Form and Emptiness:
An Interview with Safwan Dahoul
See more of Safwan Dahoul's artwork in Volume 38.1 here.
As one of the foremost painters in the Arab world, Safwan Dahoul has repeatedly demonstrated how contemporary modes of figuration can describe the psychic terrain of a region that is in constant flux. Born in 1961 in Hama, Syria, Dahoul was initially trained by leading modernists at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus, before travelling to Belgium, where he earned a doctorate from the Higher Institute of Plastic Arts in Mons. Upon returning to Syria, he began teaching at the Faculty of Fine Arts and was a prominent member of the Damascus art scene. In the span of a decade, Dahoul nurtured a new generation of artists as an active mentor whose evolving aesthetic often ignited new directions in painting. Given the trajectory and status of his painting style, Dahoul’s career is regarded as a crucial link between modern and contemporary Arab art. He now lives in Dubai.
Since the late 1980s, Dahoul’s ongoing Dream series has explored the physical and psychological effects of alienation, solitude, and longing that punctuate the human experience at various stages in life. Partly autobiographical, this seminal body of work uses the formal properties of painting to recreate the subconscious sense of enclosure that surfaces during times of crisis, whether in the event of mourning, estrangement, or political conflict. The artist’s recurring female protagonist facilitates this visceral experience through her contorted body, often-vacant eyes, and minimized yet monumental physicality. Depicted in the confinement of ambiguous settings, her presence is defined by the placement of various objects that seem to deepen the state of her disaffection, as even the familiar becomes a trigger of distress.
K. Iver: My encounter with the Dream series is that of the sublime. Ambiguous backgrounds provide no comparative scale and yet I’m struck by a largeness: of grief, loneliness, the beauty of form, calm, tension, etc. You’ve said you don’t like explaining the meaning of your art, so I take full responsibility for that reaction. Can you talk about the impact of these paintings for you, when you look at them now?
Safwan Dahoul: Firstly, I would like to thank you for your interest. I am grateful for that. As you know, I don’t prefer to explain my work, as it is formed of simple symbols: a woman, face, table, chair, etc. And I rely on the possibilities within these elements, of course, in terms of appearance and shape in the painting. What is hidden in my work is a reflection of what I think comes from my personal world and my experiences, together with my interpretation of life and the reason for existence . I don’t like to explain my work, despite the long introduction. Instead, I really enjoy observing the public gazing at my work. I do not want to pressure anyone, nor do I want to prove anything. I believe it is a visual work, and everyone has the right to interpret it differently.
KI: Aside from the pure aesthetic delight I get from following the lines of this figure, I’m impressed by the richness of traditions with which this series engages. Beyond that, I get a feeling I’m contacting the ancient. That feeling might be linked to the sublime, but I’m also wondering about the primal: it’s as if I, the viewer, can recognize this figure from a time I can’t remember. One of the elements you use is the Pharaonic eye. You sometimes depict the face as a mask with empty eyes. What called you to the Pharaonic tradition?
SD: I have always admired the Pharaonic art, its sanctity. The shapes in their work and their extremely complex simplicity. I don’t remember that I wanted to borrow anything from their art, but I am in adoration, specifically of the lateral eye in their work. It is looking straight but can see you at the same time. Perhaps what’s more important for me in Pharaonic art is the integration of form and emptiness, which is often the foundation of my work.
KI: The Dream series has spanned three decades, and the figure has grown from slender to muscular. She’s been moved out of the particularity of Syria’s landscape and placed in negative space. Can you speak a little about contrast and the process by which you can strip down form to make a large impact?
SD: As I mentioned, elements in my work have been the same in the last three decades. However, they adapted to the changes in my life, as if the narrator is speaking from my diary. With time comes change. Yes, the work tended to romanticize; therefore the shapes and story were different. Recently, tragedies have overwhelmed the romance and replaced it with the extreme. Curved angles have become cruel and sharp and painful.
KI: I’ve seen art coming out of Syria that explicitly depicts the conflict. You’ve chosen to remain focused on the figure and her interior. For some recent pieces, you’ve given her objects, such as a boat. So much of what we’ve seen—from this side of the Atlantic—regarding Syrian refugees involves boats. Can you talk about that?
SD: I see no benefits in showing the war in details, as it is a repetition of what we have already seen which I think is not necessary in art. I also think its effects are unseeable, and the reason behind it is ambiguously related to the past, present, and future. Perhaps the hardest thing for an artist is to be optimistic. At times, I feel disillusioned with art since reality is way too harsh to be expressed via any form of creative art. All I do is paint, trying to create an inner balance in my life so I can carry on without the noise.
KI: You once said that artists should ask themselves every day why they are artists, whether or not they arrive at an answer. Have you arrived at an answer?
SD: I don’t think there is an answer to whether I am an artist or not. It is the eternal story of the human. I believe that an artist doesn’t seek answers; instead an artist asks questions. This is the main reason artists keep searching.
KI: I read that you paint from 12 – 7 p.m. every day. How do you spend your hours after?
SD: There are many sayings which I like. One of them is “Work is a worship.” After I finish work for the day, I try to forget about work, whether I am satisfied or not with what I have accomplished during the day. I don’t like to leave the house; I am an indoors person. I like to watch TV and follow the daily news. I extremely enjoy watching football (soccer). I see television as a window where I can watch others through it.
KI: You’ve said before that Frida Kahlo is your main influence, not necessarily because of style but her truthfulness to life in her art. What would you ask her if you could?
SD: I love the artist Frida Kahlo. I love her internal world; I love how truthful she is. I would tell her, “Your book of paintings is always around me; whenever I browse through it, I restore my capability.”
KI: How’ve your dreams been lately?
SD: Truly and honestly, I don’t have any dreams currently.
K. IVER is from Mississippi. Their poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, BOAAT, Puerto del Sol, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. They have a Ph.D. in Poetry from Florida State University. They are the 2021-2022 Ronald Wallace Fellow for Poetry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.