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.

Noor Bahjat Al Masri SAFIR 4

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: ss8355@nyu.edu)