In his first solo art exhibition in Beirut the artist and writer Zain Saleh tried to reflect a complex of feelings of fear, distortion and sensitivity, which we experience on the way of healing ourselves before reaching the desired purity and relief. In the following interview he tells us about his art, vision and inspiration.
By Riham Zaytoun
Zain Saleh, who was born in Damascus in 1994, studied media science at the University of Damascus and graduated in 2016. He also studied theatrical studies at the Higher Institute for Dramatic Arts in Damascus.
His remarkable talent had always attracted the attention of his teachers. “I started drawing at the age of 6 and our teacher used to take my paintings and hang them in the school’s hall. I felt special that somebody was paying attention,” said Saleh.
In 2016 he participated with five graphic artworks in a collective exhibition in Syria called “Damascus Paraworld”; an event by the “Art of Humanity” initiative, which aimed to spread the artworks of Syrian youth among the world and to show its maturity and potential.
Imagination Has No Limits
Mostly being inspired by his personal experiences and deep moments of feeling, Saleh expresses himself freely through painting. “When I write I check my writings for misspellings, or when I do theater I always control and micromanage everything, whereas in painting I just let my hand move,” the artist explained, “and I am mostly satisfied after that because I feel I am being honest und truthful to my feelings.”
Contrary to the common stereotype that every artist has certain rituals that accompany them when painting, Saleh said he does not have any and explained that it’s all about the urge that can hit the artist at any time, the urge to draw whatever that comes up to one’s head. “I start with the first line and then it leads me on its own. When I finish I feel so relieved, as if I was carrying something very heavy and suddenly removed it from my back,” he described.
New Step… New Horizon
After moving to Beirut 8 months ago, where he is now waiting for his visa to go continue his study in Germany, Saleh started working on several projects in theater, graphic novels and translation.
The experience of living in Lebanon was not very easy for him at the beginning. “I wasn’t really feeling comfortable as a Syrian living in Beirut, as Syrians here are not really welcome,” he said. However, after sometime, things had been starting to be better, the artist explained, “I met a few people here who were very kind, inclusive and aware of what other people can do. They had seen something in my work and encouraged me to launch my first exhibition. The idea that I always had in my head, but didn’t actually feel ready for it.”
“Euphorion Floats” was the title of Saleh’s first solo art exhibition, which he held in Beirut in August 2017. He described his paintings as a reflection of the personal challenges and struggles of young people and the emotional deformation they suffer as a consequence of facing war conditions.
Were the ideas of your paintings based on your own observation of the society?
“Well, yes. They were on the one hand based on personal observations. As someone who lived with the war for over 5 years, as someone who saw all of his peers going through challenges, depression and abnormal experiences, that was a huge inspiration for me to draw. Because it’s not always about you and your personal experiences, but about other people and what they go through. On the other hand, as a queer person myself living in that society, I couldn’t help but feel like I was deformed, abnormal and unwanted. I have been feeling like that since I was 14 or 15. So adding the war, we all have lived, to that situation, it was another challenge for me that really led me to a very dark color palette and misshaping compositions in the paintings and in the graphic posters.”
The artist had made sure during the exhibition to answer all visitors’ questions about his paintings. “I wasn’t feeling shy, but I felt the power to expose myself and my thoughts fearlessly, the thing that was restricted for me in Syria for a long time,” he revealed.
Saleh believes that his impressions and feelings had reached most visitors of the exhibition, who had expressed their reactions about the sadness they had noticed in certain paintings. “At that point, I felt I was not really having an exhibition as much as I was exposing my memories and depression moments on the wall. To be honest I had to cry in some moments, because they were right, it was sad, but at least I was honest to my feelings and to the great sadness I lived, and I was not trying to show I’m stronger than I am.”
“Euphorion”, the winged child of Faust and Helen of Troy of Goethe’s play (Faust II), throws himself as a young man off a cliff and falls to his death. What did you want to imply with naming your exhibition “Euphorion Floats”?
“First of all, I am a fan of the German literature, especially the theater, and since I’ve studied theater, so it has a big inspiration on me. Secondly, in the second part of Goethe’s play “Faust”, where Euphorion is mentioned, there is such an epic field in which a lot of elements happens and the alert smart winged boy Euphorion represents the marriage of romanticism and classicism. What Goethe wanted to say from his death was that being tender and vulnerable is not the answer to the world’s problems. But contrary to the way Goethe saw that, I think making peace with our vulnerability and sad moments and embracing our differences and deformations can help us fix them and move forward in a stronger and fresher way, and that was what I wanted to say with the title. The wounded Euphorion will not only not die, he will even float and flow above everything, he is going to fly.”
An Inescapable Reality
The war in Syria and its consequences were also thematised in the works of many other Syrian artists like Yousef Abdalki, Wissam Al-Jazairy and Delawer Omar… I asked Saleh how strongly the reality imposes itself into the awareness of the artist and how difficult it is to detach oneself from the surrounding conditions. He believed that every person who had been affected by the war would express it in a way or another, regardless of their profession, and that we cannot detach ourselves from it, because if we are living the war or living abroad, it is going to come to us. “I think it’s even not healthy to detach oneself from what’s happening, from the truth, and I personally don’t want to, because it’s a part of what my family is living and of what I have lived,” he added.
How would you compare your art before the war to your art now?
“I don’t see that war has shaped my art, I think whatever the data were, I was going to reflect what I am living. But the war has of course motivated me, especially in “Euphorion Floats”. It was like an alarm in my head saying there’s a whole generation, I lived with, that has lost a lot; many children did not go to schools, many college students did not have a college life or their basic rights. So, war was one of the factors that affected my art, beside other factors.”
Do We Need Inspiration?
The field of media science is not very close or relevant to the art world, what prompted me to ask the artist whether his media study had had an effect on his artistic experience. He said, “In college I was restricted and had tests to do and courses to attend, whereas in art I was a lot freer and had no boundaries and was using this as an outlet.” Then he explained that art and drawing actually had affected his college years, because most of his projects had been about art and painters.
Some artists stay constantly in contact with the contemporary art scene. Others prefer, however, not to follow other artists’ works, so that they do not get influenced and can maintain their individuality. Saleh commented on that by saying everyone has a visual memory, then quoted from Picasso, “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” He cannot exactly say what the references in his paintings are, but since he is very passionate about artistry and had not had the chance to visit many museums, he had used to download millions of images of artists’ works from the internet. He had been taken by Salvador Dalí, Vincent van Gogh, Egon Schiele and inspired for once and for all by Leonardo da Vinci. “In my opinion being affected by other artists is something good, because if you are inspired in the right way, if you are a smart person who thinks creatively and not just imitates, it will freshen your creative process and add to you. You might use the same tools or style, but produce new ideas or maybe end up creating a new style,” he explained.
When will you be having your next exhibition?
“Honestly, I’m still not planning for another exhibition. I hope I’ll be having a new one soon, but I cannot promise when it will be. I don’t plan when to draw, it’s just the urge and the feeling that you have a concept, a theme, a collection and something to say throughout your paintings.”