This is war paint, he puts it on everyday so we can remind ourselves of the atrocities of a distance past. They seam like distant dreams painted to heal open wounds. Although his paintings are just pictures of this collective memory of a bygone war era, yet they are worthy of a thousand words as real as life itself.
Ayman Baalbaki’s enormous paintings are a frenzied mass of overlapping lines and daubs of paint. In a growth of expressionist brushstroke, dense and rhythmical but at the same time sure and quick, he calls forth to a political interpretation that is both emotional and personal. Although the symbols of wars weigh heavy in his paintings, yet there is expectation and the positivity symbolized by flowers and bright colors.
In 2012, Baalbaki was part of The Future of a Promise at the 54th Venice Biennale: the first pan-Arab exhibition of contemporary art to feature in the festival. His work depicted warriors wearing veils or casks. His paintings symbolically often describe the seemingly endless conflicts that haunt the Middle East. Breaking the conventional rules of the portrait denying to the viewer the complete vision of the subject covered by the kaffiyeh, he gives a glimpse of them, offering a contrast between impenetrability and defiance. These large-scale expressionist portraits of fighters made him one of the most popular young Arab artists.
In his destroyed building with crescents of vertical lines, we are denied the complete vision of the war-torn building, where he raises his tower of Babel as a symbol of rebirth and protest, pointing out the contrast between the war destruction and art itself as creation.
Ayman Baalbaki was born in Beirut in 1975 in Odeissé, the first year of the Lebanese civil war. He grew up in Wadi Abu Jamil, a neighborhood in central Beirut. After its former residents fled, the neighborhood subsequently became the home of refugees emigrating from Southern Lebanon. Growing up, Beirut was repeatedly ravaged by sectarian violence, and, later on, the invasion of the Israeli army. He draws most of his inspiration from these events, often depicting destroyed buildings, sometimes occupied by refugees who were forced to leave their homes during the combats. After the 2006 Lebanon war, he drew series of scattered structures related to the demolitions consecutive to the bombings of Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Although better known as a painter, Ayman Baalbaki produced notable installation works. Nomadism is a recurrent theme in his work. Destination X is a red old Mercedes Benz piled high with the hastily gathered belongings of a refugee family: luggage, everyday objects, and colorful cloth bundles tied to the roof. During the Lebanese civil war these floral fabrics, regional and postcolonial at the same time, replaced fabrics embroidered with local peasant motifs, mirroring the lost agricultural paradise. The overloaded car suggests movement and absence, urgency and wandering. The letter X symbolizes forced flight into exile to places unknown. Distance is swallowed in an aimless journey, when time and duration become vague. Lost is space, the journey and its hardships, the risk of leaving home, the difficulty of resettling are linked to war, loss and destruction, identity, amnesia and collective memory.
His flawless technique and the undeniable beauty of his work is most apparent as a mirror of Beirut’s seemingly never-ending process of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Flat and yet animated, these war paintings similar to their past, lay there stretched and cracked, dry and holding their breath. Nervous, delusional anticipation, desire for a strange destructive beauty lies behind those layers of paint. As his brush caresses the eerie desolate landscape, shades of color are added to enhance the gradually growing virulent images born to represent the many facets of a resurrected wartime era.
New colors are added and the scenes becomes a field of roses of every color, singing sweetly in a somber atmosphere. Darkness begins to invade the walls around the paintings and reach across the distance between absurdity, reality, and fiction. Strangely the air around his paintings richly permeated, overflowes with the smell of flowers and ashes. Many of these lifeless flowers’ perfume consumes, tearing through the canvas. Pain and fury lance up through his haunting war scenes of shattered and hopeless visions. His roses lay motionless as the stench of death mingled with the aroma of paint mix and entwine
As I find myself staring back at them, I ask the same question, will there ever be redemption?