Damascus December 2008

Damascus December 2008 with Syrian artist Hadi Toron

Parts of Damascus, known as Al Sham (the north) to its inhabitants, have changed drastically in Hadi Toron’s 40 years absence. The massive population growth that occurred has transformed the physiognomy of Damascus from an unhurried place to a frenetic, spread out metropolis. Yet, some areas have remained largely untouched by modern life. This is particularly discernible in Old Damascus where commerce, socialising and worship are energetically conducted in the same way it has been for centuries. Dimashq, as it is pronounced in Arabic, is where civilisation has unfolded for more than three thousand years, with each new civilisation leaving traces of its passage solidly anchored in the fabric of the city and its society.

This aspect of Old Damascus features prominently in Hadi’s series “Villages”. In one of his earlier paintings “The Armenian Quarter”, one gets a sense of the antiquity of the old town. Over the years, the imagery in this series morphed from representational oil paintings and watercolors of street sceneries to more abstract acrylic interpretations. Instead of transcribing what is visible to the eye, he lets his imagination decipher the layers of past and present cultures and unfurls on his canvases a personal visual chronicle of the rich history of Damascus. “Colored Walls” and “7 Doors to the Soul” are illustrations of this evolution.

While I discover Hadi’s birth place, it is intriguing to see him re-discovering it. When Hadi moved to the United States in the early 70s, he left behind the city he loved, a place that had shaped his artistic voice in profound ways. But, as it is in life, he had come back here intermittently and only for brief visits. This trip is different; we are staying for a month and Hadi came here with the intention of discovering his hometown again, and rekindling lost friendships. Particularly he wishes to find his classmate, Abdullah Murad and his teacher Elias Zayat.

Many of the artists with whom he studied at the Fine Arts Academy at the University of Damascus have moved west; some are no longer alive. Abdullah Murad though is here (his dealer at the Ayyam Gallery has given us a studio address in the old Jewish Quarter) and Elias Zayat is now the dean of the Fine Arts Academy.

Within a few days of our arrival, we find our new pace, our Damascene pace. Socialising in Damascus takes place at night. In restaurants and coffee shops groups of friends and family gather around a meal and sheesha pipes. And for us, joining in soon becomes a nightly adventure. From modern venues such as Sanabel and Gemini to venues that are located in the cave of ancient restored dwellings such as Al Masri and Old Town, we experience each day this uniquely Damascene ambiance: old world charm and sophistication.

One afternoon we go in search of Abdullah Murad’s studio in the old Jewish Quarter. Like the Armenian Quarter, it is located in the northern part of the old town. This is the area where years ago Hadi spent long days drawing and painting not only the architectural intricacy of Old Damascus, but also its underlying ancestry, its deeply rooted past. And today, as we wander in search of an address, his senses take in what were for him familiar surroundings with a new eye, sharpened by decades of experience and exposure to other lands, other cultures. Many impressions that he will draw upon later when he continues his “Villages” series.

We find Murad’s studio tucked inside a narrow alley, a plain whitewashed house that is in stark contrast with the colorful art inside. Forty years must have passed since they last saw each other and at first Hadi does not recognise the jovial bespectacled man who opens the door. For a brief moment, they take in each other’s new, older look, and then, they hug.

In the studio large canvases blossom with intertwined designs of hieroglyphs, signs, symbols, figures, calligraphy, and myriads of metaphorical expressions drawn in brilliant colors. Abdullah Murad abstracts feel like sophisticated modern tapestries. Much of the work I have seen in Syria is dark and sometimes, foreboding. But the work of Murad, much like that of Hadi’s, is joyful and full of optimism. When they were classmates they studied under some of the most influential painters of the modernism art movement in Syria; artists such as Fateh Moudares, Nasser Chaura, Louay Kayyali, and Elias Zayat. Of them, only Elias Zayat is alive and when, a few days later, we visit his studio we find him preparing a major retrospective that will take place in Dubai.

Professor Zayat is perhaps one of the great contemporary figurative painters of Syria. His studio, located in the Christian Quarter “Qssa”, is a maze of small rooms, and in these rooms, a treasure. His work is at the same time exuberant and haunting. On canvases, intertwined figures float purposefully while the recurring images of faces some saintly, some tortured recall Elias Zayat‘s other endeavor: conservationist and restorer of orthodox icons. As he leafs through a book of Hadi’s work he reminisces about what he says was the golden age of the Fine Arts Academy. The 60’s he recalls was a time of highly creative energy. With a highly committed faculty; a student body that was carefully selected; and a curriculum that departed from the traditional calligraphic and representational work to incite more personal artistic expressions, students such as Hadi Toron and Abdullah Murad were taught to innovate and later became established artists in Syria and abroad.

Our month in Syria ends too soon, yet Hadi is anxious to be back to the studio. His mind is full of ideas for the “Villages” series. These new abstract interpretations will be part of a solo exhibition in Damascus in the fall of 09.

Written by Marie-Christine X.

Syrian Artist Hadi Thoron’s Biography (http://haditoron.com/index.php)

Born in Damascus, Syria in 1945, Hadi Toron’s life work spans four decades on three continents. Toron’s need for self-expression began as a child, and was sharpened at the University of Damascus where he studied painting under Fateh Al Moudarres, Elias Zayat, and Louay Kayyali, leaders of the modern art movement in Syria. Toron graduated in 1970 with a degree in Fine Arts and a degree in Law. Toron’s fine arts graduation thesis, a series of paintings inspired by the architecture of Damascus, laid the groundwork for a lifelong exploration of people, their cultures, and their surroundings.

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