x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Play of light in Nabil Safwat's UAE oils echoes Turner

The Iraqi artist and art historian Nabil Safwat has an exhibition of landscapes at The Courtyard in Dubai.

Nabil Safwat’s distinctive oil paintings of the UAE landscape can be seen in his exhibition Seasonal Landscape and Wandering in Nature, at The Courtyard gallery in Dubai.
Nabil Safwat’s distinctive oil paintings of the UAE landscape can be seen in his exhibition Seasonal Landscape and Wandering in Nature, at The Courtyard gallery in Dubai.

The Iraqi painter Nabil Safwat is able to capture, on his canvases, the sensitivity of the UAE's landscape to changes in light. He has driven down coastlines and through rocky, cracked wadi-beds in search of scenes that offer this quality: the illusion of wetness in a mirage on the horizon, the way moonlight gathers on the sea, the first few metres from shore at midnight.

Safwat has painted these scenes in "gratitude", he says, ahead of his solo show, Seasonal Landscapes and Wandering in Nature, at Total Arts at The Courtyard in Dubai, which opened on Monday night. "I've been in the UAE for 11 years and its landscapes, many of which few people here see, really are remarkable."

The artist, working entirely in oils, has developed his own style in private while carving out a career as a noted scholar of Islamic art and the calligraphy of the Muslim world. This show at Total Arts, therefore, represents the first time he has publicly exhibited his paintings, despite having worked on some of these images for the past 10 years.

"I was amazed at the quality of work that he had," says Dariush Zandi, the director of Total Arts. "He's a serious oil-on-canvas painter. Something of his work immediately reminded me of the British masters, such as Turner."

Zandi, who is a keen off-roader, has mapped some of the more obscure, dusty routes through the interior of the UAE. He found an immediate connection with Safwat's canvases.

"With the right lighting, the landscape here really comes alive and that's what pushed me to travel across this place. Safwat can capture that."

That the artist never expressed any desire to exhibit his paintings invigorates his work with an air of solitary play. There's freedom of form, and a carefree air not often found in a painter who expects public scrutiny in the future.

Similarly, there's a sense of the scholar let loose on completely new ground - far from the intricacy and attention to form of calligraphy, Safwat has full rein to create landscapes suffused with his own emotive relationship with a place.

"I'm an art historian, dealing with Islamic art and calligraphy, yet painting was always a part of me. That's why I was able to articulate the feeling of the calligraphers, I think, because I have gone through the artistic process."

His best are the softer works, the ones where sky meets earth in a sleepy tidal wash of colour. Or when he manages to render that woolly ball of the sun as it sinks behind a gauze of blown sand and dust.

To call these works "traditional" or "decorative" is to miss the point somewhat. Here is a celebrated scholar of the region's artistic history laying bare his impressionistic vision, and in a perhaps not-so-obvious visual language: "In Islamic culture, honouring the word is part of the tradition but we are not very adept in the Middle East in landscape painting."

Zandi summarises what initially drew him to Safwat's work: "We've had artists pass through the UAE and paint its landscapes in the manner of where they come from. But Safwat's style is here, and all here."

Nabil Safwat's solo show continues at Total Arts at The Courtyard until November 12.