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Arabs in a pickle jar

Syrian artist Houmam’s work resonates in Beirut

by Maya Sioufi

To make pickles, you need to tightly pack cucumbers into a jar, pour in vinegar, add salt and wait for the acid to sink in. Syrian artist Houmam Al Sayed believes Arabs are now being crushed like those cucumbers and the final outcome will taste like nothing but bitterness. That’s the theme he explores in “Pickles”, his current solo exhibition at Beirut’s Mark Hachem Gallery.

Over several large canvases with deformed characters, from shorter legs — representing the inability to move — to shorter arms — symbolizing ineptitude to put them to good use, 33 year old Houmam portrays the handicapped Arab. On one of the largest canvases, the figures have a belt wrapped around their hands, legs or mouth, symbolizing the government hindering people from seeing or speaking freely. “In Syria, we have been wrapped like that for over 50 years,” he says.

Another canvas depicts military boots on the heads of the characters, inspired by an Egyptian demonstration in favor of current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during which a man placed an army boot on his son’s head. “In our region, it is either the [Muslim] Brotherhood or the military. There is no right solution; there is no democracy,” Houmam says.

Wrapped for Burial

[/media-credit] Wrapped for burial

From Damascus to Beirut

As unrest hit his hometown of Damascus — where he had lived all his life, holding his first exhibition at the age of 18 — it became harder for Houmam to pursue his artistic passion. Galleries closed down and industrial areas were damaged. He had no choice but to leave Syria, and he believes he won’t be able to return for at least another seven years.

Not too long after his move in early 2012, Houmam held his first Beirut exhibition at the Mark Hachem Gallery, introducing himself to the Lebanese public. It was a success, with all the pieces snatched up. They weren’t cheap, either: a two-meter by two-meter canvas had a price tag of approximately $15,000. Since then, heightened demand for his art has enabled him to increase his prices by approximately 50 percent.

Houmam was pleased with the Lebanese public’s understanding of and appreciation for art, something he says the Syrian population was starting to develop a few years prior to the turmoil, as the Ministry of Culture’s grip on the art scene started to loosen and new galleries, such as Ayyam and Tajalliyat, set up shop.

“The Lebanese public has understood art for a long time; they can tell good art from bad art. This makes it easy and hard at the same time,” he says, before adding that this level of appreciation is the greatest benefit of moving to Lebanon. As for the difficulties of being an artist, one of the most significant is the language barrier. After exhibiting his art in Paris in early 2013 and with talks of a show in New York in the not so distant future, Houmam has started taking English lessons to overcome this challenge.

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Dreaming big

Houmam’s ultimate dream is not to have more of his pieces auctioned off at Christie’s and Sotheby’s — they have already put some of his art under the hammer, selling them for above their estimated price — but to have his paintings hung on the walls of renowned museums. Until then, Houmam will continue depicting that pressured Arab character, the subject of his favorite piece adorning the center of the “Pickles” exhibition. Work on this particular sculpture started in Paris and was completed in Beirut, as producing such a large piece would not have been technically possible in Syria. Houmam’s attachment to it seems to be more than just about its technicality, though. It contains his trademark: the deformed character with a lobotomized brain, alluding to the Arabs’ prohibited thoughts.

“Pickles” will be on exhibition at Beirut’s Mark Hachem gallery until June 30.

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Maya Sioufi

Maya is a research consultant on Arab youth entrepreneurship and employment. She headed Executive's banking, finance and entrepreneurship sections from 2011 to 2013. Previously, she worked at JP Morgan in London in equity sales for three years. She holds an MSc in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics (LSE) and a BA in Economics from the American University of Beirut (AUB).   

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