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BEIRUT — When artist Kevork Mourad thinks of his childhood in Aleppo, Syria he talks of the road he walked to reach the church attended by his family, in the city’s old quarter. The buildings lining the way, he recalls, crowded above one’s head in an indistinguishable tangle: synagogues, Roman Catholic churches, and mosques. “All these things are on top of each other, built like a puzzle,” he says. His destination was an old Armenian Orthodox church. “There was one stone that people would go and kiss. This stone was MELTED,” he says. “From kissing, melted! Amazing. Lips can melt stone.”
The mysterious promise of the old gates of Aleppo’s old town, its patchwork of faiths, and the ties that bind humans to places — the metamorphosing connections between flesh and stone (that kiss!) — are woven through Mourad’s The Space Between, currently at Beirut’s Galerie Tanit. The works on paper — bold, intricate black acrylic against white ground — date from 2013, and are unified by their technique, in which paint is squeezed and smeared over paper, then layered with sections of monotype prints. Each is a testament to Mourad’s preoccupation with interstitial space, inspired by his reflections on states of exile.
“I was thinking for a very long time what happens in the in-between spaces, when you’re forced to leave your home and you’re going to destinations unknown to you,” the US-based, Syrian-born Armenian artist says. “This is the place: no man’s land, you don’t belong there.”
In “The Ghost City II” (2017), what looks like the undulating topography of a desert landscape shimmers and resolves into prostrate bodies, an elbow crooked above a head with flowing hair, a hand cupped over a mouth. The scene could be the aftermath of a battle, but, to the artist, the figures “could be sleeping, could be dead, could be dreaming,” in the desert or on a road. They are at the threshold, nowhere in particular and at the edge of consciousness.
They might be representations of the crowds that have waited at borders in Greece and Turkey for a chance to cross, or of those killed in the Armenian genocide, but Mourad doesn’t intend them to represent any situation in particular, although his background, and the war next door, might immediately bring to mind the Syrian crisis. In his conception, these pieces are layered “like a hologram,” with only the surface gesturing to what’s happening now, the rest pointing backwards, into a history of cyclical conflict, and outwards, at the broadest swathe of humanity.
Most of these paintings are anchored by phantasmagorical cityscapes, an exilic vision of an elegant, eerie urban world. Although the artist does not use religious symbols, his architecture takes in a broad sweep of faiths. In “Aleppo Burning” (2013) this symbolic skyline solidifies into a specific setting: the city of Mourad’s youth, now devastated by conflict. A series of arches in the foreground give way to ghostly domes and turrets, the distinctive spires of Armenian churches. Delicate tendrils of ink twist skywards in silky, smoky strands. The effect is gestural and calligraphic, the architectural landscape straining up, taking on some of the kinetic energy of a marching line of people. “All these beautiful doors existed in Aleppo,” Mourad says, reflecting on another series depicting the city’s gates. “Church doors, mosque doors, tiny doors you enter to see massive homes… What happens after you pass this border? After you enter this gate?”
Shrouded, wraithlike figures in these works merge with the buildings, fine textural details etched on their flesh. Organic patterns — scales and feathers, representing impulses to hunker down or to flee — as well as intricate textile motifs imprint themselves, “fossil-like,” as Mourad says, onto skin and stone. The artist includes the textile elements as portable scraps of cultural memory — literally the materials exiles might be able to carry or make upon arrival (the Armenian diaspora, after all, is famed throughout the region for artisanal crafts). These talismanic emblems are also inspired by stories from Syria about heavy textiles being hung from buildings to protect civilians from sniper fire.
The artist carefully wraps his beloved heritage “like a crystal” in two-dimensional cloth. In “Memory City I” (2015) waves of fabric flutter from the rooftops, pouring down from domes to plunge into an inky sea. In another piece, “The Space Between” (2017), home is literally carried out of danger, as a group strains against ropes to haul forward a city mounted on a cart dense with calligraphy, heads bowed forward with the effort. In painting from memory these archways and columns, minarets and bell towers, Mourad says, “I’m trying to reinvent, to recapture — because they’re precious to me. So when I try to build them, I try to build them to stay there forever. It’s pulling against reality.”
In these works, rope tethers human figures to cultural remnants, but it can also bind together different temporal realities, as in “Strata of Memory II,” a monumental installation created in situ at Tanit for this exhibition, in which sections of paper are strung together in layers to form a three-dimensional scene. Each layer represents separate slices of time: an archaic, column-bolstered past as the background; an intermediate era of harmonious coexistence; and the current day, bodies slumped in the foreground, darkly rendered in thick layers of acrylic smeared out in clots and wisps. The ropes secure these scenes like a ship’s rigging, evoking transiency, movement (memory, here, becomes a sail), as well as our connectedness to the past and the fragility of cultural memory.
Mourad’s dynamic method — which does not allow revisions or erasures — imbues each work with counterpoised turbulence and stagnation, movement and stasis. “It depends what angle I hold and how much I press and how I hit the brush,” he says, describing the technique’s range. “It’s almost as if a wind or a storm happens on the surface of the piece.” Change sweeps through each of these works, distorting the forms, erupting in a coagulated acrylic swirl-explosion or swaying buildings. In “Memory City II” (2015), a multistorey structure wobbles atop three crooked columns, their slanting angles disappearing at the base, as if into fog.
Although Mourad mentions hope in his artist statement, he notes that this hope is located not in his sombre, dramatic works but, rather, in those who choose to see them. “My hope is that people have to change something after all this,” he says. “In a way, I put 50 percent into the work and 50 percent I try to plant in the viewer.”
Kevork Mourad: The Space Between continues at Galerie Tanit (East Village Building, Armenia Street, Mar Mikhael, Beirut, Lebanon) through August 1.