Multidisciplinary Syrian artist Anas Albraehe studied painting and drawing at the Fine Arts University of Damascus, graduating in 2014, before relocating to Lebanon. Here, the following year he completed an MA in psychology and art therapy at the Lebanese University. This interest in the mind is evident in an oeuvre comprising painting and theatre performance, and which explores the psychology of colour as well as the glance of the other. Anna Wallace-Thompson asks him about how colour reflects psyche and the changing face of portraiture and our image of self in an ever-evolving digital world.
When you moved to Lebanon, you decided to pursue studies in psychology and art therapy – what about these subjects interested you?
After finishing my studies in Damascus, I spent about a year as a volunteer working with refugees. This exposed me to the complex psychological issues at hand for people having to relocate and change their lives in this manner, as well as an interest in psycho-social assistance. I wanted to study this further, and was accepted for a scholarship studying for a Master’s degree in Lebanon, under the supervision of doctors, professors and specialists. My subsequent thesis was entitled ‘Domestic Violence and How to Enable Dialogue to Reduce Violence as a Phenomenon’.
Your work deals a lot with the psychology of colour – how does colour affect us and what are you exploring with your own particular choices of colour?
I cannot be sure exactly why I choose the colours that I do, but I certainly choose them in order to separate my work from reality. I draw what my eyes see – I do not use a camera, but rather, I monitor the colours of nature and the environment in which I feel like I see new colours overlapping. They stir my imagination, and I think about how each colour tone affects its neighbours. In my work, for example, next to orange, gray can become a cool bluish orange that gently harmonises.
You do have a very distinctive colour palette – it reminds me a little of the Impressionists, such as Gauguin, so full of life. In addition to how they work together, do colours symbolise anything in your works?
Yes, I love Gauguin and Matisse and I am flattered that my work reminds you of them; perhaps we are sipping from the same spring, we all take from nature. The countries of the Mediterranean and the South are warm and sunny and rich in details. They possess a spirit capable of influencing us. Having said that, when I started my painting career, I was unfamiliar with Gauguin. I lived in a remote countryside in Suwayda and simply drew what surrounded me. At university, thanks to the internet, I was introduced to artists such as Gauguin and Matisse and I was surprised and delighted at the same time. And I thought, maybe within me I have a spirit resembling their soul. The colours I use are the colours of my beautiful environment.
Do you mix your own colours? Are there colours that you are trying to create, or that you are most connected to?
I let myself feel with the painting as I go along. I have a colourful imagination, and to be totally honest, if I stopped to think for a moment about what colour I was choosing, I don’t think I would be able to paint honestly. Often, it’s only when I step away from the painting to take it in that I see how the colours have all come together, almost as if on their own.
Your work also deals a lot with contemporary portraiture - how do you think portraiture has changed in the era of the selfie, of Instagram and Facebook, and instant photography on our smartphones? Do you think there is an onus on the artist to keep this art form alive, or to adapt it? Is this something you think about?
I do think about this a lot and am worried and distressed for the future of painting. The influence of social media on art seems dangerous but people do not realize this. There is a real confusion between the image and the painting and the painting is compared formally to the picture. It feels as if the general public are becoming ever more accustomed to two-dimensional images devoid of spirit and a sensory, emotional dimension. Everything is so photoshopped and perfect and nobody seems to really ‘live’ in the moment and feel and experience what is before their very eyes. For example, if someone wants to see a tree, he is filming it and zooming in to get the perfect angle, the perfect crop – but he’s not able to enjoy it with his own two eyes.
What do you mean?
For example, today we no longer need ‘realistic’ paintings that exactly depict reality – the need for art to be a direct documentation of the world around us has waned with the advancement of photography. In my view, trying to create a painting that strives to resemble reality as exactly as possible is a waste of time. We need art for art – draw someone with a special colour, full of spirit and expression. If he wants a literal portrait, well, the camera is there. Most importantly – in the case of portraits – don’t compare an artwork to a photograph, they are two completely different approaches. I really wonder what the future of painting will be.
You also explore the glance of the other - your paintings feel extremely intimate, as if we, the viewer, were, if not intruding, then certainly looking in on quiet, private moments. What interests you in the glance of the other? Is it an intrusion or something you invite?
Here I would say I cannot answer you satisfactorily, because the deep things within our souls are difficult to express in words, so instead I draw them. The gaze of the other, it’s a feeling – and I hope my paintings give the viewer the same feeling that made me want to create them in the first place.
In your most recent show, Dream Catcher at Agial gallery, you featured works exploring the sleep industry, for example the idea that the military is trying to create the ’sleepless soldier’, and how sleep is seen in some industries as a commodity that slows us down. Why do you think sleep has become a weakness in contemporary society?
When I first moved to Beirut, I lived with a group of friends and works. I was struck by how, in sleep, they were in a complete state of surrender and truth. I saw them in purely plastic form – a melange of hands, coloured lines, blocks of shapes, light and other details, but the tired faces absent. This got me researching sleep, and how it has changed. We live in a fast time, capitalism wants to programme everything in favour of production, and promote the idea of consumption. This affects us, even as we don’t notice. There was a time we went to bed early. Now we sleep less, spending endless hours scrolling images – advertising, marketing, social media (as an aside, sometimes I ponder whether the human race will evolve differently to adapt to this, will our children one day in the distant future have larger eyes, and bigger thumbs?). We sleep little and less because our lives are empty and fast, stuck within a system that wants us to work fast and consume more. This interests me and I want to look into it more.
We are vulnerable when we sleep. You have your subjects wrapped in cocoon-like quilts, hiding them from the viewer as much as they protect and shield the men from the world around them.
This quilt belongs to my environment, it is a masterpiece that women have made since ancient times, competing against each other as to who could make the most beautiful quilt. Quilts like this exist in everyone’s memory, and I drew them as a tribute to the women who make them and to our culture. It is an alternative uterus, a home and place of safety to nurture us as we slumber. The quilt wraps us up in our joys and sorrows, and allows us to surrender ourselves and move away from life, if even for a few hours. When we are asleep we are all alike – whether you are sleeping in a palace or a child sleeping in the street, both are absent from reality, and the quilt is as intimate as your own house. In the context of my paintings, each quilt takes on a different colour to show it as a unique home to its sleeper.
Tell me about your series Manal. You have said you were exploring your own psyche through the face of your neighbour: what was it about Down-syndrome that got you thinking about self-expression? What did it reveal about yourself? What did the gender flip, of man and woman, bring to the table?
To be honest, it was she who taught me how to see. Manal has a special appearance and a delicate aesthetic. In many ways she allows me to paint myself through painting her. It is hard to describe – but perhaps better expressed through the video I made, which you can view here.
What are the technical challenges in working in portraiture? Are there any new directions you are trying to push your work in?
Portraits are really complex – they need depth of perception and also plain old good, solid talent. A talentless portrait can be technically proficient but devoid of spirit. When I’m painting or drawing portraits, I’m not thinking about the future, I’m totally in the present, and this makes me feel like I’m doing what I was meant to do on this earth.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new exhibition, in which I am creating an homage to women who work in agriculture. I was first attracted to the colours of these sorts of scenes, but then I realised I wanted to highlight the importance of women in these roles throughout history. The first goddess was Ishtar, and the first creature on this earth was the Mother. The female contains us, and lives within us, and creates us – I wanted to salute that.