Why Lebanese artist Chafa Ghaddar is focused on frescoes: 'They give me goosebumps'

The artist deconstructs the Renaissance technique in her show at Tashkeel

Artist Chafa Ghaddar. Photo John Marsland
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Chafa Ghaddar, a Lebanese artist who lives in Dubai with her husband and baby, has an unlikely passion: frescoes.

“They give me goosebumps,” she says, effusively.

Fresco paintings are those in which paint is applied directly to the wall, rather than a canvas, while the plaster on the wall is still wet. (The name of the process comes from Italian for "fresh.") They are best known from the Renaissance in Italy – Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, where Adam is reaching out his hand towards God is made in fresco.

The style is found throughout the world across time periods, in depictions of the Buddha in Indian caves, in Byzantine icons throughout the Mediterranean region and in the revolutionary paintings of the Mexican muralists of the early 20th century.

Ghaddar’s interest in the technique starts with the near magic of its chemical process – that, as she puts it, “colour is only activated and stabilised through water”. The application of the pigment on the wet plaster causes a chemical reaction, and when the mortar dries, the pigment is locked inside the surface. The resulting paintings are extremely durable: the colours and lines of fresco painting are still vivid hundreds of years after they were first laid down.

Paper overlaid with pigments and frescoes on wood, pictured in preparation for 'Recesses'. Courtesy Tashkeel

Although fresco remains known mostly as a Renaissance technique, Ghaddar says, “if you go back to the origins, this idea of stabilising natural colour pigments on the wall can go back to the very first human being – they are the first gestures”.

Ghaddar was introduced to the form while working on commercial decoration projects after graduating from the Academie Libanaise des Beaux Arts in Beirut in 2009. While painting motifs in private houses, restaurants and bars, she grew fascinated by working with layers of material on walls. She travelled to Florence to learn the classics of the fresco technique, and returned to Beirut to adapt it to contemporary forms.

I'm infused with love and passion and respect for this technique. But at the same time, I have the complete freedom to trick it, to play with it, to problematise it and to criticise it – because for me, it's a field

Now, in a solo show, Recesses, to be exhibited at Tashkeel in Dubai from Tuesday, September 22 until October, she will dissect the elements of the practice in a series of sculptures, as well as a sound work and video, zeroing in on the particular temporality and processes of fresco making.

“There is a certain way of doing it, especially if you are following it by the rule of the Italian schools,” she says.

“Here, for the first time, I’m trying to experience fresco, but also talk about it, distancing a little bit from the chemistry as we know it classically. How can you talk about sand, pavement, desired colour, flesh, skin, ruin and the agency of materials, without having to be literally bonded to the material itself?

“I’m infused with love and passion and respect for this technique. But at the same time, I have the complete freedom to trick it, to play with it, to problematise it and to criticise it – because for me, it’s a field. It’s not about the need to create a correct fresco, but it’s something that evokes emotions and ideas and questions.”

Recesses begins by imagining frescoes if they were taken down from the wall. Ghaddar will show seven canvas works, for which she has performed the fresco technique on layers of fabric, laying down plaster, pigment, acrylic paint and varnish – typical materials for her murals – day by day. The works appear almost as sculptural objects, weighed down by the materials and labour she expends on them.

A detail of Chafa Ghaddar's mixed-media work Reposed, 2020, part of her solo exhibition in Dubai. Courtesy Tashkeel

The rhythm of her work also refers to another key aspect of frescoes: the giornata, Italian for "a day's work". Because frescoes have to be made while the plaster is still wet, artists work in temporal blocks to accomplish the whole scene, plotting it out in chunks that can be accomplished within a day's work.

Ghaddar demonstrates this concept by including different areas of colour, patterns or textures on the canvas, so that each day is visually separate. One day, the blue pigment is applied in light washes, with the beige of the canvas barely tinted by the deep-blue colour. In another segment, it feels saturated, as if Ghaddar dipped the cloth in blue pigment and let it sit there overnight.

The long historical heritage of the fresco is made possible by the art form's durability. The decisions made in the first hours of a painting's application can have consequences that outlast the human lifespan. When Ghaddar says she "tricks" the technique, she means it literally – at times she applies pigment to the wall secco or when the plaster is dry – a ruse, she says, also used by Renaissance artists. "Sometimes, the artists would trick their commissioners – you know, they would lie," she explains.

Chafa Ghaddar's untitled 2020 work, part of 'Recesses' at Tashkeel. Courtesy Tashkeel

“It’s only now with contemporary research that we are able to know which painting was a fresco and which was a secco.

“It depends on how fast you are working because the faster you work, the more humidity there is, and the more the layers bind to each other and guarantee a strong and a good chemical reaction.

“If one of your layers dries, maybe the next one will not sit properly – and so maybe it will fall in the next 400 years instead of falling after 1,000 years.”

Environmental conditions play a large role in a fresco’s durability. When Ghaddar moved to Dubai four years ago, she had to create her materials anew.

“It was a complete failure,” she says of the first fresco she attempted in the UAE. The pigment would not stick to the wood, which she was using as a base, and the entire painting fell off.

Unlike in Italy or other western countries, she says, few places in the Middle East sell fresco materials ready-made, as the tradition has not been as strong in the region.

In Beirut, she made her own base and plaster with the help of a local chemist. But the materials did not hold up in Dubai, because of the different heat and humidity levels, and so she had to start from scratch.

A selection of the works made from this new composition are on display as part Recesses. The Tashkeel show is the result of another process, too: the Critical Practice Programme, the equivalent of a master's programme at the art space that Ghaddar attended over the past two years.

She worked with two mentors, writer Kevin Jones and artist Jill Magi, who teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi, to refine her ideas, which culminated in the solo exhibition.

“With their help, I was able to really shift my ideas around materiality and my fascination with surfaces,” she says. “I brought it further into a body of work that challenges frescoes, and is a little more gritty and questions things a bit more.” 

Chafa Ghaddar’s Recesses is at Tashkeel, Dubai, from Tuesday, September 22 to Friday, October 25