Syrian artist Baseem Rayyes:
How many Guernicas do we need for all this killing?
Faten Hamdi, Nizwa Magazine
Art has always been one of the greatest tools of expression, and one of the condemnations through its presenting of war and mass massacres. Who does not remember Spanish artist Picasso's Guernica, and who does not connect the works of Goya with Spanish history as an important part of contemporary art history?
Speaking of Commitment Art takes us to the Mural of Palestinian artist Mustafa al-Hallaj, Syrian artist Yousef Abdilki trilogy of "Black September" and many other works which make art as a commitment perspective toward the issues of love and humanity. The thing which drives us to Syrian artist Baseem Rayyes's artistic project of (Fourteen Syrian Mural) in which he seeks to make martyrs as icons of revolution which document and condemn violence and talk to consciences in order to see the blood scene on the streets of Syrian cities.
The question remains, can artistic works document the important historical events, and to what extent do art form an assisting attitude in the battle of Syrian young in the spring of revolutions entitled by freedom and dignity?
Facing this scene, Syrian artist Baseem Rayyes, with his awake conscience and the message of love which covers both his artistic and literal works, could not but to participate in showing sides of the terror occupying the time and the period through his project (The Mural), so he has considered the martyr as his subject of paintings after killing has become a daily scene, the thing which drove him to write on his facebbok profile page, "May their memory be immortal, our martyrs."
Facing this accelerating of events in the Syrian reality every day for more than six months, where what is said today cannot be applied tomorrow because feeling differs in documenting the moment since direct documenting adds the feeling value of the work; the martyr's image in these events has always been a shock for the world, since he fights with bare hands and chest challenging by his word "freedom", and passes away after he writes his attitude toward life. Rayyes says, "in front of this scene, where martyrs have become over two thousand, I had to turn my initiative (A Painting for Every Martyr), which I launched after the death of the first martyr in Daraa, into a project entitled (The fourteen Syrian Mural), in which I do not aim to reproduce the visible, but to make it visible to the whole world within a colored panorama which condemns Human violence."
"The increase in martyrs' numbers have put us in front of a real problem," Rayyes adds, "then the idea of the mural crossed my mind; the case which documents the expression dimension and immortalizes the moment with its feelings, pain and disappointments, with its happiness, blood, songs and children," emphasizing that this mural is a human artistic mission.
Rayyes's focusing on dealing with the idea of martyrs seem so clear, since "the martyr' represents the role model of a person who gives without expecting to be rewarded; a person who abandons everything he owns: his body, soul, future, past, dreams and ambitions. Rayyes says, "in front of this moment we have to stop in order to see the things he thinks about", pointing that his previous initiative (A Painting for Every Martyr) "seeks to document the moment of martyr's sticking to his shadow before saying his last word and passes away."
"Holy Friday Martyrs" painting cost him a lot of time and pain. "I was crying while drawing, so the painting resulted with pain," he says, pointing that the first martyr he drew was Akram Jawabra, "then the number of martyrs increased, so "martyr" becomes a word which forces us to get into its real meaning."
With the rising of martyrs' number and the widening of blood scene which implies the legend of Syrian people, so that the number thousand (alf), with its three letters, caused a state which looks like horror, the thing which reflects the difficulty of keeping on with this huge number of martyrs so that the initiative needed a teamwork that follows names' details of the cities martyrs.
"When you try to count to thousand, you will get tired and stop to catch your breath when you get to the number 200; so, what about martyrs' number which become close to three thousand. How can, in front of this scene, sum up a thousand dream, ambition, love, disappointment, mother and orphan who were killed with one bullet," he says, "that is why, we had to participate with anything because the martyr is a message which carries history and implies hope, so I go on, with my brush and pen, to stand in front of every martyr whom I consider an icon which stays forever in our history, so this mural will be one of the participations to document the moment, pursuit and express it spontaneously away from any previous preparation."
He explains the idea of dividing the mural into fourteen paintings by saying, "I wanted to get in the timeline of events; the first call may be in Damascus, but the first martyr was in Daraa. In Daraa, the intifada turned into a bloody state. From here I will begin, then I will shift to fourteen Syrian cities chronologically. I may document the martyrs' names since this mural seeks to sum up the daily scene in a spontaneous artistic dimension which is drawn by the chronology of events. So. I follow the moment; I build before expressing with lines and colors making collage one of the expression tools away from seeing the whole image of the work, the thing which makes it easy for me to launch and go on with my work.
Philosophy of Time
In his return to the relationship between the artist and time, and the horizons of childhood, Baseem Rayyes focuses on griping what was left from time which most of it has been wasted under the pressure of necessity, "my working in several careers since I was a child to help myself during studying after my father died and I became an orphan, made me take a decision that time is as important as consciousness and the projects; wasting of it made me discover that time is the most important thing we own because of its changing and ambivalence, so I found myself as a football player who is restrained by a specific timeline; in the last two minutes of the game, the player feels that he has to give his best in order to achieve his goal."
Time of Globalization
He believes that geography has vanished in our contemporary time due to technology, "since we are communicating, at the same moment, with different places while sitting in our rooms; that is why we need bigger number of fingers. So, I have to be a machine in order to establish an artistic experiment, and be able to fulfill it within specific circumstances and a strategy of institutions to break the freezing time and exploit it perfectly."
He adds that yesterday is inherited, while the documenting of the moment means that you must live it for the sake of future, so that art becomes one of expression tools in an accelerating time.
"In six months we witnessed revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria while the French Revolution took ten years. That is why I feel that my relationship with time drives me to construct artistic experiments and not just paintings creating something of myself which parallels a whole institution."
Place and the Techniques of the Painting
The other relationship which is facing time is definitely the relationship with place, and the extent of its effect on shaping the painting. Rayyes asserts that he faces a real problem with place especially with the mural and the way of achieving it. "My need for spaces and high ceilings, since the high temperature in Emirates summer forbids me from drawing in an open place," he says, "so the place determines the painting's techniques, such as playing on measurements; the most important thing is that the feeling in achieving this painting cannot be lost."
That is why I bought A4 papers
He adds, "I drew martyrs' faces because I work, in one spot of the painting with collage, and this is, of course, one of the solutions to exploit the space and grip the moment before it vanishes into the past. The mural reflects the place which we feel and not see; the place is divided into two parts; one is expressionist in which the bitter reality is like a prison, and another one where we travel into through imagination."
He points that the mural is a result of great effort, " I have no problem with living in the poorest way of life in order to turn it into art; this is what I started to work on with all its many details."
About considering the mural as a national project, and the possibility of being owned, Rayyes focuses that the mural is an open case which he dreams of establishing an exhibition in several Arab and foreign countries, and of finding a space for it in a museum in Damascus to be an expressionist witness of the Syrian revolution.
The project and the initiative
It seems clear in Rayyes's works his working on the idea of the project summing up with this the spirit of initiative in which love is the main factor, as if he is abbreviating the collective institutionalized work within himself challenging many difficulties facing him. He says, "two years ago, I launched a project via facebook entitled (A Painting on Every Wall) beginning from the phrase "may the painting combine us," in which I wanted to give a painting for those who wish for, so I drew hundreds of paintings for friends whom I know, or even do not, where each painting is entitled with the name of its owner. There is no doubt that it is an initiative which cost me time, effort and money but it is ultimately a human initiative."
"During the revolution," he continues, "a division happened among Syrian people between an ally, opposing and silent. The funny thing is that I was sending the painting to a person in a Syrian city who is supposed to contact the owners in order to be delivered. The painting combined them and made them discuss the current situation, and this was told to me by several friends, not to mention the social dimension of the painting where many people were introduced to each other because of it, so the idea of "democratizing the art" is what I seek for."
He points that the idea of (A Painting on Every Wall) was born in the new year's eve. On new year's eve, while I was alone in Dubai, I suddenly felt great love for everyone, so it crossed my mind. I decided to work on it in January to declare it as a month of love to the whole world. I launched this initiative under the title (A Painting on Every Wall) and said, "Love is a language of act, not just words. So, I will not talk too much, and I'll express my love for you by an act of beauty. Anyone who wishes to get a painting should send me an email and he will get his painting." I received hundreds of emails from many Arab and foreign countries such as USA, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Jordan, Palestine and all over Syria from north to south, in addition to the Gulf countries (KSA, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and UAE)."
An artistic trilogy
Rayyes works on the artistic trilogy: painting, writing and cinema, he says,
"In the beginnings, the person tries to discover all his tools. After a while he finds himself existing in more than one place; I write and paint, and due to my passion to cinema, the dream grew within me to connect these arts since cinematic scene is like a painting, and the writing is a tool with which I move from the text to the painting, and from the painting to the text, while cinema is the existence and the expression of the moment in which we hear answers in a moment or another; there is a speed in events and accelerating in technology.
There is no doubt that the artistic language is a different language while I have a special relationship with the special visual language, that is why I see the weekdays spreading in my imagination as collective colors; Friday is black, and I do not know why that only thinking of this day reflects this color; Thursday is just like Sunday in color which is as the color of mother's laundry they add a light blue material to it in order to break the sharp whiteness; and Monday is the day of all degrees of green.
Rayyes says that keeping on writing created a short story product, "the thing which made me participate in Sharja Arab Creative Prize, where I won the third grade; and also I won Ghanem Ghabash Prize for my story "The Man with a Wheelchair" which I am planning to turn it into a novel. Cinema, on the other hand, is one of the experimentalism fields where I wrote and direct a short film entitled "Boundaries of the Grey" which contained the color as one of its expression tools."
"The title of the film refers to the separating barrier among things, which is similar to all of us; it is the separating barrier between life and death, ugliness and beauty; an experience of a cinematic language which is based on two contradicting events."
The absence of the institution
Since Rayyes works on the idea of initiatives and projects, which is normally achieved by institutions, a question occurs to me; how does he go on with his dream, and who supports him?
"My reading of Einstein since I was a kid taught me the relativism of things," he said, "what is on your right could be actually on your left, and the only absolute is the speed of light. This understanding made me look with a total look into the event in Syria. About the relationship with the institution; I do not belong to any institution, and I lost faith in them in my country since the society have not succeeded to be a real effective institution. I think that we are living between two institutions; the only institution supporting me is the family, and on the other hand, there is the governing and controlling family which does not care about creative, individual or collective context.
Rayyes points out that he stands in front of two options; if the family does not support you financially, and the institution would not support me, what should I do?
"Here lies the power; man, in the desert, must transcend his dilemma in order to build a complete civilization through his tools. Here lies the joy of exploring, exploring the self, and this is what am working on in shifting from the painting to the project."
The role of media
About the role of media in supporting the project and raising the artist from the local to the Arab then the world, Rayyes focuses that media has a fundamental role since it is one of the important factors, "despite the fact that our media deals only with the concept of "fill in the following space" due to different circumstances, so the artist's keeping on and dedication are the real things which makes him prove himself within the media. Internet, on the other hand, have taken an important part of media role in delivering what I draw and work on to the largest possible slice of people in different countries since it is breaking geography in the first place."
Between two sides
Between his residence in Emirates and Damascus, and the gains he achieves between the two sides which he takes from the specialties of both places, he says, "here in United Arab Emirates, there is a larger space for meditation and being dedicated and achieving the technical work faster. Here I have achieved many exhibitions and works, and moved from the concept of painting to the concept of project; there is no doubt that this place, with what it gives of art markets (Art of Dubai, Fan of Abu Dhabi), and a cultural space, on the other hand, which is presented by Sharja with its refreshing ideas, gave me an important side of experimentalism. On the other hand, there is Damascus, the other side of the river, where the real inspiration, spiritual fulfillment and memory, but on this side, as an intimate place, it does not give you a space for full dedication to art because of the drowning into the collective which caused me waste of time. Here I am, after more than six months of intifada, six months of invading rose-age young people; six months and blood draws the map of free Syria, the idea of the mural has to be born, so how many Guernicas do we need for all this killing?"
Translated by: Yazan el-Haj