Art the Global Language: An Interview with Mohammad Zaza – By Ana Jasbon


Paint until you have nothing left to say. Mohammad is an artist of few words and believes that the true way of communication is through painting. Born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from Syrian parents who were also artists, he got in touch with the brush from a young age giving him an advantage over many of his peers.


Being raised in artistic surroundings, he learned how to express his views via paintings in which he reflects human interactions. He analyzes religion, friendships, romance, death, happiness and feelings, which he portrays with a unique vision on a canvas. Some of his favourite paintings are The Oud Player, The Prayer and The First Question. Although these are his favourite paintings so far, he is very critical about his art work and believes he hasn’t accomplished his masterpiece yet.


Mohammad, having studied at the faculty of fine arts in Aleppo University, Syria, familiarized with a lot of art movements but prefers not to be categorized into a specific art style. He is very open to different approaches and interpretations of his art pieces, but he says most of the people classify him as part of the Surrealist art movement.


Throughout his career, Zaza  lived in different countries and believes that the Middle East, although possessing the culture and eye to feel and make great art, does not yet believe in its true power. He views art in the Middle East as a subject that is regarded as prestigious and part of an environment which is aimed at bringing people together from a certain social class; adding that it should be made more accessible to a wider public. Through a better artistic education, sensitivity to artistic creation could be expanded, giving everybody the chance to feel art’s power of change.


Thanks to technology, which he refers to as a prop for new artists, he has been working on a very ambitious project for the past three years. He is combining art and film to create an animation film.


With a smile on his face he would like to advise new artists to paint without thinking about the recognition, but just to express themselves, the same way you would express yourself through talking. Always remember art is a way of communication. This is why his main goal is to paint until he has no message left to convey.


Ana Jasbon is a project assistant at SAFIR and a Master’s student at Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi majoring in Banking & Finance. She is a devoted scholar, continuously seeking knowledge.



Blue is the color of serenity, tranquility, and calm. Perhaps even sadness and nostalgia. It is the color of the sea; a spine-chilling force that mankind cannot control. Through his paintings in The Aegean Sea series, Mohamad Khayata told the stories of the people who didn’t have a voice because they were lost at sea. However, this series is not dark nor melancholic. Mohamad chose another life for the people who set out for sea, and as he described, these people were having a quiet moment.

Just like there are people who have migrated to Greece, these people migrated to the sea. Maybe the sea is their safe haven.” 


Mohamad Khayata was genuinely an interesting and captivating artist to interview. The mood constantly moved, quietly and quickly, like waves struggling to meet the land. One moment, Mohamad would be talking about home, of his blue room (his studio in Bab Tuma), of the family he left behind; and another, he wold return to his bubbly and humorous self. When things got too gloomy, Mohamad would stop mid-sentence and ask “oh so what was your question again?” He used to draw and sculpt for as long as he could remember, but knew he wanted to make a life out of art in elementary school. He used to sculpt many figures of animals using paste, when his teacher introduced him to a new material; clay. The same teacher noticed that Mohamad had a talent for art, and encouraged him to join many competitions, up until he became an art pioneer in Damascus. 

At some point the principle of the school called me to her office, and I remember being scared to death, because students were never called into the her office unless they were going to be punished. So it was a big shock for me when I understood that she called me to congratulate and appreciate my work. And that was my turning point. That is when I noticed I could make art and sculpting a career. I felt tied to it. And I decided I wanted to go into fine arts.”


When he got his studio in Bab Tuma, Mohamad went deeper into photography. He bought his first Sony optical camera when the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus University gave him 12,000 Syrian pounds as a reward for coming second in his class. Taking photographs was very difficult at the time, and his blue room in an old Damascene house seemed like the only place he could take pictures. Mohamad was pleased to tell me more of his blue room, and said that


“I was tied to this place, because it reminded me of my grandfather’s home, where I lived there for 13 years. This house had around 14 rooms, with a fountain in the middle, and there was something about the walls that drew me. The walls were made out of clay and straw, which are both materials that are very close to my heart. Not like stone, which is a lot more cold.”


In his blue room, the concept of Stitching My Syria Back began to grow. It started with Mohamad experimenting with the camera and taking pictures of himself with the “madeh” (a patchwork that his mother used to make out of clothes).

“I was in Syria when I took the first picture, on the other hand I took the others in Lebanon. They spoke different stories, and the fact that I was the subject of the picture, made me feel like it didn’t work well with the idea. It had a bigger meaning in Lebanon. I felt like it was a way to bring people together. We all had things in common. We all left our homes. We started a new life in a different country. I was documenting all this. It was artistic because it was a sort of documentary of people’s lives away from home. For them and for me, Lebanon was just a transition. We are all just waiting for a chance to return. So I wanted to document their lives in this period. The period of transition. And that was the purpose of the madeh. It was a patchwork, and you’re bringing together fabrics of different colors, sizes, and materials in one piece.


The Aegean Sea series seemed to be a product of coincidence, and Mohamad explained to me how is it so.


“I chose this blue, not for a particular reason, but because I kept buying the same color like ten times. I would go to the shop to buy art supplies, (I love the color blue very much), and there would be so many options to choose from, and yet I kept buying the same color. Many colors with different shades and undertones. And every single time, I would buy the exact same shade of blue. At some point, I noticed how many tubes I had of the same color, and that is how I was sure that it had to mean something. I put the color on my palette, and just painted on an empty canvas. Without much thinking. As usual, I left the top part of the canvas empty, and I started to paint faces. I was painting, and I imagined someone. I wanted the concept to be  about the people that lived in the sea . I don’t want to say that they drowned or died, because the idea of life and death varies a lot.”


Mohamad explained that The Aegean Sea is not dark. He said that if anything he particularly loves this series because it isn’t dark. Instead, the characters he painted were having a quiet moment, and his was merely giving them a different life. He used this color because he wanted to discover what it was and what it meant. He chose a different place for these people, and left the “ending” to his audience.


Being so taken aback by the many details put into Bits and Pieces, I couldn’t but help and ask Mohamad how does he put his ideas onto paper. There are two types of work, as Mohamad explained; direct and indirect. There are paintings where Mohamad knew exactly what he was going to portray, and there are paintings where Mohamad’s ideas were generated from his subconscious.


“In Bits and Pieces, I had a lot of patience to put as much detail as I did to the illustrations. I was illustrating memories. When you leave your home, you start remembering. You think how beautiful things were, and how different they are now. There were moments that we took for granted. We didn’t notice them. You start appreciating these moments more. Now that you’re away from your family, and from what was familiar to you. The time that you lived in before is no longer, and there’s no way to bring it back or change now. I’m scared to go back home. Not because I’m worried that it might be dangerous, but because I’m afraid to find a place that is no longer. That changed into something that I;m not familiar with. Because now, memories are so much more beautiful than the real world. The memories are gone. You spent these 5 years somewhere else, and the time that was then is not the same as it is now.”


Through Mohamad’s most recent exhibition, Umm Al Zuluf, he connects himself as well as his audience to the songs and melodies that traveled along the Euphrates. “Umm Al Zuluf” is one of the most popular songs of the “Mulayaa”, which are the old songs sung by the tribes that lived near the banks of the Euphrates. These people sung melodiously through their sadness and happiness, and with his paintings, Mohamad made sure that the echoes of our ancestors were louder and clearer.

“Umm al-zuluf, the most popular of these songs, is usually echoed by the tribes who transport their goods through deserts and mountains and is dedicated to the Mesopotamian goddess of fertility and love: Ishtar. Due to its length, it was the best companion for the long journey of these tribes who celebrate the Akitu, the spring Babylonian festival. My experience with music made me rediscover my country’s rich musical heritage, the one I got to know when I was young but that I never really listened to. My ancestors’ words of love and generosity, reminiscence and separation that summarized in melodies, times of destruction and prosperity, seem now to describe so well what we are facing today: destruction, sadness, hard work and sometimes, even happiness. In my Current exhibition “Um al-zuluf” I am trying to celebrate the life of the tribes of this area and their beautiful music and culture, which is now the only advocate for the sad Euphrates.”

His most recent work is called “A Woman Selling Her Kids”, which basically is a painting of a woman selling her children in jars. It expresses the idea that there are mothers that  take advantage of their children, and are stealing their children’s time and lives. Mohamad watched children grow in the streets for two years, and realized that these children won’t have any memories other than those in the streets.


“War forces you to do more than that [sell your children]. No woman would sell her children, unless it is a different type of selling. Selling might not necessarily mean actually selling. It’s the idea that there are people who use or take advantage of their children. For example, the women that beg on the streets for their children. And it’s basically a woman selling her kids. She’s taking time from her children. She’s taking their lives. And I don’t think anyone is happy with this situation, but I think it’s what war does to people.”


Translated from Arabic 

Noor Mounajjed is the Project Assistant at SAFIR. She is a book-worm, writer, and an aspiring Economist.  She lives by the motto “when you can’t find the sunshine, be the sunshine”.

TA’AROF 2017 – SAFIR’s First Young Artist Workshop Launches as part of SB13

Day 1 lectures with Curator Tarek Abou El Fetouh & SAFIR Founders Hala Khayat, Fathi Zamroud & Dr. Nader Kabbani

SAFIR welcomed six young artists from Syria this last March for an intensive ten day workshop TA’AROF 2017 that took place as part of the Sharjah Art Biennial 13 Tamawuj.

Sponsored by the Sharjah Art Foundation, the young artists had the unique opportunity of attending SAFIR Workshop lectures given by key curators and artists from the MENA region, in addition to being led on interactive tours of SB13 and attending key SB13 events.



SAFIR Artists with Lord Snowdon & Hala Khayat during a visit to Christie’s Dubai Auction

As part of the workshop, the artists were also taken on guided tours of Art Dubai 2017, Christie’s Auction, and visits to galleries in Al Serkal Avenue introducing them to a number of prominent art events in the region.

Through the lectures and guided visits, the workshop aimed to provide an initial catalyst to expand the horizons of the participants and  to help them experience the full spectrum of the art world, expanding their artistic networks and forming a better understanding of the role of biennials, art centers and artist residencies in the development of their practice.

Keeping in line with SAFIR capacity development objectives, the workshop lectures focused on developing key skills, including creating value, refining technique, and communicating ideas.

MASSYR Founders at Day 1 of TA’AROF- From right to left, Dr. Nader Kabbani, Hala Khayat and Fathi Zamroud

Facilitated by a number of prominent artists and art experts, including Hala Khayat, one of the founders of MASSYR and Director of Sales at Christie’s Dubai, David Linley (Earl of Snowdon), Christine Tohme Curator of SAF 13, renowned artists Safwan Dahoul ,Thaier Helal and Ismail Al-Rifai, and curators Reem Fadda, Tarek Abou El Fetouh and Fawz Kabra.

SAFIR Artists during studio visits Noor Bahjat Al Masri, Mohamed Khayata, Abdallah Omari, Yamen Yousef, Alaa Sharabi, Juhayda Al Bitar, Anas Albraehe. 

Colours Memories & Sensation: An Interview with Adel Dauood- By Lilya Chigara

Having heard his name among various artists and having researched his work; a man full of emotion, capable of delivering even the smallest of sensations through his work; I finally got to interview the remarkable Adel Dawood. As I was listening to him speak, I appreciated how he communicated like a true artist, with a voice full of emotion lightened with humor.

Having taken up drawing during the 5th grade, he continued to later on participate in numerous drawing activities and painting competitions. As a result, he was his school’s most achieved and renowned artist.Being in an environment that encouraged him to experiment his talent was an advantage he had when growing up. He found himself interacting with people who enjoyed drawing and painting. The catalyst to his passion for art started when he watched his uncle and cousin. He was ‘’was impressed by the family standard.”

© Barbara Süss

Once he was part of the academic art world Adel had a chance to study other artists work and fully understand it which permitted a flow of inspiration that in turn influenced his work “After ingoing the Fine Art Center I was fascinated by Barsoum Barsouma one of the very important Syrian artists” he declares an admiration towards Barsoum’s work followed by his appreciation for Van Gogh.

“Nostalgic for the past, nostalgic of all the memories”

As a Syrian refugee in Austria, once he moved to Vienna he shared a room with 9 people struggling at first, trying to adapt. Yet the main difficulty he sees is that he gets to visit all the cities of the world but his own. “This on its own is a tragedy”. The difficulties Adel faced were external to the frame of his atelier however; very clearly reflecting the high caliber of his paintings. The late ‘Malva’, Omar Hamid, one of the great artists, was a dear friend of Adel’s in whom he sought liberation. He says: “He was my father, my uncle. He was really affectionate, he used to tell me Adel don’t forget you’re an artist”. His ongoing mourning of the loss of his mentor has been translated and projected in Adel’s art work one way or another.

After a little while in the city luck turned his way; a project was taking place called ‘’The Future of Painting’’. The idea was to promote contemporary artists residing in Austria. Numerous artists applied to this program amongst whom was Adel who had been selected with another 21 artists chosen out of 750. However, it wasn’t all due to luck for it was his talent that distinguished him amongst the rest. This helped market Adel’s effort permitting the galleries to witness his work.

” I was subconsciously working on my observations”

© Barbara Süss

He classifies his work under ‘New Expressionism’. When I asked him how his style evolved after estrangement and when he was back home he simply said “You don’t realize it, it’s the state of mind and the place that change, it’s the place that will have an effect on your work in a way or another” When in Syria, his work circled around the set of Ramadiat, as he named it which was related to the houses and the atmosphere in “Sham” as he calls his hometown. He was affected by the place, the region and its colors, in that period he mostly used a color that represented the place yellow, red or green

Adel did not realize to which degree he was evolving, to him he was just adapting to his environment, “I was just working at my present state”. As an inquisitive illustrator he believes that research helps building ones knowledge “studying & exploring is what will help your growth” was his way of putting it.

When asked about the most important period in his artistic career, he did not pin point one specific time frame and instead replied “each period has its importance to me”. Moving to Beirut was his first time leaving Syria, he sensed a certain confusion which has been mirrored in his work, and he believes that everything new is important. “If it scares you then it’s of a significance”. He believes that the leading epoch is yet to come.

© Barbara Süss


“The receiver is clever, he knows where my vulnerabilities are”

There are two types of art work, either sensational or realistic. As Adel experienced working with both when he started through art school he chose to continue down the path with an art that triggers emotion to the spectator. I reveled by how he called his spectators receivers as he had a message to deliver, wanting them to understand him trying to express it through his work. An abundance of thoughts in his head attempting to be lain on a white canvas. He believes that the spectator will see through his vulnerabilities when looking at his pieces. Through these intricate works of art, they would be able to see the frustration he fostered when operating.

“There is an internal mania that needs to be engaged in a contemporary artistic way”. He appreciates when the spectator sees his inner thoughts, with a large volume of emotion and peace, with an infinite abundance of “whys”? “I’m not giving a solution but expressing my sadness in my work “

“There are things lovelier than war, there’s art, there are colors, there are feelings” saying it with a voice full of passion he declares the message he would like to deliver through his paintings. “I can’t say it with a couple of phrases” he struggled, not finding enough words to express himself.

Entering another world when working on his art, “Sometimes I put music but I can’t hear it, a parting occurs between me and the outside world” facing a tough situation at times searching for responses in his work “There is an energy that needs to be letdown”. He likes to experiment and try different things with his canvases stating how “sometimes you don’t know how your work can surprise you “

“You see great important artists that did not necessarily get the academic formation. The workshop is your primary tutor”

When I asked Adel about his opinion on artists that didn’t go to a certain faculty of arts but built themselves on their own, he expressed his awe with these artists in saying that “it’s not really all about the academic system”. When he decided to enter a school of arts it was to get a broader understanding of art; however, he cited that it was not all about the art faculty and that they have a certain advantage. In his opinion, those with an academic art education have a higher interaction with the art world which helps them become better with the technicalities of engaging their work. “This matter is subjective really, it’s all about the outcome”.

© Barbara Süss

When it comes to the Western world ‘’vs’’ the Middle Eastern in appreciating art and artists, Adel referred to the last 5 years in the Middle East as having had important exhibitions; however, in the west when it comes to the market and galleries he remarked that “it’s been there for ages, so of course it’s more prominent in west”. Facing a problem when he moved to the west he expressed how “they don’t take into consideration artist who had important exhibitions in the east, what’s important to them are the galleries you presented in, Europe and the US”. The prices of the two markets differ which causes a problem to the artist when trying to adapt their rates when moving from one the other.

“Sometimes the work is splendid, but it doesn’t get the attention it needs”

He explains how unfortunately, the galleries depend on the market, they take the art that can be sold, they consider the artistic value of a painting but sometimes it just isn’t enough. “Only few galleries take the risk with an artist”. Working at his own pase he never changes his style to please, never transforming his art to something that can be commercialized according to the needs of the market. According to Adel, “it would be a catastrophe if he worked depending on attitudes outside of the workshop” not liking the idea of becoming a brand. “It’s all about what you want” he said. Adel needs the freedom of experimenting and varying his style that certain galleries might restrict. “There needs to be change or else it’ll become a brand, and if it becomes a brand then its commerce not art”. Even when facing difficulties when selling his art, he confirms that persistence is key since after all, “we are paintings ourselves in the end”

Adel expresses his love for Vienna, its culture & its relations “It resembles a lot El Sham” when he left it for a while he found himself missing it “The Austrians are lovely people”. But for future plans Adel dreams of settling between Vienna and a Middle Eastern country, preferably his hometown El Sham “A country with sunshine” he says amusingly “here in Vienna the sun was out for 3 days, and I feel bad for not going out. He would ‘’like to become like a migrating bird spending his winters is in the east and his summers in Vienna”.

Through our conversation, Adel makes you feel at ease when speaking to him, throwing a joke here and there and by the end of our talk he admits he himself got a little anxious, not knowing if he expressed himself right through the words he chose, giving you a little insight of his humble inner self.

I inquired about his future projects trying to get a little scoop. There is little talk about him going to exhibit in Miami which is yet to be confirmed. But what is for certain is that he has an art fair taking place in Denver and one that is to occur in Copenhagen and Bahrain.

Translated from Arabic

Photos by Barbara Süss

Lilya Chigara is the project assistant at SAFIR. A Master’s student at Paris Sorbonne Abu Dhabi majoring in Banking & Finance. She is a lover of history and large-scale adventures.

TA’AROF: Developing Artist Capacities in the Midst of SB13

SAFIR proudly announces the launch of its very first workshop TA’AROF starting March 9-13th 2017 as part of the Sharjah Art Biennial 2016/2017. TA’AROF will provide a select group of young artists from Syria with a unique opportunity to both develop their capacities and artistic networks by visiting the Sharjah Art Biennial 13 Tamawuj, and attending workshop sessions relating to key aspects of their development and outreach by key curators and artists from the MENA region.

After conducting a survey of artists over the past year, it became apparent that many young artists from the Middle East do not fully grasp the importance of biennials, art centers and artist residencies in the development of their practice, relying mainly instead on the more traditional model of artist to gallery relationship to support their growth.

As such SAFIR’s first workshop TA’AROF aims to provide an initial catalyst to expand the horizons of a selected group of young Syrian artists (aged under 35 ) to experience the full spectrum of the art world through the lectures, interactive tours and key SB13 events, to form a better understanding of the role of biennials.

The workshop lectures will focus on developing key skills, including creating value, refining technique, and communicating ideas.  It will be facilitated by a number of prominent artists and art experts, including Hala Khayat, one of the founders of MASSYR and Director of Sales at Christie’s Dubai, Christine Tohme Curator of SAF 13 (TBC), renowned artists Safwan Dahoul and Thaier Helal, and curators Reem Fadda, Tarek Abou El Fetouh and Fawz Kabra.

The interactive tours will aim to introduce the participants to a prominent art event in the region, SB 13 Tamawuj, and will be an opportunity to apply the discussions from Day 1 and reflect on practical examples.

Objectives of the Event:

  • Develop capacity and skills and see their application in practice.
  • Introduce the artists to two prominent events.
  • Sow the seeds of a network of artists and mentors.

Stay tuned for TA’AROF updates on our Facebook page and Instagram ( and get to know more about the participating artists and key speakers!


Butterflies, Jeepneys and Jellyfish: an Entanglement with Noor Bahjat al-Masri- By Rosy Tahan

Noor Bahjat al Masri SAFIR ArtistFor Noor Bahjat al Masri, pilot artist for SAFIR’s Artist Program, 2016 looks like a good year. Noor has just completed a residency in Manila’s Galerie Stephanie, an experience that enabled her to explore new ideas – as well as the vibrant culture of the Philippines. Urban Manila was a little too hectic, she smiles. “I lived on the 20th floor, and you and I would have struggled to have a conversation over the sounds of traffic if the window were open!” On the other hand, the surrounding islands awed her with their placid beauty. She fondly recalls one island with only four traffic lights and nature like you’ve never seen before, wondering how anyone could choose to live elsewhere. It was during these contemplative solo nature retreats that she was struck by the difference in herself when in nature and when in the city – something that would form the groundwork for her exhibition Which one is your thread? the culmination of her residency at Galerie Stephanie.

I caught up with Noor on Skype, and our conversation was more effective than my customary morning coffee. The young artist brims with infectious energy. Her excitable speech knows no punctuation – at least not commas and full stops. But as a fellow Syrian, the “yanni” and “heke” dotting her sentences are sweetly familiar to me.

We only briefly spoke of what it means to be a “Syrian artist,” for Noor rejects the expectation that Syrian art must necessarily be directly involved with themes of war and conflict. “I want people to see me for who I am, not just as a Syrian who is representative of the entire situation,” she insists. “If you want to do something, don’t tell me you’re sorry. Go do something. I’m okay, don’t worry about me!”

So who is Noor? Beneath the sparkling humor and easy laughter, there is a current of something driving her, something powerful. It is when she speaks of her work that she is the most animated.

Her exhibition in Manila, Which one is your thread? is the result of Noor’s struggle to untangle her thoughts and behaviours from those of others.

“I often find myself doing something, but the intention, the idea, it did not come from me…why am I here? What do I want? I tried connecting all these things, which is how I arrived at the metaphor of the thread.”

          Where do your thoughts end_ noor bahjat al masri  Noor visualizes thoughts and ideas as interconnected threads. One of her paintings, Where Do Your Thoughts End? (right), features a girl with a jellyfish perched on top of her head, replacing her brain, which she holds in her hands instead. Out of the displaced brain, real threads dangle down to the ground. Viewers in the gallery can step on them. “She doesn’t want to think, so her thoughts have become worthless,” Noor explains. The “butterfly effect” – that the smallest cause, such as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, can have largescale events – also influences this search for the origins of our thoughts and behaviours.

            Which one is your thread? radiates Noor’s frustration at a perceived complacency in our society, particularly in our unwillingness to question ourselves and our surroundings. She used to leave her paintings untitled, but found that this often intimidated viewers from engaging with the sentiments she communicates. She now titles her paintings with questions, urging viewers to find their own answers within the paintings.

“What I don’t like is when you put up an unnecessarily long explanation next to painting,” she laments. “It’s like you’re assuming the viewer is incapable of receiving ideas unless they are spelled out plainly.”

where will our follies take us_

“I don’t want everything I do to be a reaction to what I am receiving…I want things to come from me.”

Growing agitated, Noor tries to trace the sources of often problematic patterns of thought, which she attributes to a “system” that floods our environments with trivialities as a distraction from the real issues. “We care about things that don’t matter that much in the big picture!”

This big picture that she paints for me is bleak, involving war, smugglers and refugees. It’s not hard to see where it comes from, and I wondered, was it was harder for her to forget the Syria crisis than she claimed? “No, it’s very easy!” she exclaims, with a hint of irony. “All you have to do is look in the mirror and tell yourself, ‘I’m very ugly, I need to fix my nose, I need to fix my teeth, become more beautiful’ and even when I become more beautiful it’s never enough.” But away from the influences of urban life, Noor finds that her thoughts and priorities are completely different ­– another reason to love the natural islands of the Philippines.

Don’t think of her as someone who would prefer to live in isolation, though. Despite her appreciation for nature and its placidity, Noor vehemently believes that “everyone needs a struggle…if you don’t have something prickling you, you won’t have the satisfaction of resolving something. If you’re not interacting with society you may as well not be there.” Often it is these clashes with society that produce meaningful work. Her painting, Where Does Life Take You? is directly influenced by the stark divide between the upper and lower classes in Manila. On the left of the canvas is a dining room in an opulent household, and on the right there is the interior of a crowded jeepney, a mode of public transport commonly used in the Philippines. A woman is seated in the center, present in both scenes, connecting them. She faces away from the wealth as the jeepney transports her to another life. The fine line between both scenes suggests a close, parallel coexistence between the two worlds, despite the wide gap between them. “I knew I had to work on [this] painting because it was something I noticed a lot, and it really moved me.”Where does Life take you_

With her ability to extract the threads inside her head and tie them to tangible objects in our world, Noor promises to produce works of art that are at once deeply personal and universally relatable. Will she continue to work with these ideas developed in the Philippines? Or does she think she has worked them to the limit? “If it’s still there, it’ll come out,” she laughs. “That’s what my art is for. Even if it’s something insignificant and silly, if I’m thinking about it, it will come out.” And I, for one, can’t wait to see it when it does.

Translated from Arabic

picture for SAFIRRosy Tahan is the Project Assistant at SAFIR. She buys too many books and has too little time to read them. In her spare time, she is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi, studying Psychology. She is currently recovering from a severe coffee addiction

Interview with Noor Bahjat Al Masri – By Peter Si

Noor Bahjat Al Masri SAFIRNoor’s camera comes online with a blink, and I find myself in front of a face covered by a huge smile and sparkling eyes. Her dark hair is flowing with unruliness, akin to her workspace visible on the side of the frame: tidy, but with droplets of paint here and there on the floor. Upon request, she gives me a quick virtual tour of her studio, which is full of paintings everywhere—four, five on each wall, one on a big easel in the middle of the room, a couple on the desk, yet more just on the floor, leaning against the walls. Most of the paintings are portraits, with different faces of different hues and shapes.

Noor understands what she wants to show. The way she depicts the intention behind a painting is like watching a mother talk about her child; she seems very proud, yet nervous and worried about how others might take it.


I was asked by SAFIR to interview Noor about her experience as the pilot artist for the SAFIR Artist Program. Ofcourse, I had heard about Noor before. I had looked into her work, her philosophy, and her education. However, I didn’t know quite what to expect from the person herself. Barely 10 minutes into the conversation, I began to realize that Noor is something of a peculiarity. She was relaxed but pensive, taking bites out of her nail and lips as she thought through the questions. The way her easygoing sense of humor turned into fierceness and passion when she talked about certain things made me wonder if there were two separate people inside her. For instance, most questions she would answer with a smile. A few words. A few “yanni”s. A thought or two weaved together. But when I asked about what it meant to be a Syrian artist, she would suddenly have so much to say, and with such force.

Noor Bahjat Al Masri SAFIR 2“When you say that you’re a Syrian artist, yanni, they always ask about the war. I think it’s a very stupid question. They always want you to tell them that you’re sad. Of course I’m influenced by the war. Of course it’s something deep in me. But it’s really bad, they always try to see only the war.”

For Noor, her days in Syria are the days she started her path as an artist. As far as she can remember, she was always drawing. It wasn’t as much of a routine as her 10 AM to 7 PM work these days, of course, but she went to University of Arts in Damascus, and grew up in Syria until she moved to Dubai in her 3rd year at college. She smiled shyly when asked about her favorite moments as a child. “You can’t really put a finger on it,” she said, “it’s the moments here and there, not a single story.”

While painting, Noor likes playing around with the texture. In fact, one of her favorite pieces was formed while experimenting with different textures. It is through these ongoing modifications and communication with the piece that she creates her work, and she keeps at it until she is satisfied with what she has at the end. But her work is not mere unplanned dabbling on the easel. Noor understands what she wants to show. The way she depicts the intention behind a painting is like watching a mother talk about her child; she seems very proud, yet nervous and worried about how others might take it.

Whenever Noor has wanted to try something out, Hala has always had suggestions, sometimes bringing up other artists who had previously used such a method, adding maturity to Noor’s final work. “It’s a good chance for artists who don’t know about concepts,” she said.

“I’m still practicing, yanni, I’m trying to put those ideas, although not in a direct way. Mostly, people see things, but they have different personal histories.”

Having heard so far, I became curious—what had it been like for Noor to be with SAFIR? She seemed like such a free soul; had it been difficult for her to work with a mentor? Her response was different. For her, SAFIR had been a guidance towards professionalism. From it she learned how to present herself professionally, was prepped like a gallery would do, and was offered websites through which she could publicize her art. As for the mentorship, she seemed like she couldn’t be happier.Noor Bahjat Al Masri SAFIR 3

“My dreams are step by step. When I reach next step, I’ll think of the next ones.”

“Sometimes, yanni, when I get the structures, how to hang them, I just become so happy and call her,” she said, referring to her SAFIR assigned mentor, Hala. When asked about the role of mentorship in her work, Noor sparkled up. “In Middle East, at least in Syria, we learn the academics of arts, the colors and their combinations, and how to paint in academic ways” she said, “but yanni, we don’t do research. We can’t expand our minds more than what we’ve done.” To use a peace sign in her work, she explained, she needs research to know where the sign came from, and what it really means as the art piece will expand the meaning of the sign. For her, SAFIR and Hala have been of great help in the aspect; whenever Noor has wanted to try something out, Hala has always had suggestions, sometimes bringing up other artists who had previously used such a method, adding maturity to Noor’s final work. “It’s a good chance for artists who don’t know about concepts,” she said.

           However, research is not the only skill that Noor has honed during her time with SAFIR. During her program, she found out that there were many more ways to express herself, especially in transforming her ideas and thoughts into organized form, in sketching and drawing them. Noor recalled a conversation she had with Hala, “I wanted painting to be more installation than just painting, and yanni, Hala recommended this” She said, picking out what she described as one of her favorite pieces of work so far. The painting seemed simple at first. On closer inspection, I realized that what looked like a rope on the painting was not painted, but cleverly attached to the painting, breaking the wall of 2nd dimension. “It’s not just the work itself, but also how to structure it, how to hang them.”

            Her final advice to future SAFIR artists was simple. “Learn as much as you can from the curators. Take the criticizing in a good way because SAFIR, it’s a temporary thing. You need to learn how to do these things, learn how to describe and present the paintings you make.”

When asked about her dreams, Noor laughed and said, “My dreams are step by step. When I reach next step, I’ll think of the next ones.” The next step in her dream is to study expressionism in Germany. And yanni, what lies beyond that is for the rest of the world to find out soon.

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Peter Si

Peter Si is the project assistant at SAFIR. He is a student at NYU Abu Dhabi, majoring in Computer Science. He is an avid traveler and lover of books. (Email:

Noor Bahjat Al Masri- First Young Artist to be Selected for SAFIR’s Pilot


Following a rather competitive selection process, SAFIR’s selection committee is pleased to name young Syrian artist Noor Bahjat Al-Masri as the first of three artists chosen for SAFIR’s Pilot Artist-Mentorship Program – the capacity-building program dedicated to bringing together young talented artists from distressed countries in the MENA region with experienced Curators and Cultural Influencers who will mentor the artists for 10 sessions and help them develop their skills further.

A dedicated young artist, Noor was born in Damascus in 1991 and graduated top of her class from the Faculty of Fine Art in the University of Damascus in 2014. She was also the first young artist to be granted a residency at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai, the fruits of which where her first Solo Exhibition that ran from 3rd August-15th September earlier this year.

She will be teamed up with our very own Hala Khayat, Director & Head of Sales at Christie’s Dubai and Vice President of MASSYR, who will be mentoring Noor over the next couple of months.

Wishing Noor a warm welcome to our SAFIR Artists Community!

Applications to Join SAFIR’s first Pilot Contemporary Artists Program are out!!

SAFIR is pleased to announce the launch of its very first Pilot in which three contemporary Artists will be selected for a one year capacity building program that aims to help Artists improve their ability to access and communicate their art to wider audiences in the international art community.

The application forms are now available online on our SAFIR Pilot page and the deadline for receiving applications for the Pilot is 31st of October 2015.

Best of luck to all applicants!