Noor Bahjat, the first artist chosen for Ayyam Gallery’s Young Artist in Residency programme, has some pretty impressive mentors from her home country.
Tammam Azzam caused a worldwide viral sensation when, in 2013, he digitally superimposed Gustav Klimt’s painting The Kiss against a war-ravaged Syrian building.
Mohannad Orabi, whose childlike portraits offer a personal perspective but also call to mind martyr posters, is another powerful artist whose work echoes his country’s turmoil.
After being uprooted from Syria, both Azzam and Orabi have a permanent base in Ayyam’s flagship office and gallery space in Alserkal Avenue, Dubai.
Bahjat, who is now enjoying her first solo exhibition at the gallery, was also allowed to set up her studio within the gallery space, giving visitors a chance not only to see her art but watch her producing it.
The paintings that form the backbone of her exhibition are figurative works, featuring wide-eyed, haunting portraits that compel the viewer to respond. Some feature women in black surrounding a table full of sinister objects such as a skull and an upturned globe. In others, the figures have animal skulls for heads.
All are full of heavy texture, achieved by thickly applying paint and then scraping it off.
Although she denies that the war in Syria has motivated her work, the paintings seem heavily laced with the trauma of conflict.
“I’m not a political person, I’m too young for that and it is not my intention to focus on the war,” she says. “However, I did study in Damascus during the war, so I might have been influenced.
“Art is for everyone; I don’t title the paintings because I want everyone to create their own stories about the work and I don’t have my own agenda as to how I want people to see the work.
“When you look at the painting, it is just you and the painting – so whatever you see in it is the right interpretation.”
One of my personal favourites of her works is of a woman with a bowed head, painted in shades of blue on a coral-pink background. Behind her is a shadow staring straight out of the canvas and covering her mouth.
“This one began with me just playing around with figures and I was surprised by the results – I loved it,” she says. “As I see it, the blue lady is limited by social constraints and the lady behind her is her soul. She has strength in her eyes but if she talks she will make a big problem, so her mouth is covered.”
One of the biggest Middle Eastern galleries in the world, with five branches across the region and one in London, Ayyam Gallery has always supported young artists. In 2007, shortly after founding the first Ayyam Gallery in Damascus, cousins Hisham and Khaled Samawi launched their Shabab Ayyam programme – an incubator project that sought to support the emerging generation of Syrian painters in the country’s capital, including Orabi and Tazzam.
Now that the two artists work daily in their studios adjacent to the gallery, they are in a prime position to act as mentors and have been working every day for the past six months with Bahjat to help her develop her art.
Having them so close has proved invaluable, says Hisham, the gallery’s managing partner.
“Their exchanges have been remarkable, particularly since Mohannad and Tammam joined the gallery as young artists and developed their distinctive styles under the umbrella of Shabab Ayyam,” says Hisham.
“Moreover, having the residency studio adjacent to the gallery has allowed visitors to become familiar with Noor’s work, while charting her process and development. Aside from providing her with unmatched exposure and support, the studio space introduced Noor to a vibrant artistic community, where her growth as a painter has been phenomenal.”
• Noor Bahjat: Young Artist in Residency Graduation Exhibition runs until September 15