Sunday, January 24, 2016

Life's Longing for Itself: The Art of Adnan Yahya, An essay by Will Cloughley, MFA (Jan 2016)

To view the paintings, drawings, calligraphy, and figurative ceramics of Adnan Yahya is to experience what the higher callings of fine art can offer to mankind: an unflinching look at some of the worst horrors and injustices of modern life on the one hand, and on the other a radical search through the mysteries of calligraphy and poetry for an expression of that higher intelligence and realm of spirit that might save us as a species.

Adnan Yahya

"I believe that artworks are like religion," Yahya has said, "Paintings, sculpture, calligraphy, music—they are all important in the refinement of human ethics. This applies to the social, moral and political aspects of life."

Adnan Yahya was born in 1960 of Palestinian ancestry and joined his family's migration to Jordan, a country that has taken in refugees being forced out of Palestine, their homeland, by the creation of the state of Israel. "I lived the migration life," says Yahya, "that was great suffering." But in spite of the turmoil surrounding him, his life took hold in Amman. He graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in 1979 and then from the Teacher's Institute in 1980. He has had a career as a teacher as well as a successful fine artist. He mastered the chiaroscuro technique—often called "Rembrandt lighting," after one of the old masters who perfected it—learned several styles of Arabic calligraphy, and also acquired skills in sculpting and painted ceramics in clay.

Qana Massacre

In 1982, his art was propelled in a definite direction by the profound distress he felt from the infamous massacre of some 2000 Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. The massacre had been carried out by a gang of Young Men, so called, with the Phalange, a Christian Lebanese right wing party with a presumed motive for revenge and ordered by their allies, the Israelis, to clear the camps of the PLO. Under the protection of a multinational force, the PLO had already withdrawn from Lebanon before the massacre during a US-mediated cease fire. But Ariel Sharon insisted that “2000 terrorists” remained in refugee camps around Beirut. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) secured the perimeters around Sabra and Shatila, allowing no one to enter or leave, and shot illumination flares over the area while the gang went from house to house killing everybody.

To attempt even the briefest summary of this massacre and some background as to why it happened is to enter an emotionally charged, seemingly infinite regression of cycles of retaliation and revenge. But the images depicting the stark realities of what happened speak directly in a way that belies any explanation.

"This shocked me," says Yahya. "It affected me thus that I painted lots of works reflecting the suffering faces, arms and legs separated from slaughtered bodies. Many of the victims weren't connected to politics; they were just Palestinians."

Sabra & Shatila , Ink on paper 

Sabra & Shatila, oil on canvas 160*150 cm

Francisco Goya's Disasters of War images must have been on Yahya's mind after he was confronted by the photojournalist's images that appeared on television. Goya had been shocked by the atrocities committed by French forces during the Peninsular War (1808-1814) when Napoleon's troops occupied Spain. Following an uprising in Madrid, soldiers began marching groups of civilians to hills on the outskirts of the city and executing them with firing squads. Goya had felt morally bound to use his artistic talents to make a statement about these disturbing revelations about what humans are capable of doing to other human beings, even though these prints would not be published until 1863, thirty five years after his death.

Goya's Disasters of War

As Yahya began to explore new methods of producing images that would be capable of expressing his empathetic pain and outrage at what was happening, he developed his own twist on some familiar tropes from the Surrealist period: strange symbolic or grotesque specters appearing in bleak open landscapes.

Salvador Dali's ,Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, Premonition of Civil War

Antic sensationalist though he was, Salvador Dali's life was touched by the insane wars of the mid Twentieth Century, and he invented an imagery that can be said to delve into the disturbed psyche of the time. Above left is the painting from 1936 that he titled, "Soft Construction with Boiled Beans—Premonition of Civil War." Dali and his wife Gala had fled to Paris in 1934 to escape the Spanish civil war. When he returned, his house in Port Lligat had been destroyed, and his close friend, the poet Garcia Lorca, had been executed. Above right is Dali's painting, “Visage of War,” executed in 1940 during WW II.

Picasso's Guernica

In the lead up to WW II, the Spanish village of Guernica had been bombed by a legion of German planes on the orders of Franco. Three hours of bombing had left 1600 civilians dead. Picasso's painting, named in honor of this Basque town, is perhaps the most famous response from a modern fine artist to the horrors of modern warfare. A tapestry copy of Guernica hangs in the United Nations building in New York City, and many think it is quite significant that when Colin Powell was presenting the case for Bush's war in Iraq to the UN, this painting was draped from view.

Here, in an exquisitely rendered Yahya painting, a face thrusts up through the rubble in which it has been buried, and manages a scream in spite of the gag which runs across its mouth. The picture delivers its emotional punch at once, before the viewer begins to appreciate its painterly skills: the Rembrandt lighting, the blending of the rubble into the structure of the face, and the somber coloring that might suggest a horrifying vision glimpsed in a dust storm.

In this Yahya painting, executed in the same color palette, the rubble theme is again used to great effect: a body, barefoot, with the hand of another reaching through, both crushed beneath rubble fitted to the body shape and curiously displayed as if on a pedestal. The figure in this painting is bent over, crushed down, no scream coming through.

Naim Farhat has noted Yahya's ingenious and ironic use of another convention: that of the commemorative or memorial statue erected to glorify great conquerors or generals. In this painting, the general's body is rendered with a blue-black morbidity, a feminized male body with fleshy breasts and a paunch that suggests over indulgence, as does the cigarette in his mouth. The face is a scary, eyeless face, lacking in meaningful awareness or ability to perceive, and definitely lacking in compassion. The most colorful area in the painting is the mantle of medals and military decorations, sops to the bloated ego.

Images like this one of the general might remind one of the art of George Grosz, a leading Dada artist (1917-1922) who satirized Germany's corrupt capitalist society with a desire to "show the oppressed the true faces of their masters," and then fled Nazi Germany in 1933.
End of the War 2006

But other interesting questions come to my mind. Who is this figure? Has Yahya targeted a specific individual? Is he symbolic of the faceless force of the oppressor, the military tyrant who has many names? Or could he be seen as a symbol of our human ego, always inclined it seems to a certain narcissism? Looking at the images of the victims buried in rubble, it is easy to identify, but can we look at the general and say, I too am that? And how would Adnan Yahya answer these questions?

Those who have met Adnan Yahya say that he is a soft-spoken, gentle man, that he courteously allows others to speak before speaking himself, that he is a good husband and father, and his family obviously loves him. Two of his children, Hamza and Jaafar, are named after two Shiite historical religious figures. And two others, Naji (after a character artist, Naji Al-Ali) and Omar (after a Sunni historical character).

"I have no division beliefs between Sunni and Shiites," says Adnan Yahya, believing that these sectarian divisions are encouraged and exploited by the West. "I love the human person regardless of gender, race, or religion...The most beautiful thing in life is a human being who thinks wisely. I like civil life with all its aspects. I admire the persons who dream of peace for mankind. At the same time, the worst is war. I deeply hate military presence and activity, regardless of its nationality. I love the bulldozer if it helps to build a house, but I detest the tank."

The side of Adnan Yahya's character that yearns for the wisdom that can bring peace is best expressed, I think, in his remarkable calligraphic paintings. He was challenged by a gallery owner Ella Arps in Amsterdam to do a calligraphic painting based on a poem, Your Children, by Khalil Gibran (1883-1931). The poem opens with the lines:

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you, but not from you.

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

Yahya was inspired to do ten paintings based on Gibran's poem and they were exhibited in Amsterdam in 2013-2014.

In many respects Khalil Gibran and Adnan Yahya are kindred spirits. Best known by his work, The Prophet, from 1923, Kibran was born into a Marionite Catholic family in Bsharri in Mt. Lebanon. His mysticism was born of a convergence of Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Judaism, the Bahai Faith, and even Theosophy. He was a voice of ecumenism:

"You are my brother and I love you.

I love you when you prostrate yourself in your Mosque,

and kneel in your church, and pray in your synagogue.

You and I are sons of one faith—the Spirit."

Gibran yearned in his writings, as I feel Yahya does in his calligraphic paintings, to speak from what we should all be able to feel as the universal ground of the spirit.

"I am not a politician," protests Gibran, "nor do I wish to become one. Spare me the political events and power struggles, as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen."

Yahya has also done calligraphic paintings based on poems by Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al Qasim and Maell Bseiso. "I am fond of Arabic calligraphy since I was young," says Yahya. "I can write all types of Arabic fonts properly. By steady practice I was able to capture strength in painting them. My long experience allowed me to process design elements. In this way I developed this new style of artwork."

Further exhibits of his calligraphic paintings were hosted by the Foresight Gallery in Jordan on January 6, 2015.

Yahya uses his Rembrandt lighting technique to great advantage in the calligraphic paintings, spotlighting a group of marks while the rest is allowed to fall into shadow. The writing appears to be applied with thick paint, a bas-relief effect, and made to pop out by adding a shadow side.

For those viewers who are tuned in to manifestations of expressionistic calligraphy, these paintings can develop an almost mystical power.

The sometimes tangled mass of biomorphic abstractions that are Yahya's calligraphy can tease the receptive viewer into a hallucination of creatures, animals, trees, human forms, ocean waves, flocks of birds, and other flights of imagination. They may appear to be the shapes of the sounds of a language that has not been learned into specific meanings or references, partaking of the potential for ambiguity that is always a part of the search for new meaning in the growth of language. Or they may be thought of as the tangled remembrance of a forgotten primal language.

The British science fiction writer J. G. Ballard imagined that "The babbling newborn were telling their mothers of that realm of wonder from which they had just been expelled." And the Freudian philosopher, Norman O. Brown, in his lyrical book, Love's Body, explains it this way: "Speech, as in symbolism, points beyond itself to the silence, to the word within the word, the language buried within the language...speaking in tongues; the primordial language, from before the Flood or the Tower of Babel...present in all our words, unspoken. To hear again the primordial language is to restore to words their full significance, the etymology, the subterranean original meaning."

Yahya's calligraphic painting can be experienced as a kind of graphic glossolalia, a written form of speaking in tongues. He seems transported in these works. And so we might say, as Gibran said of our children in his poem, that these paintings—and indeed all of Adnan Yahya's artwork—that they have come through him, but are not from him. They are an expression of Life's longing for itself.

Will Cloughley January 9, 2016