“The blast was not only outside, It happened inside of us as well” these were the exact words of Ghylan Safadi an exiled Syrian figurative expressionist artist who survived Beirut’s explosion and has been living in it for almost a decade now.
He acknowledges the fact that “nothing will be the same after this.” He got really lucky moving from Gemmayzeh where his studio was, during the Corona pandemic, to join his friend visual artist and sculptor Semaan Khawam in his workshop in Dora a bit further away from the port.
“I felt that I was living in an illusion of being secure. This bomb was ready to explode any time for 6 years It was horrific like a volcano damage.” He declares that “What will be painted now will be totally different from what was before the blast.”
Safadi, today an acknowledged major Syrian figurative expressionist painter, found refuge in Beirut fleeing Syria in 2012.
In Beirut’s art circles, he is known as one of the main artists that participated in the collective successful project of “Sleeping with the enemy” with Semaan Khawam, Annie Kuridjian, Fadi Al Chamaa, Mansour Elhabre and others ...
His paintings reflect his views of the current social and political realities. Women’s standing in our society, the dilemmas and challenges they face in love and war. He is also known to be the only Syrian painter who dared to paint the woman’s private organs without any constraint or inhibition. His recent painting “Thousand faces”, that survived the Beirut’s blast, can also be added to a first due to it’s impressive representation of a thousand peron that carry several stories. A painting that was achieved during a worldwide pandemic that made it absolutely impossible for these massive gatherings. He is one of the rare Syrian artists if not the only one I know of, who donated paintings to help out after the Beirut blast.
His paintings, as much as they seem poetic, are as dramatic. As much as his protagonists are stuck to each other as much as they are lonely. Each fighting their own demons. His strokes are very assertive, in playing with shadows like a theatre director guided by his instinct and mastery in colors. A viewer is in awe of the tedious work and layers he puts in to achieve his final masterpieces.
Influenced by his life experiences, an extensive personal library and his love for independent movies and theatre plays, all are deeply intertwined and reflected on each canvas he undertakes.
Crowded compositions that tell some heartbreaking stories about exile, forced displacement, drowning in the sea, death, sad clowns, Don Quixote's horse and beautiful women and distraught little children who lost everything and of course Van Gogh and his sunflowers would appear, or Chagall’s couple in the sky or Schiele or kirchner's palette of colors most of his influences get their share of representation one way or another.
His paintings depict the many stories of this lost generation, lost humans who were forced by war to lose everything. Denied their rights to go back to their hometowns, their families and beautiful land.
So when I ask him : why all this crowd in most of your paintings?
He confesses that he doesn't “like crowds. I hide when it gets crowded, the opposite of what I pour into the canvas.”
You can’t get enough of admiring his one thousand faces painting and of course it immediately crosses your mind where is Ghylan? Instead of the usual where is Waldo of course.
You end up finding him in most of his paintings. including this now famous one.
He considers himself highly influenced by the German expressionists artists and agrees with Sartre’s famous saying that “Hell is other people”
His own interpretation of his paintings is that there are lots of people but each individual is by himself despite the fact that he or she is in a crowd. “The clown is the witness who laughs at others and not the opposite.”
He is also "very influenced by Dante. You can meet a whore next to a murder next to a politician next to a clergy man what connects them is that even in a crowd each is on their own as if you are in front of a theatre play."
During the first Corona lockdown in Lebanon, Semaan Khawam, his longtime artist friend, invited him to join him in a “lockdown workshop” in Dora. so lucky he left his studio apartment in Gemmayzeh, one of the vastly completely devastated neighborhoods.
“During the Beirut blast I was laying down about to get up from my bed in the studio. I saw the hardwood floor shake and we thought it was an earthquake and then the first sound of blast and then a noise that stayed in my ears for more than half an hour I couldn’t hear a thing. It was a good thing we had two windows open. It was minutes before Semaan was laying down where most of the glass, like swords, hit his mattress.
From Dora, a neighborhood not too far from the port, He saw “the orange smoke coming towards us. The power of the blast threw me away. I hit the wall.”
“At first, We thought someone got assassinated. The glass broke everywhere and I looked down the street and I saw horror. Horror made people become a herd as if the crowds in my paintings were coming to reality. They're alone, escaping, walking to find a hospital each one by himself.”
After checking on friends, and due the proximity of his workshop he tried to go check on the Gallery where he had an ongoing exhibition there. Late that evening, he started walking toward Gemmayzeh where Art on 56th Gallery is located, to help save what could be saved. He was walking in the dark since “there was no electricity, everything was destroyed, building and people. I saw people carrying their bags fleeing the area and “Darak”(Lebanese police) and Lebanese soldiers were asking us to go back for our own safety. I was not able to reach the Gallery.
“All of Mar Mkhayel was filled with broken glass beneath our feet. Cars were upside down. I was not allowed to keep going till Gemmayzeh. There were rumors of another ship that might blow up. It was a nightmare, an ugly nightmare.”
While some commercial so-called artists found the blast an opportunity to have a new subject and submitted paintings in 24 hours. Safadi and his group of artist friends were extremely paralyzed by the event and extremely sensitive toward that momentum. Safadi was astonished that “when people were still missing some produced a bunch of paintings. I couldn’t paint.”
“After more than 40 days I started sketching shyly but was not able to lift one brushstroke on a canvas.” In his opinion it is definitely an ethically debatable issue similar to one that happens with the Syrian conflict. After a tragedy of the sort to paint it or not. It will come out eventually for sure in different forms and shapes and styles. But how it will be presented to the public is as important. In his opinion, “Many concepts will change after the blast. Even between artists and of course corrupt politicians …”
Ghylan Safadi could not get over the blast in Beirut although he did witness war in Syria and was familiar with electricity cuts, missing people, crumbled buildings and sound of shelling but that blast was totally apocalyptic. “Unfortunately, the people who rented the apartment after I left got hit badly and their daughter got broken glass in her eyes and lost sight”
Q. Why did you decide to be in Beirut?
I am a Syrian painter from As-Sweidayda city. I left because maybe my brothers were part of the opposition and most of my friends left. After my parents died it did not make any sense for me to stay. I am afraid of coming back now because most people warned me that it had changed a lot.
My love for Beirut started when I was very young. My brothers who were older than me were very much absorbed by the events in Beirut. Beirut was part of our home discussions. It indeed connects the East and the West. It looks like us. I am fond of the sun here. It still has freedom despite the struggles nowadays. I feel Beirut accepts everyone and therefore I fell in love with it when I first came for my solo exhibition 8 years ago in 2012 entitled “Ashes.” It was about the war in Syria and the revolution. I’ve painted only in black and white because this is the way I felt back then”, “even our memories turned into ashes”. The exhibition took place at Artlab where they encouraged me to go for it despite the darkness of the theme and it had a wide success.
When my brother, who was a University professor got arrested; then released after public pressure; I left the urge to leave. At the beginning of the Syrian revolution after some attacks on my city, I also noticed that there won’t be colors (paint) anymore and that people barely can eat. I asked myself how will I be able to sell my art and survive so I chose to leave.
Then many catastrophic events happened afterwards in Syria. The revolution “wasn’t stolen yet” and there were a lot of beautiful people there before all truthful rebels died or left and corrupt misleading took over as Che Guevara warns and says that true revolutions are made by honorable people but inherited and exploited by villains. I was deeply hurt when all this happened in Aleppo and all over Syria. I carry the fate of all Syrians who wanted to escape inside me, so I painted a series of people escaping in boats.
Q. Do you think about leaving Beirut after the 4th of August?
I am in love with Beirut now that it is in ruins, I cannot leave it. Unfortunately, I sense that it’s a city with no tomorrow. It has an illusion of hominess and fake security but I need to do at least one more exhibition before leaving.
The economic financial breakdown pushed some people to take their money out of the banks and buy art. While others could not find enough money to survive on a daily basis. It is a volatile situation but some artists are still hanging on. Until when no one knows. I prefer not to think of this much.
Q. Do you have a favorite medium?
I like to work with acrylic using the same techniques I use for oil paint. I also like working with ink. I treat the black and white drawing like an etching. I like the simplicity in the material I use. An artist can with any sort of material,. Can finish a amazing drawing with just a pencil. In my opinion the less material used the more authentic the piece of art.. The material is not the essence. The essence of a painting is your feeling towards it.
At first, I used to use a lot of colors, then I switched to black and white. In my future exhibition it might be a return to color. I use orange for its vibrant energy. Something feels like a soul, something similar to a fire burning. I might spend ten days without painting and in 5 days make several.
Q. We can depict many artists in your paintings, Van Gogh returns with his sunflowers in several of them and we can definitely spot him in your masterpiece "the thousand faces painting." Can you share with us other artists who influenced your work?
German artist Ernst Ludwig kirchner. Modigliani of course. Goya works in black and white. The Expressionist German School because they aren’t afraid of experimenting. I like how they think in their paintings and how the dimensions are not respected. There is a psychological interpretation to all of this. I also like Chaïm Soutine, a Russian painter who made a major contribution to the expressionist movement while living and working in Paris.