Tiptoeing into Political Art: “Civilized Society” and “Leaving Soon” in Ayyam Gallery

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Kais Salman's "The Anonymous Arab"

By: Yazan al-Saadi

Published Monday, February 2, 2015

In its latest showing, Ayyam Gallery in Beirut hosts the works of two Arab artists, Kais Salman's “Civilized Society” and Myriam Dalal's “Leaving Soon.”

Situated at the ground floor of the Beirut Tower and facing the Phoenicia Hotel in downtown Beirut, Ayyam Gallery, with its sister space Ayyam Projects, has always had a striking reputation for hosting intriguing, experimental artwork by regional and international artists since its founding in Damascus in 2006. The latest exhibits, unveiled last week in Beirut, are no exception to that history.

In Ayyam Gallery, around 20 of Kais Salman's paintings from his newest series, “Civilized Society,” hang among the freshly black-painted walls of the gallery. For nearly a decade, Salman made a name for himself as a fresh, new up and coming face in the Syrian art scene due to his embrace of the grotesque, often spiced with a strong dose of uncomfortable satire. From taking potshots against authority characters to tackling contentious and sensitive subjects, Salman's work may not be for everyone.

In his latest series, “Civilized Society,” Salman's social and political commentary enters the realm of international politics. Each acrylic painting portrays various archetypes where brawny men, Salafists, politicians, diplomats, and others are painted in sharp, almost fluorescent colors that demand the audience's attention. The common cliché that politics is theater seems to have inspired Salman as his characters wear overdone costumes, their faces express cheshire cat-like grins, and they stand in the center of the canvas, as if on stage, looking directly at us.

There exists a sense of violence in Salman's work, apparent or subtle, and the grins of the subjects pushes forward the sense of uneasy. The paintings may appear very simple, but the more one pours through the colors, the line work, and the structure of each image, the more one gets the feel that underneath is a Pandora's box of chaos and absurdity aching to burst out. Consider, for example, the painting titled, “World Cup” — which seemed to have momentarily caught the attention of Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad al-Machnouk, who took time from his no-doubt busy schedule protecting Lebanon from various threats to pay a visit to Ayyam Gallery during the exhibit's opening night on January 29. “World Cup” depicts a grinning male Salafist holding the infamous World Cup gold trophy next to his face as he stands in the center of a gray football field. It is sinister and surreal.

Right next door, in the sister space of Ayyam Projects, Lebanese artist Myriam Dalal's multimedia installation, “Leaving Soon,” was also unveiled for the public. Inspired by the bombings that rocked Lebanon throughout 2013 and 2014, the installation is a musing on personal and collective memory towards those who have gone.

Entering the dark confining space, the viewer is first met with three quotes, from Fredrich Nietzsche, Marcel Proust, and Myriam Dalal herself, that each touch on the painful process of forgetting and memory. Further in, the audience is met with photographic images of half naked men, all whom look somewhat alike, lying on a bed, their noses and ears plugged up by cotton swabs. They look like bodies in a morgue. These images are alternated by a mirror, where in red, it is written: “Dear x, please forget me when I'm gone.” Speakers scattered at the corners of the walls repeatedly whisper out over 90 real names of those who have died in the bombings, including the exact date of their demise.

At the far end of the narrow room is a black table, on which a number of small pieces of paper lay. These pieces of paper are generic sketches of the photographic images of the dead/sleeping men, enticing the audience to create their own image over the generic character, and to leave a personalized message to whoever the choose, asking them “please forget me when I'm gone.”

Dalal's idea for “Leaving Soon” is very strong, indeed stronger than that of Salman's series, although her implementation can arguably be viewed as clunky. The experience is uncomfortable, particularly for audience members who are sensitive to loss and death, and the work becomes more intriguing when the audience takes the extra step to ponder over the installation's themes. For that alone, Dalal can consider her installation a success.

Both works could not have been done without the efforts of Rania Mounzer, the curator at Ayyam in Beirut, who patiently worked with both Dalal and Salman in the lead up to the opening, and the choice of omnipresent black as background to both works creates a natural link between the themes of two, whether this was intentional or otherwise by the curator and organizers.

Ultimately, both Salman's paintings and Dalal's installation hesitantly tiptoe into the category of 'political artwork.' They are commentaries of issues and subjects that are political in nature, but the ambiguity these works rely on restricts the discussion.

Nevertheless, “Civilized Society” and “Leaving Soon” are part and parcel of a legion of experimental, political works by Arab artists that have become more important in pushing forward the boundaries and capabilities of the modern Arab art scene to not only induce an emotion for the general audience, but also to be relevant to the our turbulent, nonsensical time.

Kais Salman’s painting series “Civilized Society” is currently being shown at the Ayyam Gallery, while Myriam Dalal’s multimedia “Leaving Soon” is presented next door at the Ayyam Projects space. Both works are available for the public until March 20.

Yazan al-Saadi is a senior staff writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow him on Twitter: @WhySadeye

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