Thaier Helal captures war-torn Syria’s hope and sadness on canvas

Syrian artist Thaier Helal is in despair about years of war in his home country, it is reflected in his most recent solo show.
Thaier Helal. Courtesy Thaier Helal and Ayyam Gallery
Thaier Helal. Courtesy Thaier Helal and Ayyam Gallery

After more than three years of bloody conflict in Syria, Thaier Helal, by his own admission, does not know what to do. He says this many times during our interview at Ayyam Gallery, Dubai International Financial Centre, each time hanging his head.

The pain inside him is almost palpable but his solo show at the gallery features paintings combining this despair with hope.

The neo-expressionist landscapes are from two of his most recent series, River and Mountain, and show a return to abstraction after years of working with appropriated imagery and found objects that directly relate to the conflict in Syria.

“I feel like after years of war, I prefer to paint the water and the rocks,” he says. “It says many things and holds many stories.”

The rocks he paints are from his birth town of Maaloula – ­located 56 kilometres to the northeast of Damascus and built into the rugged mountainside at an altitude of more than 1,500 metres. It is an ancient Christian town whose monastery was destroyed earlier this year, and from where rebels have driven out many inhabitants. The traces of red paint that snake through the muted palette of Helal’s works from this series are perhaps a recognition of the blood that was spilt on the mountains of his homeland. They might even be a symbol of strength; the enduring power of nature over anything man-made.

“I like to leave it open for interpretation,” says Helal. “Nature has the most power – in the end it is that which will remain, not the war.”

After graduating from the faculty of fine arts at Damascus University, Helal relocated to Sharjah in the 1990s, where he currently lives and works a professor at the Fine Arts College. He has built his practice around the repetitive presence of objects or images, which reference Islamic geometry and a fascination with patterns.

In his latest show, this rhythm is apparent in some of the works, but is noticeably absent from many others.

Did Helal purposely depart from his previous techniques?

“I cannot say I left my old technique of painting, I have left everything in these last years, my family, my home, everything is out of control in Syria, everything is destroyed, even the spirit of people. I feel the pattern inside the rocks and the water but nothing is the same anymore.”

The river he paints is the Al Assi or the Orontes, which is the only river in the region flowing a northern direction. It has inspired generations of poets and artists and Helal paints it with great love and optimism.

“Maybe there is hope here,” he says. “We are looking wherever we can for a good future for us and for our children.”

Natural elements such as charcoal, shells and leaves are used in several works, painted over but visible if you get close enough. They too suggest hope or at least the presence of life.

“It was a big challenge for me to get both hope and sadness into one canvas,” he says. “Sometimes I put a lot of colour and then ­removed it because it didn’t feel right.

“I want to show these two ­different meanings but it takes a lot of work to fuse the two ideas. It took one year to do these 10 pieces, but it has taken all my life to get to the point where I can put these ideas together on one ­canvas.”

Landmarks by Thaier Helal runs until January 10 at Ayyam Gallery, DIFC.

Published: December 2, 2014 04:00 AM


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