Then What? 1965 – 2010 is an exhibition that illustrates the direct (and indirect) furthering of Kayyali’s committed spirit in nearly a dozen works by some of the Middle East’s most influential artists. Drawn from the Samawai Collection of Art, which contains over 3,000 outstanding modern and contemporary international works and has a special influence on the Middle East, these superb examples of Arab art span over fifty years. Together they demonstrate the many ways in which Kayyali and a handful of his colleagues paved the way for the fashioning of a socially conscious milieu in regional art.
From a profound state of mourning that speaks of unbearable alienation in Safwan Dahoul’s introspective “Dream 4” (2008) to Oussama Diab’s powerful use of the imagery and symbolism that has come to define Palestinian life under Israeli occupation in “The New Mona Lisa” series (2010), these carefully selected works underscore the great extent to which Arab artists have continued to reflect upon the ravaged state of our modern world with an outpouring of grief, optimism and defiance through virtually every school of art.
While creating a complex framework in which such seminal pieces can be considered within the larger context of modern and contemporary Arab art Then What? 1965 – 2010 also provides a look into Ayyam Gallery’s upcoming cultural initiatives, which will include the curating of museum-quality exhibitions from private and public collections at its newly inaugurated Ayyam Art Center in Dubai.
Then What? 1965 – 2010
When Syrian pioneer Louay Kayyali painted the masterwork “Then What?” in 1965, he created one of the most iconic images of recent Arab visual culture. Although reflecting the torment and anguish of a displaced people, its epic narrative also contains a devastating sense of premonition. Produced just two years prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the painting seems to provide an eerie look into the catastrophic events that were to come. With vast implications, the conflict would increase the number of Palestinian refugees worldwide while further fragmenting the communities that remained under the terror of the Zionist state.
It is possible that Kayyali was simply responding to the legacy of the Nakba, as the Palestinian question had been etched into the consciousness of the Arab masses since 1948. Yet the exceptionality of “Then What?” lies not only in its monumental subject matter—the formidable exodus of a population that possesses neither shelter nor protection—but in the distinct manner in which it is painted.
There is an apparent rawness to Kayyali’s figures, one that deviates from the crisp lines and smooth surfaces that he is otherwise known for. Employing a highly expressive method of painting that allows his brushstrokes to be detected, his coarse application of medium resembles the fresco techniques of early Renaissance giants like Masaccio. This connection is obvious when considering his biography, as Kayyali studied in Rome like many Syrian artists of his generation. Upon closer examination of “Then What?” however, a direct link to the Italian master becomes indisputable.
In Kayyali’s work eleven figures (seven women, two boys and one man) are crowded together as though walking in unison. With most of their gazes turned away from the viewer, they are lost in the suggested horror of their surroundings as several peer up at an invisible, looming force. In the center of the canvas is a man whose features are distorted as the artist has rendered his face with quick brush marks and few details. Hunched over as though overpowered by an incomprehensible weight, he seems to carry the burden of mankind. His arched back, angular chin and hidden face resemble Masaccio’s Adam in “The Expulsion from Paradise” (1427). Behind him stands a female figure in profile, her head stretched far into the sky, as she beckons the heavens for reprieve and reflects the inescapable posture of a body that is overrun by grief. Kayyali has painted her face in a near identical rendering of Eve in the above-mentioned fresco, as he simply rearranged the central figures of Masaccio’s composition.
This tie is enunciated as the title of the Italian fresco lends to the poetic sorrow of Kayyali’s “Then What?” with Palestinians standing in for the mother and father of humanity while their homeland is equated with paradise. Even Adam and Eve’s feet seem to have been models for those of Kayyali’s. The biblical heritage of modern day Palestine is also not to be ignored. What the Syrian artist achieves with this subtle yet grand use of art history is a universal overtone that stretches beyond the physical (and political) borders of the Arab world.
Executed early on in his career, “Then What?” stands out from the rest of his oeuvre with its loose rendering of forms, an approach that gives the image of his gathered subjects a ghostly semblance. Do they appear as a mirage before the viewer or are they merely visions of the future? That his composition provides no visual clues as to the identity or nationality of his subjects, and makes no reference in place or time, gives birth to its initial sense of forecasting.
by Maymanah Farhat