now defunct, on 15 April 2018.

Safwan Dahoul, Dream 160, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 76 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Safwan Dahoul (b. 1961, Hama, Syria) studied in Damascus, before moving to Belgium for a doctoral degree. He then returned to Syria and taught at the Faculty of Fine Arts, mentoring young artists. In 2012, in the face of conflict, he, along with a number of prominent Syrian artists, left Damascus for Dubai aided by Ayyam Gallery. What was supposed to be a temporary move – he told CNN that he had anticipated a quick return – became his new home and studio. 


Dahoul has had several exhibitions over the years at Ayyam Gallery’s Dubai, Beirut and London spaces, as well as at Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris, 2012), Edge of Arabia (London, 2013) and the Busan Museum of Art (South Korea, 2014). Collections currently holding his work include Institut du Monde Arabe (Paris), Barjeel Art Foundation (Sharjah), National Museum (Damascus) and Dubai’s Farjam and Samawi collections.


Safwan Dahoul, Untitled, 1996, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 160 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

The early years
 

According to his biography on Ayyam Gallery’s website, “[...] Dahoul’s career is regarded as a crucial link between modern and contemporary Arab art.” During his undergraduate degree at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus, he was taught by eminent Modernists. After his BA, he completed a diploma with a thesis on the Flemish school. 

Like many Syrian artists even today, Safwan Dahoul realised the reality of the discrimination based on nationality and birth when his visa to study at the High School of Fine Arts in Mons, Belgium, was denied repeatedly for five years. He eventually prevailed, going on to complete his doctoral degree there, and learning how to “make use of other artistic styles without imitating them or losing my own identity as a painter”.

Safwan Dahoul, Untitled, 1996, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 100 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Syria, colourless 

Over the years, Dahoul’s style evolved, yet many core aspects were retained. He made use of repetition as a way to paint moments, where elements remained similar and yet transformed from one painting to the next. 

Throughout his oeuvre, a female figure consistently reappears, presumably to portray the artist’s inner world and emotions. Themes such as thoughtfulness, reverie and isolation can be seen in his earlier paintings, especially the blue paintings from the 1990s and his works on wood (1993­-2000). Dahoul eventually settled for a geometric, angular style of figuration, “painting in a circular way”, that he continues to use today.

Safwan Dahoul, Untitled, 1996, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 95 x 77 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

In earlier works, Dahoul used a more diverse, although still muted, colour palette. In an essay titled “Safwan Dahoul: Summoning the Subconscious”, Maymanah Farhat quotes the artist as saying: 
Haven’t you noticed how the colours in Syria are so subdued? Even the green of the trees is pale. I don’t ever remember seeing people wearing bright colours here. [...] I don’t remember a red car, ever. Even now, among the younger generation, who are supposed to wear whatever they want because they are still young, I challenge you to find colour. [...] Our [Syrians’] souls have been affected to such an extent that we now fear colour. Personally I have been affected by this change and I myself feel colourless.
Safwan Dahoul, Dream 109, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 200 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.


Life, what is it but a dream?
 

Since the late 1980s, Safwan Dahoul has explored the idea of patterns and repetition in human life and nature through his “Dream” series. Using lines, negative space, and usually a female protagonist rendered in monochromatic shades, these works allude to ancient Egyptian, European and Arabic influences as well as modernist approaches. 

Despite the recurring theme and superficial similarity of content, each painting varies subtly yet noticeably from its predecessors and successors. Capturing myriad moments of dreaming, daydreaming and being consumed by emotion, the paintings are haunting, raw and evocative, and sometimes even peaceful – for even in the deepest pain, there are pockets of stillness. In a monograph for the artist produced by Ayyam Gallery in 2009, he says: 
I am fascinated by this combination [...] I can capture so many hidden feelings by keeping my colour palette and my subject matter the same.
Safwan Dahoul, Reve, 2008, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 360 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

The paintings are all simply titled “Dream”, followed by a number. Earlier untitled, like many of his works prior to this extended series, the artist says that he began to number them after a significant event in his life: the loss of his beloved wife of twenty years to cancer. He painted through this loss, as well as the turmoil in his homeland and having to flee and start afresh in a different country. He told Art Radar (translated from Arabic): 
I have always considered my works as my memories, like a daily journal of what I am living or have lived. I am part of this universe and maybe I need to tell [sic] what happened to me, what I lived or what I saw. About dreams, illusions, love, loss, war, and many other countless things.
Often filling out a wall, these works are, however, more than a personal memoir. Their size, as well as the depth of the emotions portrayed in the eyes and faces of Dahoul’s figures, represent something larger than life and bigger than his heart – a shared human experience. As Hisham Samawi, Co-­founder of Ayyam Gallery, said of Dahoul, 
That’s why he’s so timeless. It’s almost like he understands something the rest of us don’t. 
Safwan Dahoul, Dream 27, 2010, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 400 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

Still changing 

The “Dream” series gradually changed and evolved. From contortion and confinement, the 2011 exhibition at Ayyam Gallery Beirut titled “A Real Dream” celebrated a transcendence, with the protagonist acquiring space, empowerment, and even wings. The 2013 and 2014 London exhibitions, “Repetitive Dreams”, at Edge of Arabia and Ayyam Gallery respectively, put forth the idea that “every event that happens in our life time is a repetition of another past moment”. 

In a 2014 interview at the opening of his solo exhibition “Repetitive Dreams” at Ayyam Gallery London, Dahoul claimed that “nothing is changing”: 
We [artists] are only drawing and not anticipating any answers, which is letting me say that every day resembles every other day [...] and nothing is changing.

 

Later that year, Ayyam Gallery Dubai (DIFC) presented “Almost a Dream”, in which the series questioned the space between states of dreaming and waking through the portrayal of the tragic events in Dahoul’s home country, Syria. Here the protagonist embodied the country, looking down at her suffering people. 

Safwan Dahoul, Dream 67, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 200 x 180 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.


In 2016, “Still Dreaming” brought the paintings from darkness to light, natural forces and less specific settings. Meanwhile, the 2017 exhibition “Miniatures” reduced their scale to both invite closer viewing as well as to indicate the diminishing of dreams. According to the press release, these smaller paintings were inspired by 
the ancient art of religious painting, which can be found in both Christian iconography and Islamic art as non­-representational or text­-based imagery. Dahoul’s fascination with religious imagery dates back to his time in Belgium, where he encountered Flemish examples and adopted stylistic aspects of Northern Renaissance painting, particularly the melancholy and foreboding of saints. 
Safwan Dahoul, Dream 108, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 180 x 200 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.


Safwan Dahoul, Dream 120, 2016, from the "Miniatures" series, acrylic on wood, 13 x 13 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.


In the ongoing exhibition at Ayyam Gallery Dubai (DIFC), Dahoul’s protagonist looks almost alike in each painting, distinguished by the presence of various objects on her chest. From a Rubik’s cube to a tear along her sternum, the paintings perhaps represent new dilemmas and age­-old wounds. Ultimately, dreams are subjective, universal, nuanced, and hold different interpretations for different people. 

Safwan Dahoul, Dream 163, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 76 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.

As Safwan Dahoul told Art Radar (translated from Arabic), 
No doubt time and experiences, as well as life itself, changes a lot about us – even our dreams. Sometimes I go back to my old dreams to know how much they have changed. I used to search for my dreams in the sky among the stars, but today there isn’t any distance between me and my dreams. I can touch them; they are right in front of me, clear like the sun, but impossible to capture.

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