Behind the Smile

Syrian artist Fadi Yazigi’s devilish smiling faces portray his uncanny perceptions of how ordinary people feel.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Old Damascus is the studio of Fadi Yazigi. As I step inside, dozens of strange-looking creatures with small deformed bodies and huge smiling faces leap out at me from an unfinished canvas painting. Painted in black ink on a rainbow-coloured background, the creatures look like they are floating in space or dancing to a slow rhythm. Gazing at the borderless painting, I can’t help but wonder if they will fall off the canvas.

In fact, these devilish-looking creatures are dotted all around Yazigi’s studio, cast in bronze sculptures or adorning reliefs, canvases and ceramics. Smiling faces even dangle from the curtains, giving the studio the atmosphere of a haunted house. No matter which form of art Yazigi uses to bring these creatures to life, they all exhibit exactly the same naïve and crude expressions that have become his trademark.

Yazigi explains his creatures are not meant to be funny or mythical. Rather, they represent people he sees in the street or at the supermarket, friends who come over for tea and more often than not, Yazigi himself. Avoiding the temptation to paint life-like portraits, Yazigi explains his creatures depict feelings rather than appearances.

Yazigi’s favourite subjects for painting are marginalised and miserable people, which he usually portrays as physically underdeveloped creatures or half-human beasts. “They are sickly, unbalanced people but they keep on smiling,” he said. “Their smiles are forced curves they draw on their faces to pretend that everything is fine.”

A bronze sculpture labelled It’s Me portrays Yazigi as a tiny snail stuck in a coiled shell. The sculpture reflects a different time in the artist’s life when he felt restricted in his personal and professional life. The dark snail, with its smooth shiny surface, big bold head and coffee bean eyes looks the opposite of Yazigi, who has slightly wavy hair and a tall slender figure. Black humour finds its way into the sculpture, with the snail’s human face smiling widely.

One of Yazigi’s most recent paintings depicts a group of people, some of whom he hardly knows, on a background similar to that of a chess board. While Yazigi painted these people as he saw them, he left space on the canvas for each individual to express their feelings, either by writing about their views on life, something important to them, or simply jotting down the first thought that came to mind. Attached to the painting is a piece of paper with Yazigi’s own impressions of each person.

Yazigi leaves no room for heroes in his paintings; he often groups his strange-looking creatures together and leaves the work untitled to emphasise their insignificance. He does, however, give his bronze sculptures abstract names, due to their life-size appearance. “My sculptures have actually crept out of my reliefs and canvases, taking on a three-dimensional shape,” he said.

Last October, a bronze sculpture of Che Guevara by Yazigi sold for close to SYP 2m (USD 43,750) at Christie’s Auction House in Dubai. Indeed, Yazigi is increasingly being sought out by savvy art collectors with all of the artist’s works surpassing their pre-sale estimates at international auction houses and art fairs.

Life wasn’t always so easy. Yazigi tells me stories about 20 years of tiny studios, unaffordable tools and difficult exhibitions, the profits of which barely covered the price of the printed invites. “It’s always good to get a little more money, it gives me freedom to experiment with more materials and bigger sizes,” Yazigi said. “I couldn’t afford that in the past.”

Yet even as a struggling artist, Yazigi refused to take on any side jobs. Following his graduation from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus in 1988, he was determined to make a living solely from art. To do this, he worked with amazing discipline, six hours a day, seven days a week.

Yazigi explains that he paints on just about anything that falls into his hands, whether plates, cushions, curtains or scarves. “I want to break the traditional view of art as a sacred item that should be framed and hung on the wall,” he said, pointing admiringly to his small collection of 10th-century ceramics. “People used to live with art centuries ago. I want to retrieve this tradition.”

– This article was published in Syria Today magazine, 2009

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