For the last three decades, Fadi Yazigi has been exploring the human condition and daily life around him. Born in 1966 in Latakia, he completed his BFA at the university of Damascus and has been working out of a studio there ever since. Not even the onset of the war has coerced him to budge – for it is the everyday quotidian activities that take place around him as he works, tucked away in the old town of Damascus, that have always fed into his unique visual language.
Working across several media, but predominantly paintings on canvas and bronze sculptures and clay reliefs, there is an immediacy to his work that imbues them with a tactile quality – not least his clay reliefs and smooth, bronze pieces – their Boteroesque roundness invites viewers to touch, stroke, and run their hands over them. His canvases, meanwhile, manage to harness a harmonious interplay between hard and soft, light and dark, blurry and sharp brushstrokes as he populates them with numerous faces.
Since the onset of the war in 2011, Yazigi has stayed put, he and his wife refusing to leave Syria, since this, he says, is his home, and where his life and inspiration are. The past few years have seen dramatic shifts in his work as he deals with both the emotional effects of witnessing the destruction around him, as well as logistical challenges brought about by a shortage of electricity and materials.
You have spoken about the importance of the 'first touch' of the paintbrush on canvas, as an authentic expression in light of the danger of overworking a painting. Does this apply to your clay sculptures too? They are very tactile, the trace of your fingers on the clay evident – tell us more about this sense of directness in your work.
There is immense power in first impressions. In my paintings, my intention has always been to capture that raw power, the power of a first impression, and show the essence of the work as it is. If I can maintain that kind of directness in my work (and subsequently between the work and viewer), that’s great. It’s how I seek to convey my thoughts and intentions as directly as possible.
Zena Takieddine once wrote of your work: "Bronze sculptures are Yazigi’s favourite form of expression. These three-dimensional creations are the only works he names; born embodiments of the concepts he explores. Their smooth bronze surfaces are a crucial part of his attempt to capture immediacy and give an unhindered first impression of serenity." What is it like working in the material, what are the challenges that come with it?
I have worked across so many different media in the past – paper, canvas, reliefs, ceramics, and so on. When I start work on a sculpture, all of these different materials and their associated techniques do come to my mind unconsciously (particularly those related to reliefs). A sculpture takes a lot of time to create – while you’er working on it, at every moment, every change you make at any point affects the sculpture as a whole.
My paintings and the sketches are the seed of my sculptures: they may take time to grow, but the idea always comes after while. So, while a bronze sculpture will start out as a sketch, a concept, it is connected to so many different dimensions in my mind that it is pulling all those threads together during the process of making that is really the challenge.
You have spoken about how the onset of the war in 2011 has had a huge impact on you, particularly in feeling isolated, but also what it has shown you about the value of human life. How has this made itself felt in your work, and your sculptural practice in particular?
In the last seven years, everything has changed. All kinds of beliefs have been shattered and dropped. My works used to be dreamier, but now my sculptures have taken on a harsher quality, both in appearance and in the technique with which they are made. The only thing I can do is try not to lose my space, to make my art, and hold on to my family – these are my light and each day they provide me with a little hope. My sketchbook and my clay reliefs, during this time, have become my daily journal, documenting the story of these days of war.
To add to that, you have said (and I quote Zena again): “My sculptures are complex personalities. Slightly sickly, deformed, diminutive people and yet they keep their smile. They keep hoping for something better – optimistically, even stupidly.” This was 10 years ago, yet I suspect this still applies.
As I said, everything has changed in the last seven years. Not just my work and my sculpture – my very breathing has changed, my very ideas. It is hard and heavy here, yet daily I go to work to create art.
Works like The Seesaw, Balland Cube– these are all recent bronze works that show human figures teeming, crowding, in movement. As if caught in mid-action. They mark a significant evolution from the more single figures you were producing earlier in your career. Can you tell me a little more about the idea behind these recent works, and this evolution?
I feel as if, in some ways, the world has reverted back to the Middle Ages – everything is chaos. With these particular sculptures, I find my pessimistic view of society come through – an embodiment of people watching, the news, a story of the state of the world today.
On a practical level, you now face challenges in creating the work that were previously not an issue. Is this pushing you in different directions as you try to work around these barriers?
In Syria currently there are no materials, so I have to procure them from Beirut. There is no foundry any longer either, so again, I go to Beirut. I have no electricity for my kiln. The list goes on. I don’t like to use the word ‘suffering’, but this is the truth. I feel as if I am fighting to tell the world that we – Syria – are still alive.
Let's talk about scale in your work: you do larger bronze sculpture, then smaller clay ones. What is your relationship between large and small? And how do the two materials compare?
On the surface they may seem different – different materials, different sizes – but there is continuity between my reliefs and my sculptures. Each feeds back to the other, and helps to give me a fresh view, a new vision.
What are you working on now? Where are you trying to push the medium of sculpture?
At the moment I’m working on a continuing series of work. I’m going every day to work, watching the faces of the people, seeing how much everything has changed around me. The gap between us and the rest of the world is getting bigger. Perhaps this is making itself felt in my work through a sharper light, less grey.