Spotlight: Nasser Hussein

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Nasser Hussein, Untitled, 2019

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Nasser Hussein, Untitled, 2019

Aleppo-born Nasser Hussein creates delicately rendered figures that inhabit canvases full of muted, earthy colours. With a focus on technique and a precise colour palette, the Berlin-based artist has developed his aesthetic through time spent in both Dusseldorf and Berlin. While they function as a reflection of his moods and experience, ultimately, Hussein seeks to leave each painting open to interpretation, fulfilling a dual role of creating intimacy, and yet retaining a sense of emotional distance.

In Nasser Hussein’s paintings, delicate figures float within muted picture planes. Rendered in delicate brushstrokes, many of them are faceless, yet closer inspection reveals the barest of lines outlining noses, brows or mouths. In these simple lines are conveyed a rich spectrum of human emotions: thoughtfulness, introspection and observation. The subjects of Hussein’s paintings are caught up in tender vignettes, embraced by shadows and a sense of serene loneliness. In one, a woman seems to balance her partner upside down in the palm of her hand: it is impossible to tell if he is performing a deft headstand, fighting gravity, or if he is in fact about to float away. Elsewhere, a man and woman meet each other as if suspended in space, caught in a weightless dance. Whether they are lying naked and contemplative alone in their rooms, or gazing with sightless eyes in the mirror, Hussein’s tender figures are caught in the act of nearly dissolving, as beautiful and insubstantial as the fragile stems of fading flowers.

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Nasser Hussein, Untitled, 2017

What unites all of Hussein’s works, apart from the tender delicacy of his painting style, is the choice of a subdued palette of earthy colours. Brown, rusty ochre and beige are punctuated by soft whites and moody grey-blues. It is this mastery of colours that defines Hussein’s work, and which allows him, in the words of Dia Azzawi, “to explore the surrounding objects; to subject them to his visual scrutiny and to involve the viewer in that intimacy.”

The muted nature of his palette, explains Hussein, stems from an “understanding of the moods of the characters that live in my paintings.” As such, the colours are chosen to complement the personalities and emotions of the characters who populate his canvases. “I want to take advantage of the energy of light, and both the fluidity and density of colour,” he explains. “Painting these grey transitions interspersed with light imbues the characters with their figurative as well as expressive value.”

The ‘grey transitions’ of Hussein’s paintings, and their slightly smudged and blurry effect, create the effect of characters that are at once distant and slightly intangible, and yet warmly intimate, as if the viewer were a voyeur peeking in on private moments. “My characters have a full life, though they are in a vacuum,” says Hussein. “They reveal no trace of time or place, and sometimes their features disappear without me fully knowing why – perhaps it reflects a desire on my part to disappear, or perhaps it is simply because in some ways I want to provide as little visual information as possible – to leave the suspended. Each painting is a viable world in which its inhabitants live and breathe. I propose a new, viable world in which different characters and different moods live.”

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Nasser Hussein, Untitled, 2018

As such, Hussein’s paintings are reflective of his state of mind and can be seen as a barometer of his mood- “there is no Syrian family that hasn’t experienced death, arrest, abduction or destruction, and, while I don’t want to be merely a spectator, at the same time, I can be nothing else, and this causes frustration.”. Yet, even as they reveal something so intimate, Hussein specifically leaves them open to interpretation. “My paintings are a refuge,” he says. “I don’t give my works titles for this reason – I want the viewer make their own personal connections. By leaving it open to their interpretation, I am making the viewer a partner. It becomes a safe space for both of us.”

Much of Hussein’s recent work has been influenced by his 2012 move to Berlin from Dusseldorf. “During the first four years of my stay in Berlin, I was so depressed that I stopped making a lot of work,” he explains. “I was afraid of falling into a trap and creating work I did not like. Seeing what was happening in Syria only further propelled my feelings of isolation, loneliness and displacement. However, over time I came to see how living in a city like Berlin, which has seen its share of ugly destruction and is now at the height of its glory, gives a lot of strength and balance to a person like me, whose city (Aleppo) has been destroyed.”