UAE-based Barjeel Art Foundation is presenting Paul Guiragossian: Testimonies of Existence, an exhibition that celebrates the life and work of one of the most renowned modern masters from this region and commemorates his 25th death anniversary. The show is guest curated by Maisa Al Qassimi with Barjeel’s founding curator Mandy Merzaban as curatorial advisor and held in collaboration with the Paul Guiragossian Foundation. It is Barjeel’s last show at their space in the Maraya Art Centre, which they have occupied for the last eight years.

The show features Guiragossian’s paintings from the 1960s until his death in 1993, drawn from Barjeel Art Foundation’s own collection and from other prominent private collections in the UAE. It also includes elements from the archives of the Paul Guiragossian Foundation such as photographs, published reviews, exhibition catalogues, personal letters and manuscripts and audio and video recordings that offer a deeper insight into the artist’s ideas and inspirations.

The title of the show is taken from remarks made by Guiragossian while accepting a prize at the first edition of the Paris Biennale in 1959, where he said that works of art are a “testimony to our existence, and we will always find something new in them.” It reflects the show’s aim to highlight key moments in Guiragossian’s journey and his important role in the history of modernism in the Arab world as well as the continuing relevance of his work today.

The Long March, circa 1986, from the collection of Abdul Rahman Al Owais

“This exhibition is not a retrospective of Guiragossian’s work, but a celebration of the artist’s oeuvre as seen through the pieces belonging to collectors in the UAE. His works are owned by government officials, senior members of the UAE ruling families, young collectors and old, art museums and institutions, which reflects how deeply they are enshrined within the UAE cultural landscape,” Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi Founder of Barjeel Art Foundation says.

“All the collectors we approached were extremely receptive to the idea of celebrating Guiragossian’s life through an exhibition of his works that reside within the UAE. This exhibition is realised thanks to the cooperation of the Paul Guiragossian Foundation and Manuella Guiragossian, his daughter and president of the Foundation, with valuable assistance from Christie’s in reaching out to several collectors. We are proud to bring this collaborative show to the UAE public,” he says.

Guiragossian’s parents were Armenian refugees who survived the massacre of the early 20th century and fled to Palestine. He was born in Jerusalem in 1926 and began his art studies at the Yarkon Studio in Jaffa. His family was displaced once again after the Arab-Israeli War in 1947 and fled by boat to Lebanon. In Beirut, he met well-known artists and poets of the time, which helped him to grow as an artist. He began exhibiting his work and his talent was appreciated and recognised with many awards. He got a scholarship to study art in Florence in 1957 and in Paris in 1962, where he was exposed to European art and art movements. After returning to Beirut he consciously tried to develop a style and palette that reflected his Middle Eastern ethos and identity. He died in Beirut in 1993 and was given a state funeral by the government.

L’Enfant, 1978, loaned by Dr Anwar Gargash

The stories of violence Guiragossian heard from his mother, and his own experience of conflict and exile were core influences in his work. But he also took inspiration from the ancient philosophy and history of the Middle East, and from European art. He was interested in exploring the realm between abstraction and figuration and developed a distinct style of depicting human figures with thick elongated brush strokes and fluid outlines.

He often depicted the people he encountered in Bourj Hammoud, the suburb of Beirut where he lived. Many of these were Armenian refugees like his own family and his keen awareness of the trauma of exile and its physical and psychological impact on human beings is reflected in his abstracted, faceless figures. He usually showed the figures huddled together in an unrecognisable setting as a gesture of overcoming displacement, separation and isolation. Although they were based on his personal experiences, Guiragossian’s paintings speak about the universal human condition, and his palette ranging from pale pastels to brighter shades explores the various facets and complexities of human existence.

The exhibition features many paintings on themes of exile, collective struggle and kinship such as Silhouttes, a 1987 work from the collection of Shaikha Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan; Journey from the same period loaned by Charles Al Sidawi; The Long March from the collection of Abdul Rahman Al Owais; and the 1980 Le Marriage loaned by Dr Lamees Hamdan.

La Famille from Dr Farhad Farjam’s collection

Guiragossian was brought up by a single mother who had to leave him in boarding convents during his childhood. His emotions about her absence and his reverence for the role of women in society as symbols of love, peace and hope are reflected in his recurring exploration of the theme of mother and child. This can be seen in paintings such as Le Centre Du Monde, a 1983 work from the collection of Zaki Nusseibeh showing a mother tenderly embracing her child, done in shades of white; the much brighter Le Famille loaned by Dr Farhad Farjam; and Madonna & Child, a 1957 work from the Barjeel collection that reflects his early interest in Christian iconography.

“Paul Guiragossian was a man born without state or nation and described himself as a man born without borders. He never knew a life that was not threatened by exile or conflict. So he looked beyond notions of belonging to tribe or country and focused on what it means to be human, or to simply exist. His work offers the viewer an understanding of his personal struggle at different moments in his life. Through his exploration of the human experience, Guiragossian also offers an understanding of the effects of socio-political struggles in the Arab region at several key historical moments — the years leading up to the creation of the state of Israel, the Arab-Israeli War of 1967 and the Lebanese Civil War. His practice centred on exploring ideas of displacement, belonging and human existence — themes that still resonate today, given the increasing movement of people worldwide due to ongoing conflicts and political upheaval,” Maisa Qassimi says.

Manuella Guiragossian adds, “Being raised away from his parents and living through war and forced migration, he could have become a bitter person but instead, my father gave inspiration and hope to an entire nation and to Armenians and Arabs alike. He never lost faith in humanity and this will forever be transmitted through his extensive body of work. As a child my father told me that his paintings will be alive a 100 years after he is gone and part of him would become part of the family that owns his work. Every day, through my work with the Paul Guiragossian Foundation, which our family established in 2011, I am brought together with strangers who quickly become like family because of the connection we make through my late father and his work. This exhibition has given me an opportunity to meet my extended family of collectors in the UAE who understand and appreciate his work and connect with it.”

Paul Guiragossian: Testimonies of Existence will run at the Barjeel Art Foundation’s space in Maraya Art Centre, Al Qasba, Sharjah until April 28.