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Nizar Sabour Two big revelations:

 “I am in Syria” and “I am a painter of themes”

Despite holding a Ph.D. in the philosophy of art, Dr. Nizar Sabour explained that his own philosophy of Art in his first academic teaching years at Fine Art School, was addressing the “art theme” as one of the least significant part of the whole artwork, as he was focusing on technics and mechanisms of art. After all these years, he just revealed to me, exclaiming: “I am a painter of themes”.

“No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.” With this Oscar Wilde inspirational quote in mind, I went to interview Dr. Nizar Sabour (1958), who graduated from the Fine Arts Faculty, Damascus University, and obtained a PhD in Art Philosophy from the Strugunov Academy of Industrial & Applied Arts, Moscow, Russia. However, he had many more disclosures to reveal about art than “seeing things differently”.

We initiated our talk about his field of study and my passion: “Philosophy of art”, which according to Britannica encyclopedia, is the study of the nature of art, including concepts such as interpretation, representation and expression, and form. It is closely related to aesthetics, the philosophical study of beauty and taste.   Yet, the philosophy of art is distinguished from art criticism, which is concerned with the analysis and evaluation of particular works of art.

The task of the philosopher of art is more fundamental than that of the art critic in that the critic’s pronouncements presuppose answers to the questions set by the philosopher of art. The critic says that a given work of art is expressive, but the philosopher of art asks what is meant by saying that a work of art is expressive and how one determines whether it is.

According to Sabour “the Philosophy of art, highlights a certain dilemma through aesthetics that might have social and political shadows, and attempts to treat that dilemma by philosophical means.” Sabour added that he was lucky enough to have passed the five last years before the Soviet Union collapse, in Moscow preparing his Ph.D. thesis in Art Philosophy. Since it was a time witnessing great opening in Soviet Union toward the world in general, especially world Art, as he get introduced to many artists and artistic schools, and scholars of the realm as the exposed their art craft in Moscow. He himself exposed in the Central Artist House, Moscow, one of the largest galleries in the world.

Eventually we proceeded from Art philosophy toward his own philosophy of entitling his exhibitions, a complex process that took him back to reconsider all his attitudes regarding art. He explained that in the past he used to think that the subject matter of art is not central in an art product, it’s the philosophy of art and tactics and technics that counted; whereas now he is totally affirmative of his philosophy of art which is deeply connected to the __theme.

He explained that long before the exhibition phase, he would put a project (a theme, a subject) in mind, picturing it as visual theme, which would be kept secret until the expo time. During this period, many changes could be made on the title, put not on the general theme.

It has been noticed that his late expo titles reverberates more with the homeland scenery, and a country torn by war, taking names of old Syrian cities that have witnessed the cruelest forms of war against Syrian civilizations. His recent work includes Icons, representations of Maaloula and Palmyra have a correlation to the historical and religious places in Syria where the extremists entered towns and ransacked the culture, like his solo exhibitions, which we took from a list in khawam Gallery website:

2019 – “Syrian Icons” Contemporary National Museum for Visual Arts, Damascus

2018 – “Maaloula & Palmyra” Rayzan Museum, Rayzan, Russia

2018 – “Memories of Cities” House of Art, Moscow, Russia

2017 – “Palmyra Walls” Rayzan Museum, Rayzan, Russia; Syrian National Museum, Damascus

2017 – “Olives” Kalimat Gallery, Istanbul, Turkey; Solitaire Gallery, Beirut, Lebanon

Whereas, we took a deep breath and paused a while on his ongoing present Solo exhibition “I am In Syria”, Gallery Zawaya, Damascus, which symbolizes two underlying topics that Sabour wanted to emphasize: (I am in Syria): as I am an eyewitness of all the darkness happening here. Moreover (I am in Syria) indicates my real presence in Syria in those dark times. So he just made a joke, exclaiming: “When people and friends are asking me: Are you really in Syria, now?!! ... I just answer: Yes, I am in Syria. And I am making art from here.” He added explaining his relationship to his country: “Syria is my homeland. But I have always returned back. Syria is my only refuge. Belonging is to Syria, and to Syria only.”

Yet, his story about titles is far from ending at that point, his expo “I am In Syria” which includes 70 paintings with the same size displayed in a way as a videotape of our lives as Syrians throughout 10 years of war. Those paintings are as well arranged under different subtitles, which are:

  • (Attempts to comprehend Fires), incarnated in paintings questioning the motives behind burning Syrian forests, especially Olive trees which are very symbolic in the Syrian culture throughout all the Successive civilizations on this earth.
  • (Attempts to comprehend Love), a subtitle he just made a small remark witty: “Has anyone reached my age and still reflects on Love?” yes of course love is an immortal theme in all demonstrations of art.
  • (Attempts to comprehend Attempts), which is a deep reflection on the philosophy of art, a visualization of Sabour own attempts to understand the world around him, especially his Homeland Syria. Where he visualize Syria as a country of “Mazarat”, (holy shrines of saints of all religions in Syria), he says: “our main crisis is a crisis of Mazarat. And no relief without belief, whatever is that belief.” He talked with an affected voice about his attempts of understanding attempts.  Since Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.

Leading to his own crisis of belief, Dr. Nizar Sabour has been raised in a Syrian family full of duality. A very pious practicing mother, who went to the church every Sunday and following all the religious ritual. On the other hand, a communist father, whose religious conviction was based on the ideology of Marxism-Leninism, which made of atheism the official doctrine of the Communist Party. This paradoxical familial situation, has shaped Nizar’s personality as a young man; as well as an artist where this contradiction is represented in his Icon paintings that marks his artistic career, despite of those Icons religious symbolism, they are disclosing a very contemporary attitude of religious symbols, a theme treated in contemporary tools and vision. Sabour as well emphasized the need to embrace the Christian heritage of Syria, as a country that is a shrine of Syriac language of Jesus. A heritage to all Syrians, not only to Christians.

Sabour concluded his talk with his own course of action to formulate the painting, which is all made by natural materials taken from the Syrian environment. Like “Arjom” the residue of squeezing out olive oil from olives, this is as well a sacred tree in the Syrian civilization. Sabour gave details his “use of Syrian raw materials, as a visual new language of expression with archeological layers” (intending layers of civilizations), which reflects his own contemporary artistic theory. Or as he put it: “Life is complex: however art is a direct representation of life. But an indirect representation of the theme.”    

Moreover, I am as well going to make other great revelations, about his own philosophy of art impact on me, without even knowing. While searching for information concerning this great artist, I came through an article in SANA 2016, about his solo exhibition “Six Years” , at Khan Asaa’d Basha, Damascus, which was the artifact of his art through six years of war. At the time, I was not really involved in any artistic work, but I was just visiting the Khan with friends, while his expo was ongoing. I was fascinated by the textures, the forms, the technics involving pieces of silks, yet not knowing that his exhibition and the place, would make a be a mark land in my career as an artist since I will two years later expose my photography in the same place.

Sabour’s “I am in Syria”, is a real invitation to all Syrians to review their relationship with their “Syrianity” to call it that. Since we as Syrians are doomed by layers and layers of successive civilizations, which we should embrace altogether, as an integrated part of our identity formation. And we all have in common is our “Syrianity”, so let’s just be Syrians.

Report: Lama Alhassanieh

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