Khaled Akil on his first solo exhibition in the UAE, which took two years to complete

Syrian photographer's first foray into painting yields mesmerising results

Powered by automated translation

Everything is connected. Molecules and micro-life, stars and planets, all of them exist separately but together, simultaneously and at random.

In a body of work by Syrian artist Khaled Akil, this idea, both simple and complex, hums through blazing gradients of colour and layers upon layers of paint.

“When you look at where you are in the universe, it's always within the boundaries of your thoughts and consciousness, we can't get beyond that,” Akil tells The National.

“You can get to the universe itself but then you still ask what's outside? What's outside and inside is borders. We're bounded by that. You can't really comprehend that the concept of no boundaries is infinite.”

For his first solo exhibition in the UAE, Akil presents 20 paintings of various sizes at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue in Dubai. He spent almost two years creating this body of work, his first foray into painting.

A multimedia artist who is primarily known as a photographer, Akil is the son of the prominent Syrian painter Youssef Akil. In part, Akil says, he was reluctant to try his hand at painting because of his father.

“To me, my father is a master,” he says. “When I was a kid, I thought I'm not going to paint because no matter what I do, people will say your dad is doing better and if I do well they will say like you're influenced by your dad.”

Akil found his initial voice through photography. In 2016, his series Pokemon Go in Syria went viral. Using poignant images of children in the demolished streets of Syria, captured by AFP photographers, Akil digitally inserted Pokémon figures from the popular game Pokémon Go. The effect is powerful – a sad reminder of lost childhood and joy for many children of war.

Akil’s decision to start painting was an accumulation of life experiences. From war, leaving Syria, to the changing nature of personal relationships, he felt that photography was not helping him understand or express those experiences in a satisfying fashion.

“The medium, my ego, my identity, what I knew about myself was not serving me well,” he says. “There was so much data in me, about who I am, what I want to be in life and what I wish, that it was getting so noisy.”

Akil turned to the canvas and started painting, experimenting specifically with oils. A complex medium and one Akil wasn’t familiar with.

However, he dedicated himself to the experimentation process, painting in natural light from sunrise to sunset, learning the capabilities of the medium until he formed his own unique technique and visual language.

Akil’s process requires a balance of both the conscious and the unconscious, the decision making part of the mind fused with something organic and free flowing. “My plan is not to have a plan, my plan is to lose control,” he says. “Like my dad says, the true artist is the one who knows when to stop.”

Like my dad says, the true artist is the one who knows when to stop
Khaled Akil

Akil allows the paint to react on the canvas following his instincts with colour choice but then consciously deciding which parts of the canvas to highlight or disguise. It’s no easy feat balancing these two methods of working and knowing when to stop.

“How do I know when to stop? It's a feeling when you look at it … like the work is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. That's the minute I say to myself – OK, stop,” he says.

His sole exhibition, titled The Infinite & The Finite, is cohesive, but individually, regardless of size or colour, each painting carries a sense of intimacy and infinity that the viewer senses both instinctually and, should they choose, on a more conscious level.

It’s a sense that Akil himself can experience not only while he is creating the work, but at some point, objectively as a viewer.

“There is no me after a while, that’s when I'm really done,” he says. “I appreciate it and love it in the same way someone else connects with it. I see the beauty in it. I become an observer. I believe once an artist finishes the work, they become one with the viewer.”

His exhibition has paintings of concepts of which there are no accurate words to describe. At first, the viewer gravitates to the works with a magnetic impulse to simply take them in – it’s not about observing the paintings but experiencing them.

Clouds of various formations, gargantuan and overpowering, distant and formless, tower, evaporate and float by. From luscious pinks to antique ochres and brilliant blues, colour moves through, over and behind these clouds.

This glowing, sheen-like effect creates subtle hues of light which move over the surface of the work and through the depth of space. Minuscule erosion marks of the paint, an effect from the mixed colours, create microorganism-like shapes which are magnified over the clouds and somehow immersed within them.

It’s a calming and mind-boggling experience. Each painting is a window into a passage of time without beginning or end – an infinite space that we recognise but don’t understand.

“The questions of infinity has been there, since Pythagoras, since the Greeks until today,” Akil says. “You can find this in mathematics, in philosophy but really there's no answer about what infinity is.”

Even across his other photography and collage works such as Legend of Death 4 (2013) and I Stopped, I Saw (2017) the concepts, questions and themes Akil explores remain constant. What is the bigger picture? What are we doing? What is this universe?

Akil’s paintings answer these questions through our experience of them. The answer, ultimately, is that there is no answer.

Khaled Akil's solo exhibition, The Infinite & The Finite, runs until June 25 at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue.

Updated: May 04, 2024, 9:30 AM