Artist Marwan Sahmarani on painting, becoming an artist and living in and out of Lebanon
"My work is another way of seeing the reality of the region."
Lebanese artist Marwan Sahmarani lives for half of the year in Beirut and the other half in the mountain village of Tarbena in Spain by the Mediterranean Sea. In fact he has spent the last twenty years leaving his country in times of war, returning then flying out again. He has studied in Paris, worked in Montreal and had exhibitions in the USA, Mexico, the Gulf and Germany: "It's a part of exile and running away from the turmoil of the Middle East," he explains.
Still, though he is happy to leave, it does not mean that he wants to leave Lebanon behind for good. "My last stop now is in a small village in Spain where I can calm down, without cutting the bridge with Beirut. I really need Lebanon and I need Beirut especially" he tells me, explaining that he was drawn to Spain because it reminds him of home. It has a similar climate to Lebanon, he says, the mountains are there and the sea is just 30 minutes away.
Sahmarani draws my attention to a large, untitled oil painting on the wall, part of his new exhibition at the Kashya Hildebrand gallery in London. It is a colourful, abstract work, which by his own admission is inspired by Picasso's Guernica, created after the bombing of a Basque village in Spain during the Spanish civil war. If you look at Sahmarani's piece for long enough images of arms detached from bodies surface between the swirls of paint; a reference to the ongoing unrest in Lebanon.
"The main idea I had in the beginning was to paint about the turmoil in the Middle East; the horror, the terror," he says, "but without being so symbolic, without the pictures that traditionally represent the Middle East, more as a universal image of violence." Sahmarani is keen to point out that he is not trying to be journalistic or paint in a realistic way. "I'm trying to go beyond that and I feel Lebanese people connect with this," he adds. "My work is another way of seeing the reality of the region."
Around the corner Sahmarani shows me work painted in a similar style to Untitled. It is oil on canvas with broad-strokes and bold colours, but produced during the half year he spends in Spain. It is reminiscent of the elements, of nature, landscapes, the wind and the sea, rather than of unrest and violence.
Juxtaposed, the two works convey both the power of nature and the power of mankind; using one technique for turmoil and for calm makes the point that what's important in the end is whether it's a good or a bad painting, not just that it's about the Middle East. He likens painting the two places he splits his time between to the moon and how it appears twice a month; and so the name of the exhibition became Black Moon.
Sahmarani says he can't help but be affected by where he lives, an idea that comes through in his work, but in an "unconscious way." He doesn't think his work has a political message. "I'm just a painter, having a look and a sensation and emotion about where I am. If I go to Spain I will have an emotion and my vision will be the mountains and nature and where I'm living and I will describe it and transmit it; in Lebanon for sure, the bombing, the horror, the poverty, the inequality."
"For me the only political message that comes from those paintings is that there's a lot of violence in those countries" he continues, "in a more unconscious way, there's violence that has layers and layers of history. Not only in the last two years, or during the Arab Spring, but the violence is deeply rooted in the ground. So yes, it can be political."
"Either you're a painter or you're not," says Sahmarani, on how he first became an artist. "I was since I was a kid." But it's not as simple as it sounds. When Sahmarani was growing up Lebanon was in the middle of a civil war, and he came from a family who didn't think being an artist constituted a career. "Until the late 90s you couldn't be an artist in Beirut; there was no social status for an artist" he says. "After 92 it was a bit easier."
Over ten years later he is well into his career and Lebanon is threatened by another conflict next door in Syria, which is now reaching its third year, has forced 2.3 million refugees into neighbouring countries and claimed the lives of over 100,000. Sahmarani says that the last two weeks at home have been uncomfortable, though he doesn't feel it himself.
"You know how I feel it? My wife is Canadian, she's living in Beirut and I can feel it in her eyes. She's never lived it and I see terror in her eyes. I have it in my blood so I told her ok, that's fine we will get used to it, but when I see terror in her eyes, I see that there's something wrong. I've grown up with it; it's part of my every day" he says.
The situation has forced a lot of Syrian artists to cross the border, who are trying to escape the violence and seek refuge in Lebanon. Though their work has been widely showcased in London, and written about in the press, Sahmarani says they are suffering too. "Life is very expensive in Beirut, for artists it's very, very expensive. It's more fashionable for them; people buy their art, but how much? Lebanon is still very expensive."
This is not the only effect the uprising has had on the creative scene in Lebanon. The region may be riddled with unrest, but out of every situation of difficulty, of war and misery, something interesting will come believes Sahmarani. "You saw it in Germany during the war, or before the war, when you had expressionists, or the great painters like Otto Dix" he says of the artist who was famous for producing work about the brutality of war. "People need to express themselves, it's like therapy."
Published in Middle East Monitor