Youssef Abdelke

Youssef Abdelke.

Born in Qameshli (Syria) in 1951. Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Damascus, 1976. Studies at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1986. PhD in Arts, Université Paris VIII, 1989. He lived and worked in Paris as from 1981 until his return to Damascus in 2005.

After 25 years of com­pelled exile and of being for­bidden to go back to Syria, it was finally pos­sible for him to go to Damascus in 2005 and to organise a large exhi­bi­tion there. Since 2010, his Syrian pass­port was con­fis­cated and he could nei­ther exit the country nor return to France where his wife and daughter live.

The works of Youssef Abdelke are in a large number of museums and insti­tu­tions, including The British Museum, the Museum of Kuwait, the Shoman Foundattion and the Institut du Monde Arabe.

Youssef Abdelke was arrested in Syria on the 18th of July 2013 by the régime forces, and lib­er­ated 5 weeks later on the 22nd of August.

Youssef Abdelké, by Alain Jouffroy.

A great observer of living phe­nomena, a metic­u­lous, dis­ci­plined and method­ical engraver, yet also a poet with images, Abdelke first depicted groups of humans wearing masks over their faces, actors looking for authors, just like Pirandello’s char­ac­ters. He placed them in the night, a ter­ribly dark night, where death and mon­sters were omnipresent. That was his ‘human comedy’, a tragic comedy from which the grotesque was never excluded. Humans pro­gres­sively dis­ap­peared whilst ani­mals and plants loomed from that same night. Their pres­ence is so sig­nif­i­cant that you can almost touch them or skim them with the eyes. There is no hyper-realism in all this, not even ‘realism’, in the tra­di­tional sense of that word: every­thing hap­pens as if he was re-inventing, with each line, nature, a sort of ency­clo­pedia of nat­ural phe­nomena which is done with care and at a slow pace.

His vision is so intense that you have the impres­sion of waking up from a dream when looking at his works. It is as if you had never really seen, in depth and in relief, what a simple fish is. Abdelke pen­e­trates the skull, or the fish, or a woman’s shoe, just like Michaux ‘entered’ in an apple. Maybe he had ripped apart the fish before recon­sti­tuting it. Hence he never ‘rep­re­sents’ the fish, the woman’s shoe or the ox’s skull : he res­sus­ci­tates them. This is his power to fas­ci­nate : every­thing is des­tined to die and to dis­ap­pear, yet every­thing can be saved, as if from a deluge. Each living phe­nomenon is a mate­rial mir­acle, a trea­sure and an enigma. Such a sur­prise it is when you redis­cover it ! I do not know how he man­ages in order to reach it. Observation and the utmost atten­tion are not enough. Everything hap­pens as if he wanted to re-invent the world, pro­tect it for good from offence, indif­fer­ence and omis­sion. It is as if he was him­self dead in front of the ox’s skull and that he wanted all living phe­nomena to replace him, the Syrian engraver. It is not ‘Abdelke’ who inter­ests him but rather every­thing that Abdelke isn’t, every­thing that will sur­vive to Abdelke and every­thing that goes beyond, far beyond, Abdelke.

I am sure that Baudelaire would have been impressed by his engrav­ings and that he would have ded­i­cated them poems and enthu­si­astic texts. There will always be day, night, and light, at least for another couple of bil­lion years or so, and there will always be dark­ness. It is in that light and in that dark­ness that Abdelke works, sim­ilar to a candle’s glimmer, a simple little candle, flick­ering in its candle-holder. When he reaches this result, which I call res­ur­rec­tion, he smiles, he is happy, he stops and puts down his chisel ; no point in adding any­thing. It lives or it doesn’t live. It emerges, it re-emerges or it does not emerge. The entire ques­tion of art lies there. Actually, the word ‘art’ is inad­e­quate. It is not a matter of art, but rather of a meta­mor­phosis of death into a live exis­tance. Abdelke’s fish is not a fish : it is an arrow, a beam, a breath, a whis­pered call to life. Yet it is also a fish – I don’t know maybe a salmon, a sar­dine or a pike. But it flies like a bird in the night in which we find our­selves once again immersed. In a large char­coal drawing on canvas, he drew the head of a fish in a box and that mas­sive head stares at us, as if the image of death was more alive for Abdelke than that of life. (Alain Jouffroy)


King of Darkness. Profile of Syrian painter Youssef Abdelke.

Artist Youssef Abdelké’s highly acclaimed work is renowned for its sin­ister under­tones and unique sym­bolism which expose the bru­tal­i­ties of life.

Based in Paris, the 57-year-old Syrian painter breaks with tra­di­tion through his unique approach to still life drawing. His intriguing works have turned heads the world over, selling in such inter­na­tional auc­tion houses as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In addi­tion, his long-awaited exhi­bi­tion in Damascus in December 2007 gen­er­ated huge interest among art lovers.

Trivial items such as a nail, a fish or a shoe are the focal point of Abdelké’s works. “In order for a bone frag­ment, a dish or an empty sar­dine to do what a king and his horse or a woman and her pos­ses­sions usu­ally did, the artist is required to exert excep­tional efforts and to dis­play great skills,” art critic Emil Manaem writes in his intro­duc­tion to Abdelké’s book. “In his draw­ings, Abdelké allows simple things in life to impose their sovereignty over spaces, pushing them from the very begin­ning from the realm of realism to the realm of sym­bolism.”

According to Manaem, true artistic talent does not reveal itself in the way a fish is drawn or the manner in which its details are cap­tured, but in its power to make the fish an expres­sion or a symbol of life. “A fish embodies free move­ment and the vast sea. In the fish, there is both coher­ence with place and the impos­si­bility of living out­side it,” writes Manaem. “In its eter­nally wide-open eyes, there is a bla­tant chal­lenge and con­dem­na­tion of death.” When the fish is depicted sliced open or pierced by nails, the bru­tality of this image con­veys an under­lying mes­sage about the world.

Symbolism has always been inte­gral to Abdelké’s vision. His early ink draw­ings were full of sym­bols expressing clear-cut polit­ical mes­sages. The ‘People’ series from the 1980-90s expressed oppres­sion in the Arab world with its images of jails, guards, crowds of people and horses. “I revealed the dark­ness I felt inside in my ‘People’ series,” Abdelké said. “This helped me move on to more pos­i­tive and peaceful pro­jects.”

However, Abdelké’s harsh style and severity of sub­jects remained, even in his still life draw­ings in the form of skulls, bones and sharp knives. “Artists can’t change their skin even if they change their sub­ject matter,” Abdelké explained.

Abdelké’s con­cept of space has how­ever changed. “I’ve been inspired by the phi­los­ophy of people in South East Asia. They see man as a small part of the uni­verse; space in their paint­ings reflects the huge space we have in our uni­verse. Europeans on the other hand, see man as the centre of the world, that’s why you find their paint­ings full of people and ele­ments,” Abdelké said.

Abdelké now inte­grates both European and Eastern per­spec­tives into his paint­ings. “Eu­ro­peans devel­oped sci­en­tific rules for per­spec­tive so that things would look the same as in reality,” Abdelké said. “East­erners like the Arabs, Turks, and Chinese ignore per­spec­tive; they paint the most impor­tant ele­ments of their paint­ings in a bigger size regard­less of how they see look in reality.”

Finally, after more than 20 years of living and working in France, Abdelké is returning to Syria. “Un­like many of my friends, I never planned to settle down in Paris,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to come back to my home­land, Syria.”

This article was pub­lished in Syria Today magazine.


Public Collections:

British Museum, London.
Museum of Kuwait, Kuwait.
Institut du monde arabe, Paris.
The Shoman Foundation, Amman, Jordan.
Donation Claude & France Lemand 2018. Museum, Institut du monde arabe, Paris.

Copyright © Galerie Claude Lemand 2012.

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