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A story about human beings

Houssam Ballan’s figures speak through their eyes and they have a three-dimensional sculptural quality but their age and cultural background is ambiguous

  • Houssam Ballan, Untitled, 2018, oil on linen canvasImage Credit:
  • Houssam Ballan, Untitled, 2018, oil on linen canvasImage Credit:
Gulf News

Fann a Porter gallery is presenting recent paintings by Syrian artist Houssam Ballan in an exhibition titled Beings. Ballan was born in 1983 in Sweida, where he is currently based. He is a figurative artist and his paintings are inspired by scenes of daily life on the streets of Sweida. Although he paints figures, Ballan believes his work is abstract because it is essentially about the human condition. He is not interested in just depicting what is happening around him in the present. Through the expressive figures in his untitled paintings he wants to highlight the power plays, inequalities and injustices that are part of human history and continue to threaten our present and future.

“Representation is not about depicting solely what one sees, but also the understanding of what one is seeing and the feelings it evokes. When we try to remember a person or a specific incident, we see these not in concrete shapes, lines and colours but rather as a blur of multi-dimensional feeling. This is what I try to convey through my compositions,” he says.

Ballam trained in mural painting with Pierre Palas and has participated in workshops by well-known international artists. He is a tutor and member of the Teacher’s Association at the University of Damascus. His work is based on his extensive research of art history and artistic techniques.

His figures speak through their expressive eyes and they have a three-dimensional sculptural quality registering a strong presence. But their age, gender and cultural background is ambiguous. Figures in the same painting are depicted wearing clothes from different periods in history. The artist has also played with art styles from different eras rendering some works as ancient icon paintings. This gives his work a sense of movement, of the passage of time and of the unfolding of an ongoing narrative from the past to the present and the future.

The paintings are all untitled, but each one tells a story about human beings and our society. Some depict children playing on the streets, while others show people fighting or ganging up to bully others. There are vivid scenes of one person attacking another with a knife, and angry, aggressive figures involved in a brawl. But there is also a painting of four figures with different skin colour and dressed in very different clothes holding hands as if engaged in a game or a dance. The positioning of their bodies, the direction of their gazes and their connected hands create the illusion of an infinite loop of motion.

Another composition shows in the foreground a fleeing fearful family with the parents holding their children in their arms. In the background there are dark doorways, and a reduced and blurred image of the desperate family appears amidst a row of arches disappearing into the distance. The work indicates that the story of people being forced to leave their homes and countries is one that has been repeated through the ages, but perhaps also holds out the hope that the family could be heading towards a better future.

The artist has made a strong statement about what is happening in Syria and around the world in a painting that shows three boys completely engrossed in looking at a musical instrument held by one of them, oblivious to the battle raging outside signified by the trails of fire visible through the arched windows behind them. Similarly, a figure huddled inside a transparent box looking down at a small circular object in his hand speaks about the way we confine ourselves by our prejudices, closed-mindedness, selfishness, and focus on small issues.

In some paintings Ballam has used military boots and a check motif to symbolise power and the power games played by leaders. One composition shows a terrified family hiding under a table and peering over a wall at the men in military boots approaching their home. But ironically the artist has shown the men walking on stilts to appear taller than they are with the boots not on their feet but on the stilts. Another thought-provoking touch is a painting of the boots on stilts hanging on the wall inside the home hinting at the way physical and psychological control systems permeate our public and private spaces.

In other icon style paintings Ballam has depicted women with golden tiaras or laurel branches on their head and surrounded by their children, asserting the importance of a woman as a revered creator, nurturer and protector of life across the ages.

The show also features several preparatory sketches and studies done by the artist, illustrating his creative process from concepts to the completed paintings.

Beings will run at Fann a Porter gallery in The Workshop, off Al Wasl Road, Dubai, until May 30.

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