Most artists would be over the moon if their work featured in renowned British collector Charles Saatchi’s collection. Not Zeina Assi. She was unaware of the fact that one of her works was in his possession until I mentioned it to her.
Assi works from a ground floor studio in Zalka, east of Beirut, but most of her work focuses on the capital and its urban chaos replete with crammed buildings, electricity wires and laundry on balconies. Each floor of each building in the city tells a different story and this is what Assi attempts to portray. Beirut evolves rapidly, inspiring Assi to continuously adapt her work. Tall structures replace older buildings; whilst the city’s demographics are changing too as it is becomes less accessible to some Beirutis who find themselves compelled to reside in the more affordable suburbs. Her paintings are often a reflection of how changing politics and economics impact the wider society — the key focus of her work.
Assi often shows the plight of the common man and woman. They are not portrayed as happy, nor sad; not as heroes, nor villains. For Assi, happiness is just a moment in time and she has no interest in portraying cheerful faces. Instead she is drawn to the silence around the person and their thoughts.
One such painting that encapsulates this inclination — “Ya Beirut Ya Set A-Douniah” (Oh Beirut, Oh Lady of the Universe) — sold for $75,000 at Christies’ Middle East auction house in Dubai in April this year. A stellar result, but one that Assi does not want to focus on. “I left the advertising industry to be on my little cloud and they push you down back to the real world. You have to learn how to draw the line to keep the little cocoon,” she says. Her pieces have adorned the walls of galleries and fairs in cities including Beirut, Dubai, Manama, Paris, London and Miami.
Assi says she does not intend her work to have a clear message. Rather than begin with a defined agenda, she looks around and observes how people are behaving to portray them on her canvases. Her work is a reflection of what is happening around her. So it is only natural for her to explore the Syrian crisis. In her “Bug soldiers” series Assi ruminates on the destruction and futility of war, portraying fighters as mutated insects, deriving strength merely from their power in numbers.
She says she is not with or against the Syrian government; she is merely portraying what she perceives from the ongoing turmoil. “I hate it [when people say] ‘She is with the [Syrian] people against the government,’ or ‘with the government against the people.’ It’s not that.”
Assi was a late bloomer in the art world, having explored a career in the advertising industry before deciding to focus all her energy on art. With no technical artistic education and no mentor guiding her, she taught herself different styles — from impressionism to abstract — to train her hand, eventually developing the identity that can now be seen on her canvases. Her work is reminiscent of that of Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, a source of inspiration for her. But she stresses that her inspiration comes from several sources — from painters such as Schiele to illustrators such as the French Jean-Jacques Sempé to animators like the American Tim Burton.
Assi is currently focusing on a sculptural depiction of Beirut made up of small cubes laid one over the other in addition to a complementary set of paintings portraying the Lebanese capital’s often chaotic city-scape.
As she looks to illustrate what is happening around her she finds it essential to include elements that are part of her everyday life; from the logos of Facebook, Starbucks and Marlboro to smartphone emoticons.
Looking forward, Assi plans to continue exploring new ideas and artistic means. Animation movies excite her, to the point she says she would even consider quitting painting altogether to focus on animation within the next five years.
“Work, work, work.” That is Assi’s motto and her advice to young artists looking to succeed. “You know what they say, ‘Inspiration does exist but when it comes knocking, it should find you working.’” As she accompanies me to the door of her studio, she rolls up her sleeves before promptly turning and heading back to her craft.