Ayman Baalbaki (b.1975) is a painter and installation artist from Odeisse. A graduate of Fine Arts at the Institut des Beaux-Arts in Beirut and the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, he continued to develop his academic framework by embarking on a P.H.D entitled ‘In Progress Art of Images and Contemporary Art’ at The University of Paris VIII, France in 2003. The artist currently lives and works in Beirut and is fast becoming one of the most promising emerging artists from the Middle East with acclaimed international solo shows and group exhibitions.
Art; as a form of expression and a reflection on life has established a compelling visual dialogue in representing social and political issues. The development of art and politics throughout history into the modern period has defined movements, supported ideologies and has aided artists to raise awareness on many social issues.
We have seen this powerful relationship spill over into the 21st century where the Arab region has become synonymous with politics and art as a reaction to this holds a powerful role. Egyptian street art, for example, became an explosive canvas for young visual and graffiti artists during the Arab Spring in 2010. Tahrir Square and the walls of Cairo became an iconic space where art and politics merged to form a voice on the socio politics of the conflict they were experiencing.
The Arab region battles with extremes of international opinion as people’s revolutions against occupation and corrupt regimes are stacked against the negative political impression of Islamic extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism. Terminology warped and morphed by media channels proves a difficult language to escape from.
The highly politicised reality that surrounds much of the Arab world has never been more apparent and thus creates an inevitable context and narrative for artists such as Baalbaki. Here is an artist who draws inspiration from the civil war in Lebanon during the 1970’s, a war that began in 1975 the year Baalbaki was born. The war lasted for 15 years ending in 1990, with approximately 120,000 fatalities, vast numbers of buildings destroyed and a national identity being split into various factions. In current times an estimated 76,000 people are still displaced in Lebanon with one million people leaving Lebanon as a result of the war.
Ayman Baalbaki is one of many contemporary artists who are creating a dialogue around their own personal political experiences, although Baalbaki gives an indication of wanting to express the ongoing geopolitics and unrest in the Middle East as a whole, he is intent on portraying local politics and the multi-faceted nature of the civil war. In doing so he has executed site specific work and exhibited installation pieces that convey these concepts, however he is first and foremost a painter. At #OCCUPYARABART we are focusing on the artist’s most recognisable series of works the large-scale expressionist portraits of Lebanese fighters. These fighters have their faces covered with keffiyeh, a traditional Middle Eastern headdress and are set within a frame of flowers.
The portraits are impactful, the anonymous men symbolise the endless conflict and battle in the Middle East, the negative image of an Arab fighter as a terrorist has been reclaimed and here the intense portraits become bright interpretations. Baalbaki chooses to paint the portraits in vivid colours in an expressionist style with fluid brush strokes freeing the concept of harsh violence into an expressive interpretation. The surrounding canvas is filled with contrasting imagery of flowers, juxtaposing the concept of violence with nature. Expected imagery of war and the pattern of the scarf merges into the surrounding flowers, morphing into nature, suggesting the intent and hope of peace and new beginnings. The title Al Maw’oud (The Promised) reinforces this concept. It is traditonally known that martyrs in Islam are promised a place in paradise, it could be seen that these fighters embedded in roses are the leaders in securing peace in their homeland.
The size of the works adds to the viewer’s experience, large scale at 300 x 200 cm the viewer is overhwelmed by the 3 metre high face. The dominating nature of these paintings portrays the overpowering nature of war. The figures fill the canvas; they are the sole element, forcing the viewer to come face to face with the human experience of living and fighting in a place of conflict. The eyes are the only visible part of the men, with an expression of resilience, intensity and defiance. This is not an image of violence this is a statement, the individuals are making a stance.
In another edition of the work Baalbaki frames the portrait in a multi panelled setting reminiscent of Italian renaissance paintings. Gold background surrounds the heads of the sitter, the martyrs becoming saint-like figures.
Ayman Baalbaki, “Ya’ilahi” (Dear Lord), 2008. Acrylic and gold leaf on panel w/brass frame and light bulbs, 211.5 x 126 x 8.2 cm
In Hossein Amirsadeghi’ s book New Vision; Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century, the artist speaks of his ethos and approach, “My work is linked to the socio-political and symbolic content of the local popular production. It is connected to the numerous troubles concerning the Middle East specifically. My art work keeps pace with the “journalistic” or “newspaper-like” approach and aesthetic research of a violent iconography, between realism and the deviation of that realistic speech, to create an alternative language/space without placing conceptual obstacles between the art and receiver.”
Drawing inspiration from the later 2006 Lebanon war, Baalbaki produced a series of paintings that depicted Beirut’s suburbs destroyed from the bombing.
The ruined tower blocks symbolise the destruction of modernity. Painted in the same style as the portraits, focusing on one central componant as to directly address the viewer, they however differ in their implications. They are in muted tones as opposed to the strong clash of colours, now suggesting the melancholic death of a community’s physical space and built environment. The brush strokes are fragmented and distorted; the rough surface now appears to relate to the initial act of destruction and shows what is lost as opposed to what can be gained. The subject of destruction and resistance became an intrinsic part of the artist’s work.
Although there are traces of traditional Western art styles this is a subject local to the artist himself and explore personal concerns. Interviewed in New Vision Baalbaki said that;
“Artistic domains are becoming more and more open, where art is less Eurocentric, and turning loose from the categorization of artistic schools and movements. I believe that my artwork could be identified using the contemporary artistic term “glocal”, since it engages with the local visual culture while employing a plastic global language.
Ayman Baalbaki is represented by Saleh Barakat’s Agial Art Gallery in Beirut, he has rising success in auction sales and in October 2009 an untitled painting was proposed for $15,000 – 20,000 and was sold for $74,500 in Dubai. In April 2011, Let A Thousand Flowers Bloom was proposed, also in Dubai, for $50.000 – $70.000 and was hammered for $206,500 and in April 2013, a new record was set as “Ya’ilahi” (Dear Lord) went to $377,000 at Sotheby’s.
As well as creating site-specific works in the Middle East and Europe Baalbaki has had solo exhibitions such as Beirut Again and Again, Rose Issa Projects, London, 2011. The artist has also appeared in numerous international group exhibitions, to name a few; Arabicity, Bluecoat Arts Center, Liverpool and Beirut Exhibition Center, 2010. Nujoom: Constellations of Arab art, The Farjam Collection at Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai, 2010. The Future of a Promise, 54th Venice Biennale, 2012 and Art is the answer! Contemporary Lebanese artists and designers, Villa Empain, Brussels, 2012.
#OCCUPYARABART looks forward to future exhibitions of Ayman Baalbaki’s striking artwork.