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.
|Safwan Dahoul, Untitled, 1996, mixed media on canvas, 100 x 160 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.|
The early years
|Safwan Dahoul, Untitled, 1996, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 100 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery.|
|Safwan Dahoul, Untitled, 1996, acrylic and gold leaf on canvas, 95 x 77 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.|
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?
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.|
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.
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.|
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.
|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.|
|Safwan Dahoul, Dream 163, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 122 x 76 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery.|
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.