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Beyond the canvas: Suzi Nassif

Koral Dasgupta @KoralDasgupta

Updated: September 9, 2015, 2:56 PM IST
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“Painting is a blind man’s profession. He paints not what he sees, but what he feels, what he tells himself about what he has seen.” - Picasso

I remembered the quote when I chanced upon this talented Lebanese painter through Instagram. Her works are intriguing, full of life, and comes across as a cheerful dash of colors; but each of her paintings try to communicate something very personal, as if calmly hinting at some turbulence. The Instagram profile mentions brief technical details about each post, and takes the audience by fire…deservingly so. Suzi Nassif touches upon faith, women, emotions; her interest in portraits over other forms of artistic representation being pretty evident. Curious to delve deeper into her story, and explore if there is one at all, I open a world for myself that I knew much less about! Here happiness is personal, pains are social, creativity is meant to balance a hollow and a beautiful world, both of which coexist with fundamental influences to shape up a combination of art and loss!

Suzi Nassif’s affiliation in visual art started early. Settled in Dubai today, her work is a bold mix of styles and colors, and each artwork tells a unique story. Suzi works with a variety of media including oil, acrylic, texture paste and etc. Sometimes, paintings demand a mix of multiple forms of media, depending on the style and subject that is being portrayed. She explains, “Oil gives me time to work through different stages and layers of a painting. It also gives me the ability to create the right fusion of color, shadow and depth to make the art piece the way I imagined it to be, especially when painting skin tones. Blending oil colors works like magic. But on the flip side, I often do not have the patience to wait for the paint to dry and start a new stage on the painting. This is a major problem with oil. Acrylics on the other hand do not have that disadvantage, as they dry up really fast. This would allow me to work on the piece until I decide to stop. The disadvantages of acrylics is that it is hard to create fine lines and the painting turns out to be dry dark; sometimes I do not get the color I thought I had when the painting was wet. In some of my paintings, both oils and acrylics are used in the same art pieces. Oils are used to paint backgrounds and acrylics to paint figures and other details.”

With her subject often hovering around the complex emotions of women, which I suspect is a representation of different layers of the artist herself around various times, I try to understand Nassif’s vision of women. She seems to have nurtured a chain of thoughts on the changing roles of women over a period of time, analytically deriving how a woman makes a family, the family creates a home and the home expands into society. “The role of women has evolved slowly and into individuals seen today demanding equal rights. Unfortunately some women are also limited by a society that rules us by false expectations of beauty and throw us into a corruption of identity crisis. When reading history of different civilizations throughout the centuries, I always conclude that societies across the globe are similar to Sparta and Athens with regards to women, regardless of how far we have evolved. As an artist and a woman, expressions and postures of women is an essential tool of inspiration for my art and I try to capture the struggle, her story according to her background, her environment and identity.”

What Suzi referred to are a part of historical civilizations, about two different identities and roles for women. Sparta and Athens are two Greek poleis who stood out for their vividly contrasting styles of life and their roles in Greek history, their most surprising contrast being the difference in the statuses. Spartan women were given a good education in both the arts and athletics; they were encouraged to develop their intellect and explore their rights to own properties and land. Alternately, Athenian women received basic education from their mothers at home. They were mainly involved in enhancing the skills required to spin, weave, sew, and cook, along with the ability to raise children. They were deprived from the participation in sports so widely encouraged among young boys and men.

Given that her ideas on womanhood are strong and deeply shaped by the education she has received, I am tempted to know more about her life. Suzi looks back at a journey, which though hadn’t been too easy. “Everything started in 2006; again it was the Lebanon impact that shocked my artistic system after a long coma! It was the monster again: War; I felt I was being stuck in a cage yet in a beautiful garden called Lebanon. The awakening of my artistic journey erupted for 33 days of horror, I found myself painting recklessly, endlessly, helplessly. It was my only exile! But I am certain that it pushed me to expand my horizons and tap into new areas of painting I always wanted to explore. Art has been and continues to be, the main outlet of my feelings; I am deeply attracted to the effects of colors, textures and the emotional echo towards a strong composition and design. My main goal is to create living emotions in my paintings. I decided in Feb 2015 to do my 1st solo exhibition because I felt my work looks like me! It expresses all the comedies and tragedies I was encountering socially and personally, and I wanted to say it out loud. I was sure I could. Since then, I’ve begun making a living from it. At first, it was very difficult, but now I am better settled!”

Authors and writers are often asked one common question. Whether there is something called Writer’s Block! Though I personally believe that the term is overrated and writers block is nothing but a bad day at work, I am naively driven to explore if there’s anything similar that an artist has to battle with. May be an Artist’s Block? Nassif admits that she does face an “Artsy coma” at times, when the blank canvas stares back sarcastically and voices in her head shouts, Now What! “This Artsy coma happened to me 3 months ago. That situation frustrated me to an extent that I forced myself to create, but the results were a total flop! So I decided to let go and embrace that silence by crushing the fear of creative stagnancy! During that silence, my heart spoke a different language: hello artist, remember that you are not a machine; so, just let this moment pass! No one can create new art non-stop. When an artist is not painting, he still is an artist against all blocks! I have learned how to make the best of it because in dark silence, and in the stillness, our conscious grows richer and deeper, and images in our minds gets clearer and fresher, so there is no need to fight time and space, or listen to the judgmental voices whether it comes from our heads or from other’s expectations that might put us as artists in eternal block! At the end, art is life. It is about the quality of life and not the quantity!”

Inheriting a mixed influence of various races as a part of the rich Lebanese culture, Nassif grew up on the poems and novels of Gibran Khalil (The Prophet) and visualized them in her mind. He and many other Lebanese masters were great inspiration to her and she still returns to their sublime words and divine imagination, when she feels artistically blocked and is restless to develop visual ideas! “I proudly say I am grateful to be Lebanese! The richness of our culture, history and even the beautiful mess is totally overwhelming. However, if I look at the dark side, the bombing, the horror, the inequality we faced as Lebanese people for decades has a huge impact on my subconscious, and hence also on my art. I find myself painting portraits of people screaming "injustice"! I find my source of inspiration in everything related to Lebanon. It is controversial, deep and totally stirring in every aspect, whether happy or sad! It is Epic!” She explains.

So how conservative or liberal is art in that part of the world? How non-interferingly can someone express herself in Dubai? Goes without saying that an artist faces many restrictions when it comes to certain subjects, of course differing geographically and racially. Being a part of the Middle Eastern world in general, and no matter how liberated they claim to be, there are still taboos in depictions and designs, in portrayals and in modelling. “I have to mute my freedom to express myself in areas related to politics or religion or nudity and follow the rules!" Understandable, because even unintentional provocation dawns dangerous results and artists in the past has faced unfair consequences. As proven historically, artists have been the primary targets of the censor. Novelists, playwrights, poets, painters and sculptors have seen their art banned, burned, or destroyed while they themselves have been imprisoned, dismissed or killed. “It is sometimes harsh to block a creative and artistic idea that deep inside I know, if I extract it bluntly out of my head into a canvas, it would turn out to be a screaming masterpiece and I am confident that majority of the people living in the same environment would surely applaud it but unfortunately in silence! They won’t dare to admit their approval because of all the censorships we are surrounded with.”

Once the freedom of expression is lost, all other freedoms fall! However, Suzi agrees that censorship also challenges the artist in many ways, giving art some glory and mystery because you need to be witty and versatile to create hidden messages and codes through your brush.

“Dubai being my 2nd Home; I witnessed the sudden art wakefulness here”, confirms Suzi. “Finally, we have opportunities as artists to exhibit in Galleries and Art fairs and get the appreciation and recognition we struggled to have in the past. Fortunately, the UAE is increasingly becoming an Art Hub. The list of big Art and cultural events is expanding. The Sharjah Biennial plays a big role in the artistic and cultural development of Gulf region, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, The Louvre, the Contemporary art show, etc. are a few platforms offering good exposure. Art Dubai is now a key date on the international art world calendar. Dubai is emerging as an important destination for artistic institutions, dealers and collectors. The major international auction houses are now basing themselves in UAE; for example, Christie’s Dubai auction broke many world records last year. There are three areas, which are well known as art galleries hub in Dubai: Bastakiya, DIFC and Al Quoz. Al Serkal Avenue, is a former industrial area is being transformed into an exciting new hub for contemporary art, galleries and artists and homegrown cultural initiatives.”

Gilles Jacob, director of the Cannes Film Festival, publicly stated in 2005, “Artistic revolution often takes place in those countries weighed down by restrictions, where artists are not free. Art is often born from constraint. On the other hand, when liberty is rediscovered, there is sometimes a diminution in quality because choice becomes immense, posing new problems.” Suzi Nassif may have faced many restrictions in expression and in representation, in life and in her mind, in ideas and in execution; but within her boundaries she has discovered the aids and means that allows her to sustain and create! And art lovers have welcomed her with open hands, celebrating her canvas and waiting for her to walk ahead in a journey that may have just begun.
First Published: September 9, 2015, 2:56 PM IST
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