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”.