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The immutable portraitist

Interview with Ali Omar

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Ali Omar is a Syrian-Kurdish painter who lives in Istanbul since 2014, after having spent the past three years painting in isolation in Tepke, his village near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, and Erbil, where he stayed for a few months. His colourful portraits display the inner distortions of human beings, reflecting on the strong yet complex relationship between body and spirit. He draws the same portrait again and again, in an infinite number of variations, taking him each time further in his quest for an evanescent human core – and farther from the only certain absolute in life, which is death.

Did you always want to be a painter?

I think so. I started painting when I was a child. I can still remember when I was around 10 and the village school closed for summer holidays, my father took me in his car to go and get painting material. When I tried oil painting for the first time, no one had told me about turpentine, so I just mixed the pigments my father had bought with cooking oil! Even though I use professional painting oil and better pigments nowadays, I will never forget the smell of those first pigments. Each time I smell the oil I remember them.

Did you ever feel like you wanted to stop painting?

I will tell you a story about that. When I was around 13, I had an Arabic teacher who liked me very much. He used to lend me books and we would have long discussions about them. He was happy to see that I was interested in the Arabic language. As he heard that I was painting, he came and told me: “Do you know what it means to be a painter? It means being a loser. And you, you’re trying to make your dreams come true on the canvas because in real life you’re a loser!” Until that moment I had never asked myself [the question if I would stop]. I simply painted because I wanted to. Yet, after that I was so afraid of the idea of being a loser that I stopped painting for almost a year.

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But then you started again.

Even though I wasn’t painting anymore, I could still feel the desire to paint. In fact, the more I tried to repress it, the more it grew in me. I was stuck in between what my teacher told me and my own deep feelings. One day, I asked myself if the teacher really was right. He was only a teacher after all, not God! I had also discovered great artists like Michelangelo or Rembrandt. Their work was so powerful that it reached us through time, even though it was created a long time ago and sometimes in very troubled periods. And they were not losers at all, they had a strong influence on European culture; they helped people understand their desires and how to be closer to their selves, and that’s exactly what art is about. So then I started to feel better about being an artist.

Do you often think about that time when you are painting?

Sometimes I do. I often ask myself about this desire to paint. Let’s try to imagine the first human who started to paint: he or she made lines in the earth or with ashes on the wall of a cave. Why did that person do that? No one had told him or her what art is. To me, it means that this desire must be something human, something deeply rooted in us.

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At the moment you only paint portraits. Why did you choose to do that?

Because it’s simple. All painters have tried to make portraits, at least once. Painting is something that provokes feelings, it doesn’t necessarily have to tell a story. If I wanted to tell stories, I would write novels. In fact, making portraits gives me a lot of liberty to develop my techniques and my style, without trying to copy anyone else. There are some artists that make abstract paintings only in order to not do something figurative. But if they don’t have a personal reason, it doesn’t make sense. People won’t be able to understand or feel something, it’s just some kind of mystification.

It seems that you always paint the same face. Why is that?

I have a nephew who tells me, each time he sees one of my paintings: “Why do you always paint my father?” In fact, I don’t paint anyone in particular, even though I’m influenced by the people I meet. Sometimes, it feels like I’m painting myself. Actually, one day, a friend of mine asked why my portraits don’t have hair while I have lots! It’s probably true that there’s a lot of me in my paintings, but I have no need to paint myself like in a mirror. Sometimes I paint faces of people I met in my dreams. I think that what I try to capture is deeper than the physical world.

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You were painting a lot in your village in Syria. Is it very different to paint in Istanbul now?

Not really. I also painted when staying in different places in Syria and Iraq. I think the biggest difference with Istanbul is that I can see more. The history and nature of this place are very rich. The city has a lot of different colours, which reflects somehow in my work. But the desire to paint has remained the same. I really like visiting historical places and see what they have become through time, how they’ve survived the accidents of history.

You have a workshop in Balat, do you have any plans for the future?

Not really. It’s not something I try to think about.

Why?

Many things happen by accident. For example, when I begin spraying paint on my canvas, I never know exactly what the result will be. I can try to understand how the pigments will react and try to control them, but there will always be a part of it that’s luck. And an accident can change everything – in a painting and in life. I believe that it’s by accepting such accidents that one can stay close to oneself, and that’s what makes me continue painting.

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This interview was made in September 2015 on behalf of WAHA Art initiative. It was first published in the exhibition catalogue of Hussain Tarabie & Ali Omar à l’ICAM in February 2016.

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