Currently in residency at the Cité internationale des arts through the programme of the Institut français, you are developing the Mother Earth series. Can you tell us how it began and what its major themes are?
It started after completing a series in which I painted sleeping workers in a state similar to surrender, moving far away from everything around them. Then I saw The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet at the end of 2019. It became engraved in my memory and that was the beginning for me to become inspired to create this series of paintings. It brought back memories of seeing women in my city who work, farm and build in the absence of men who were involved in the war there. I found a strong relationship between women and the land in terms of giving, life, and growth. Aesthetically I found that the oriental decoration on the clothes of the women, and the way they hide their faces from the rays of the sun, turned them into colourful ornate blocks in harmony with the plants and the land. The spirit of women exists in everything and everywhere. It confirms that the Gods were Goddesses before they became a God.
How has the residency allowed the project to develop its potential?
I am able to be in a virtually permanent relationship with French art and the artists who have had the greatest influence on my work. Being close to this artistic spirit is something magnificent. It allows me to have a real emotional connection to the works. Also, I have been able to move away from the state of anxiety and fear that I experienced in Lebanon and Syria, the insecurity that we all suffer from there.
You have said that the French artists Jean François Millet, Jules Breton and Henri Matisse have had the greatest impact on your work. Why were you drawn to them and in what way have they influenced the subject matter and style of your work?
I feel like we have the same vision. There are compositions, colours and artistic interconnections that are also present in my own work. They have affected my work in terms of the way I portray a scene, adjusting the composition to a precise colour rhythm.
The Syrian artist, Ziad Dalloul, who is based in Paris, is another artist who has influenced you. When it is safe to do so you intend to meet in person. What do you hope to learn from him?
At the moment we are communicating virtually due to the Corona pandemic. We have talked a little about art and I will be very excited to meet him in person. I love his work and am eager to learn new techniques connected to the relationship of light and shadow in his paintings. Also, to have him tell me about the influence of Paris in his work and the relationship of his paintings to his home city.
You are from an area in Syria where most people work the land. How did you become interested in the arts?
It is possible that my interest in art came from the aesthetic environment I lived in since childhood. Working with the earth is like living in a painting from sunrise until the return of the farmer at sunset. The scenes of my life made my eyes glow brighter every day and increased my desire to draw. I used to watch how the colours danced in front of my eyes while forming the life before me. I feel like I was born an artist. Art helps me go on with life. If I didn’t paint, I might have committed suicide.
Although you were forced to leave Syria and move to Lebanon because of the conflict you remain deeply connected to the country. Do you feel this manifests itself in your work?
Yes. I am loyal to the place where I came from because I believe that if you want to be a global artist you should first have a perfect relationship with your own environment, and then develop it by mixing it with the knowledge gained from the experiences you have gone through. I also found a connection with my homeland in Lebanon, in the simple and rural neighbourhoods that have a touch of Eastern warmth.
In Lebanon you studied for an MA in Psychology and Art Therapy. Did your personal experiences influence this decision and in what ways do you think art can have a therapeutic effect?
My experience in drawing Manal, a girl with Downs Syndrome, is a perfect example of the relationship between art and psychotherapy and the great impact art can have on changing individuals and societies. Having been born with Downs Syndrome, Manal was very much an outsider in her community, sidelined and alone. When I painted her she became the core of our collaboration. The paintings are my representations of her but also show how she sees the world around her and herself. There is a magical power in art, it can awaken sincere feelings buried in our souls.
Given your affiliation with France and French artists would you like to settle here one day, or do you think your art would flourish better closer to home?
I cannot be certain. I have eyes and a soul so maps can't limit me. Everywhere on earth there is something that connects with my desire to research and draw, and my home environment is constantly in my mind. Perhaps if the countryside in France seems to have a connection with the countryside in the Levant I will create a rural scene in my colour scheme. As for staying in Paris, I don't know yet. I need time to feel whether I want something or not. Up until now I have sensed a combination of romance and brutality in Paris. I feel I am still at the beginning of deciphering the aesthetic secrets of this charming city.
Your residency at the Cité Internationale des arts will end in January, what are your plans for 2021?
I am preparing for a personal exhibition that will be held at the Anita Rogers Gallery, in New York, in the autumn of 2021. It will be the outcome of my paintings all along this year. This is the only thing that is confirmed as we wait for the Pandemic to end and return to our previous lives.
Anas Albraehe is in residency in Paris, at the Cité internationale des arts, to work on the Mother Earth series.
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