After almost two decades of haunting the international market, Sabhan Adam has made his first break with his oeuvre – a face of desperation and disfigurement, isolation and resistance.
Syrian poet Adonis has said that this face “participates in overturning systems, principles and values ... [through which] we see the inside become the outside, the high become the low and the first become the last.”
Adam’s face was invited to represent Syria at last year’s Venice Biennale. This new phase is said to be inspired by recent political uprisings in the Arab world. There is such discontinuity in this departure, however, that it’s hard to recognize Adam in the new work.
“Lots of people are asking why I am not painting in my usual style,” Adam says, “but I now feel that I should live every season and change every season.”
Adam, who still lives in Syria, has marked this spring with positive, bold colors and such new characters as animals, cowboys and fairy-tale figures. “I am doing something new to give life for my soul,” he continues, “... like I am living new steps.”
“The paintings, inspired by the poetic masters of the 19th-century reveal a romantic, spiritual and softer side to Sabhan,” said spokesmen of Mark Hachem Gallery, where Adam’s new work was first unveiled in his recent “The Awakening” show, “extracting his favorite parables, and poems, expressing them through the beautiful Arabic font of calligraphy.”
This is all disturbingly uncharacteristic of Adam, whose previous work – black and bitter with irony – is anything but romantic. Tortured creatures are still prominent in his recent work, yet in the forefront are new subjects, raw with a playfulness of vibrant color.
They are “animals of different species,” Adams explains, “kangaroos, donkeys, birds, comic people who are sad, idiotic, harmless. That is what I currently tend to depict. It is a disbelief in the human reality and the obscurity of its equations.”
Adam admits that much of his previous work was inspired by his difficult experiences in childhood. Brought up in a poor family, he suffered from illness, and his situation’s unpredictability led to an acute interest in chaos and construction.
This is visible in his signature figures, which frequently possess misplaced body parts and compositional distortions. His signature work is provocative, frequently giving rise to love-hate responses and inciting comparisons with the works of Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele or Goya.
“I am doing something new because my adolescent life was tough and I want to live something new,” Adam says. “I want to bring back my childhood. For 18 years I have been working on the previous phase and now I need a vacation. I want to work now on something easy and simple, something more peaceful.”
There is something easier, simpler and more naïve about Adam’s new characters, painted in loosely applied acrylics to the point of appearing careless and carefree.
There is a black wolf dressed in Red Riding Hood’s clothing and a black kangaroo holding an umbrella over the joey peeping from her pouch. There’s a donkey too.
None of the new characters reveals any of the depth so evident in Adam’s previous work – it’s as if they are masked – yet all still seem redolent with his signature sarcasm.
“I have lost faith in humanity,” Adam says. “There is no truth and lots of lies. Everybody is lying without exception. That is why I have chosen to work with animal figures as I can be sure of their innocence”
Certainly the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood’s bonnet has never looked more innocent.
“Humans are doing war,” he explains, “but animals are just living.”
Adam asserts that the old Sabhan is still present, albeit less butchered and satirically bedecked in establishment clothing. This first shift from his darker deformities was noticeable in 2010, with the introduction of a dab more color, or a slight sneer at the corner of each mouth – perhaps better suited to a Lebanese household’s taste than macabre London galleries.
Adam has long proclaimed his characters universal.
“In truth what is happening in Syria is happening [all over] the world,” he says. “The Sabhan face does not just arise from Syria. It could be Africa! It is not about one person or one nationality as it is about the human. It talks about sadness and disappointment in human beings ... everywhere!
“If you look at the art in Dubai,” he continues, “you will see they are all just going with the flow ... I am the only one who does not follow in the traditions of imitating the West. I have always been a revolutionary, even for the cause of other Arab countries.
“Outside of Middle East, they are looking to us like we are creating change. We need to make a solution and a decision. In the Arab world our young people want a better way, but for the past 100 years the Arabs have been absorbing outsider narratives and traditions like Marxism and socialism and so now we are lost. We cannot know our identity. The situation is not clear. So in this Arab Spring the youth don’t know what they want to present.”
Adam seems to mock this loss of identity and direction with his image of the donkey – the only animal in his new collection authentic to the Middle East: All the other figures are foreign imports. Even in the paintings in which Sabhan’s familiar face stares back from cowboy clothes or religious attire, it’s rendered with an expression of bewilderment.
“This exhibition is against economics, politics and society,” Adam says. “It rejects all the local realities of society. We are in 2012. These paintings will not be understood until 2015. Everyone is talking about the Arab Spring but there is no Arab Spring.
“Not even the KGB, Mossad or any of the other secret services will give a good analysis of this so called Arab Spring. These painting are the only good analysis and are offering truth. All who are searching for truth will find it in these paintings.”
In another of Adam’s paintings, a cowboy-clown figure, a Chinese man in a Western tie and a samurai pirate dominate the backdrop of black, spiralling Arabic calligraphy. The words reproduce “The Will to Life,” the most famous work of revolutionary Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi.
“I respect the West and like their vision,” Adam says, “but they are not actualizing what they preach in reality.”
The farce of the wolf in Little Red Riding’s hood or the Kangaroo holding an umbrella, and the caricatures of the cowboy, the samurai and the Chinese technocrat, all suggest an outside involvement in the Arab Spring and suggest that this revolution does not in fact belong to the Arabs at all.
It is further suggested by the fact that the strutting donkey’s head is thrown back in laughter, echoing the undercurrent of black humor that begins to sneer out from behind the slapstick masks of Sabhan’s new work.
“The reason many Syrian artists are currently not speaking out against the regime is that there are many different levels to it,” Adam says.
“They want their country to remain stable because they have seen what has happened in Iraq.
“So it’s not about the regime. It is about people and the danger of our future becoming a civil war. I believe in giving rights to the minorities in the way of the so-called ‘American dream.’ It is not about the regime but about human rights. That’s why I am saying that in four years time, you will understand what these paintings are saying.”