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Youssef Abdelke

  • Biography
  • Artworks
  • Exhibitions
  • Participations
  • Books

Born in Qameshli (Syria) in 1951.
Studied at the Faculty of Arts, Damascus, 1976.
Studied at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, 1986.
PhD in Arts, Université Paris VIII, 1989.
He lived and worked in Paris as from 1981 until his return to Damascus in 2005.

     After 25 years of com­pelled exile and of being for­bidden to go back to Syria, it was finally pos­sible for him to go to Damascus in 2005 and to organise a large exhi­bi­tion there.
Since 2010, his Syrian pass­port was con­fis­cated and he could nei­ther exit the country nor return to France where his wife and daughter live.

The works of Youssef Abdelke are in a large number of museums and insti­tu­tions, including The British Museum, the Museum of Kuwait, the Shoman Foundattion and the Institut du Monde Arabe.

King of Darkness

Artist Youssef Abdelké’s highly acclaimed work is renowned for its sin­ister under­tones and unique sym­bolism which expose the bru­tal­i­ties of life.

Based in Paris, the 57-year-old Syrian painter breaks with tra­di­tion through his unique approach to still life drawing. His intriguing works have turned heads the world over, selling in such inter­na­tional auc­tion houses as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In addi­tion, his long-awaited exhi­bi­tion in Damascus in December 2007 gen­er­ated huge interest among art lovers.

Trivial items such as a nail, a fish or a shoe are the focal point of Abdelké’s works. “In order for a bone frag­ment, a dish or an empty sar­dine to do what a king and his horse or a woman and her pos­ses­sions usu­ally did, the artist is required to exert excep­tional efforts and to dis­play great skills,” art critic Emil Manaem writes in his intro­duc­tion to Abdelké’s book. “In his draw­ings, Abdelké allows simple things in life to impose their sovereignty over spaces, pushing them from the very begin­ning from the realm of realism to the realm of sym­bolism.”

According to Manaem, true artistic talent does not reveal itself in the way a fish is drawn or the manner in which its details are cap­tured, but in its power to make the fish an expres­sion or a symbol of life. “A fish embodies free move­ment and the vast sea. In the fish, there is both coher­ence with place and the impos­si­bility of living out­side it,” writes Manaem. “In its eter­nally wide-open eyes, there is a bla­tant chal­lenge and con­dem­na­tion of death.” When the fish is depicted sliced open or pierced by nails, the bru­tality of this image con­veys an under­lying mes­sage about the world.

Symbolism has always been inte­gral to Abdelké’s vision. His early ink draw­ings were full of sym­bols expressing clear-cut polit­ical mes­sages. The ‘People’ series from the 1980-90s expressed oppres­sion in the Arab world with its images of jails, guards, crowds of people and horses. “I revealed the dark­ness I felt inside in my ‘People’ series,” Abdelké said. “This helped me move on to more pos­i­tive and peaceful pro­jects.”

However, Abdelké’s harsh style and severity of sub­jects remained, even in his still life draw­ings in the form of skulls, bones and sharp knives. “Artists can’t change their skin even if they change their sub­ject matter,” Abdelké explained.

Abdelké’s con­cept of space has how­ever changed. “I’ve been inspired by the phi­los­ophy of people in South East Asia. They see man as a small part of the uni­verse; space in their paint­ings reflects the huge space we have in our uni­verse. Europeans on the other hand, see man as the centre of the world, that’s why you find their paint­ings full of people and ele­ments,” Abdelké said.

Abdelké now inte­grates both European and Eastern per­spec­tives into his paint­ings. “Eu­ro­peans devel­oped sci­en­tific rules for per­spec­tive so that things would look the same as in reality,” Abdelké said. “East­erners like the Arabs, Turks, and Chinese ignore per­spec­tive; they paint the most impor­tant ele­ments of their paint­ings in a bigger size regard­less of how they see look in reality.”

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