Pictures from a happy past
Baseem Rayyes has been living in the UAE for more than eight years but he still misses his home in the old quarter of Damascus very much. In his latest exhibition, On the Wall, the Syrian artist dwells on memories of his childhood.
His paintings tell stories about daily life in his home and neighbourhood and about the people and events that have left their imprint on his mind.
Although they are deeply personal, the nostalgic images and tales about the ups and downs in the lives of ordinary people have a universal resonance.
The paintings are simple and direct. Rayyes has recreated a relaxed, tranquil world where men and women dressed in simple, traditional clothes go about their daily tasks and children play with abandon. Trees, birds, donkeys, cows and sheep fit harmoniously in this world.
"I like to use a palette of ochres, browns and blues because those are the colours of the Sun, the Earth, the sky and the oceans and thus the colours of life itself. I grew up in the midst of nature.
"As a child I climbed trees, chased birds and the animals around our house were my friends. But in big modern cities there is no longer any connection between humans and nature. You have to go to the zoo to see animals and children spend most of their time playing computer games in a virtual world," he says.
Rayyes's nostalgia for the good old days and his reservations about modern society are expressed in various ways such as the deliberate use of curved lines and arches in his compositions and depiction of characters such as a man who specialised in grinding coffee.
"You would not find any straight lines in the old houses and no two rooms or homes were alike. But modern skyscrapers have sharp straight lines and identical apartments. As for this man grinding coffee beans the old fashioned way, I remember how much time and effort the process took and the wonderful aroma in the house as he worked. But today we just get our coffee from the supermarket. I really miss that human touch," says Rayyes.
Playing with various media
The artist has experimented with various media such as oils, watercolours, charcoal and ink and has created a variety of textures using cardboard and paper cutouts. In keeping with the title of the exhibition, the paintings look like hazy images etched on a wall.
"Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world and the walls there have been silent witnesses to so much. People have come and gone but the walls still stand. Stored within them are the stories of so many lives.
"Within each of us exists such a wall bearing lots of memories. I just scratched the surface of the wall and from every layer emerged thousands of memories — memories of the images, sounds and smells of my childhood and stories about life that most people can identify with," says Rayyes.
His stories depict every flavour of life. Images of children running around the house, playing with a ball, doing somersaults or riding their bicycles, capture happy, carefree moments of his childhood.
On the other hand, the portrait Father and Child speaks about the loss of his father and his mother's fortitude as a single parent.
The artist also recalls moments such as those faced by a neighbour who had to deal with the mixed emotions of welcoming a newborn into the family on the same day that he lost an older child to sickness.
Rayyes often uses symbols to express himself. A tortoise with a half-eaten apple on its back signifies his country, which is as old as time and moves forward slowly but steadily. And he uses a fish as a symbol of renewal and recurrence, representing the fact that the drama of life is played over and over again from one generation to the next beside the wall.
The fish also appears in another painting, which tells the story of a child falling down from the balcony of an apartment in Sharjah. "I was close by when this incident happened and it made a deep impact on me. But what is really painful is that such incidents keeping happening again and again," says Rayyes.
The earlier paintings in this series depict several stories on each canvas. But in his later works Rayyes has focused on individual stories leading to more intense paintings featuring just one or two characters.
"Despite the many means of communication available today people are quite lonely. Sometimes even when two people are together they can still be lonely.
"In the earlier paintings I looked at people and their lives from outside. Now I want to go inside. I wanted to go deep into the hearts and minds of my characters, explore their emotions, experience their world and understand them better," he says.
A different talent
In fact, his desire to know and define his characters and their stories better has led Rayyes to become a writer and he has recently won the Sharjah Arabian Creativity Award 2010 for his short stories.
But he is still searching for more avenues to express himself. "When I am painting I sometimes feel that the canvas is not enough. I want my characters to talk, to run, to fight. Hence I now want to direct a film to tell my stories," he says. "But whatever the medium of expression, my work is essentially about life. It speaks about the lessons life teaches us and how we must erase what we do not want to see and try to seize in their truest colours the moments we wish to remember. Through my little stories I want to tell people to embrace life wholeheartedly."
Jyoti Kalsi is a UAE-based art enthusiast.