Syrian artist Mohannad Orabi is well-known for his playful paintings that are all titled, Self Portrait. The paintings always feature childlike, androgynous figures with a large circular head, rounded body and darkened, almond shaped eyes. Through these highly stylised, innocent looking characters the artist revisits his childhood, expresses his innermost feelings and explores various human emotions and interactions. Orabi’s work is introspective and reflects various moods. But his canvasses always exude a feeling of youthful exuberance and optimism.
However, his latest work is quite different. The title of the series, It’s No Longer About Me, clearly indicates a major shift in direction for the artist. This is manifested by the change in the look of his signature figures. They appear more real and grown up and their features and bodies are better defined, especially their eyes. Instead of dark, empty, cavernous orbs that reveal nothing, the figures now have piercing, expressive eyes that connect with the viewer and convey a deep sense of sadness. The playfulness and optimism of Orabi’s earlier work has now been replaced by a more realistic and mature view of the world.
“This body of work is about self awareness. It was done over the last year, and it reflects what is happening all around me. My characters have changed because they are no longer able to shut themselves away from reality. Instead of looking inwards, they are now forced to open their eyes to the events unfolding around them. They have to grow up and become strong enough to face the real world and deal with it,” Orabi says.
The paintings in the series are inspired by the artist’s personal stories as well as by what he has seen and heard around him. His predominantly gray palette reflects the mood that currently prevails in his country and in the region. And the masks covering the faces of most of his figures are a symbol of their suppressed emotions. Orabi’s stark and compelling compositions invoke empathy for his characters and force viewers to introspect about the state of the world and their role as global citizens.
One of the most touching compositions in this series is that of young boy with the picture of a man clasped in his hand. The boy tries to hide his feelings behind a clown-like white mask, but you can see the immense pain in the innocent eyes as he caresses the picture of his missing father or brother. “This is a scene we see every day in our part of the world. What is important to note is the determination and pride in the boy’s eyes. His sharp gaze follows the viewers regardless of the angle from which they look at the painting. He is trying hard to hold back his tears and he is holding the picture of the dead person as if he is embracing someone who is alive,” the artist says.
In another painting, a woman’s jaw is restricted with a muzzle similar to the one seen in the Hollywood film, Silence of the Lambs. The delicate floral pattern on her black scarf and abaya contrasts sharply with the bright red mask on her face. “This lady looks feminine and dignified. Despite the mask that prevents her from speaking, her gaze is direct and proud and seems to challenge the world. I painted the mask red because to me this colour is a symbol of love, anger, danger, revolution, instinct and warning,” Orabi says.
Other emotionally charged images in the series include a painting of a young boy covering the eyes of his toy to shield it from the harsh realities of life. A halo around the child’s head speaks about the many innocent lives lost in unnecessary violence and bloodshed. In some paintings, the figures have been split into many pieces to represent the conflict and fragmentation in society. And the artist has expressed his opinion about political leaders in the region by depicting them in clown-like make-up and red noses.
The series also includes some nostalgic family portraits. The father is poignantly missing in these pictures. “These paintings are inspired by old photographs of my own family. They feature a mother with five boys. I wanted to show that despite our different ages and personalities, we are all so close to each other. I have shown the woman as strong and proud because I want the paintings to reflect the significance and importance of women in my life and in everybody’s life,” Orabi says.
An interesting feature of this series is that many of the paintings have a grid of dots in the background. “I use the dots as a visual solution to create a balance between the figures and the background and to give a sense of depth to the canvasses. But the dots also represent the accumulation of memories, feelings and experiences in one’s life,” the artist says.
It’s No Longer About Me will run at Ayyam gallery, DIFC, until June 16.
Jyoti Kalsi is an arts enthusiast based in Dubai.