During my visit to Mohannad Orabi’s studio ahead of his exhibition Family Portrait in Ayyam’s Dubai International Financial Centre gallery, he spends a good part of the time talking about his wife and their 4-year-old daughter.
A glance at the walls explains why. At the beginning of his career, in 2005, Orabi’s work exclusively featured a single figure – a solitary and wide-eyed character, childlike in quality – that was representative of the general childhood experience.
In 2011, when his daughter was born, his entire outlook changed and more characters made their way into his emotion-filled canvases. However, that time had great significance in other ways for the Syrian artist. His eyes grow heavy when he remembers the “year of shock” and the start of the civil war.
“It was the year that everything changed,” he says. “Suddenly we were surrounded by a lot of violence and blood. We felt sadness, stress, fear, disappointment and confusion. We were really worried about the future and no longer felt safe in the present.
“When I looked at my daughter and heard the sound of war outside, the characters in my paintings were not my story anymore but those of the people around me.”
Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Orabi moved his family from Damascus to Cairo and shifted the focus of his paintings from portraits describing familial bonds. Displaced from Syria and separated from his family and friends, Orabi relied on social media for contact with those back home, and so the images in his work became symbolic of profile pictures, the informal archive of images that he was surrounded by.
“I began to build up a relationship between myself and the profile pictures of other people on Facebook,” he says. “It wasn’t the real person but their image that showed me how they were feeling.”
Since moving to Dubai in 2013, he has been working on paintings from a studio adjacent to Ayyam’s flagship location in Alserkal Avenue. From there, he has produced his upcoming exhibition, Family Portrait, which represents his current situation by combining the symbolic nature of an image with the black-and-white format of old family photographs.
“The most important thing for me is to be honest with my paintings,” he says. As a result, the 11 pieces that will be exhibited are extremely strong pieces of work.
In one – which, as with all his work, is untitled – a woman and four children stare from the canvas with deep, black eyes that seem to be crying. The first thing that you notice is the white border, which simultaneously keeps the family together and separates them from the viewer.
Each person’s clothing has been painted using different patterns and textures, and underneath the black, white and grey finish of the works, remnants of layers of colours that have been painted over show themselves. This effect, Orabi says, was inspired by looking at his reflection in water.
In another painting, a woman with long hair or a veil sits on a chair with her daughter perched on its arm. They have the same features as all of Orabi’s characters – blackened eyes, long, straight noses and expressionless mouths – but in this painting, the little girl is carrying a teddy bear who beams an almost banal smile from the centre of the image.
It is part of the artist’s talent that, despite keeping all his characters visually similar, they speak to the viewer – to choose to contrast their faces with something as simple as a teddy bear is both tragic and light-hearted.
It reminds me of the banality of war – and the overarching feelings of sorrow that emerge from his paintings seem to me to be a direct lamentation for those in his motherland.
“Yes,” he muses, as I suggest this. “But it is not just for Syrian people, it is about the suffering in all of our lives.
“I am simple man – I make colours and lines to express how I feel and the past few years have really been very hard for all of us. There is great sadness in my work but, somehow, there is still a light in their eyes.
“For me, that is hope. I have to believe that the light is not far away, that after night we have the morning – if not for our sake then for the next generation, so that my daughter can live in a world of peace.”
• Family Portrait runs from September 15 to October 30 at Ayyam Gallery, DIFC. For more information visit www.ayyamgallery.com