Thaier Helal paints in a broad, windowless studio tucked off a courtyard in the heart of Sharjah. By day, he is a professor of contemporary painting and drawing at the University of Sharjah’s College of Fine Arts and Design, but by night, he concentrates on his own practice in thick solitude. He confides, “When I enter the studio, I close the door and I feel free, as though I am the only one in the world and I can do as I like.”
Because the studio has no natural light, Helal plugs in industrial spotlights, controlling the bulbs so the beams hit the canvases at different angles as he wrestles with upwards of 10 paintings at once. To watch him create is to observe a principal dancer rehearsing onstage in constant motion. He says, “I add what feels like thousands of layers to each painting, adding a layer here, removing a layer there, jumping from one to the next.”
In the past, critics have speculated that Helal’s work is yoked to underlying principles of Islamic geometry due to his obsession with repeating patterns, mathematical equations, and rhythmic serialism. Beneath the Rubble, his solo exhibition at Ayyam Gallery, builds upon techniques dominant in Helal’s most recent bodies of work, Landmarks (2015) and Landmarks II (2017). Each canvas starts with an inflexible grid, and Helal regards each square as both its own complete composition—and an internal measure of the whole. When he first began the grid system in 1996, its presence was evident to viewers, but over time, the visible lines have dissolved, and the complex mathematical structure plays in the background—mainly inside the artist’s mind.
Here, as in Landmarks I and II, the abstract paintings are arguably sculptural in form—jutting off the wall with topographical roughness. In the past, Helal added dimensionality with found objects, metal, wood, plastic, sand, and paper. In this series, paper powder is mixed with acrylic paints and sawdust, while shredded pieces of fabric lend coarse, spontaneous texture. The sum of the layers gives the unmistakable impression of destroyed Syrian homes and neighbourhoods that lie deserted on cracked tar streets.
Works such as Tremor, Underline, and Crack are anchored by curtains of whites interlaced with blacks, and in some cases, shards of red, gold, and other warming colours. Anyone who has set out to paint a wall knows that there are hundreds of varieties of white, and the symbolic effects can vary from a celebrity’s glaringly forced smile, to a reflective snow, or a ghostly pallor.
Here, the white serves to physically separate Syria’s past and future. Helal uses the reflective pigment to convey a strong quality of hope. He insists, “I don’t want to show the suffering of the people who endured tragedy; I want to show their positive qualities—their creativity, their strength, stories, memories, and the futures that await. For me, white is about rising up again from the ashes.”
Make no mistake, although there is a discernible beauty to these pieces, the artist is not capitalising upon shock value of art that addresses the conflict in Syria, or making light of the protracted human tragedy and its widespread destruction of places and people. Helal regards the artist’s role in society as an obligation to serve as a witness.
Born into a farming community in a small village near the ancient town of Maaloula, Syria, Helal spent his childhood in the shadow of steep mountain ranges, working the family farm. He chose to follow a different path from his father, and after graduating from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Damascus, moved to Sharjah in the 1990s.
“As artists, when something serious happens in the world like the Syrian conflict, we can’t be apathetic. We are the ones who are supposed to say something.” Here, Helal speaks out by absorbing and framing the tragedy through his paintbrush, channeling events and stories into a resource for philosophical expression.
Mounted on sterile, chalky walls in Ayyam Gallery’s space, the show takes an unflinching look at the realities inside Syria and in the far-flung countries where Syrians have fled (or in some cases, died attempting to flee) in order to restart their lives. Despite the suffering, Helal is doggedly optimistic when it comes to the resilience of the Syrian people. This comes through in several of the brighter works, including Creation and Transition, which give the feel of moss, mountainous terrains, and forests.
These works carry a melancholic yearning for the land of Helal’s childhood, with its wholesome predictability of changing seasons and bucolic co-existence. “I try to smell the earth’s colours in my paintings,” he confides over Whatsapp messages, late at night, as he prepares for the show’s opening.
Although, it’s not clear that the paintings in Beneath The Rubble follow any prescribed sequence, those with more colour feel like they should come at the end, as a kind of new beginning once the wreckage of yesterday has been mourned and cleared.