My colleagues at the gallery find it amusing that I stand in awe and silent dialogue before Majd Kurdieh‘s paintings or look around for new ones each week. The merchandise promoting his work has grown from cards and mugs, to include fridge magnets, coasters, and now T-shirts, which are all displayed at the entrance of the quaint café attached to the gallery. Kasha who works there informs me when new products arrive and translates the Arabic script for me.
Kurdieh is a Syrian refugee and currently lives alone in a small house with just two rooms in the mountainous area of Lebanon, close to the Mediterranean Sea. His art practice dominates his life and in his free time, he enjoys fishing. His images are whimsical and childlike and include Arabic text inspired by his love of books, poetry, and music.
The animated characters Kurdieh created, the Fasaeen – which means ‘tiny people’ in Arabic – are a boy (Fasoon) and a girl (Fasooneh). They look deceptively innocent and have an unusual gang of friends, including a hyena and a monster. Kurdieh calls the gang ‘the very scary butterfly gang’ and each painting offers a narrative of how they work together, to steal sadness from the world and replace them with flowers. The butterfly, Kurdieh explains, is a fragile creature, so our instinct is to approach it delicately, afraid to harm it and in this context, he uses the word ‘scary’. His message is that we should approach each person in our lives with that kind of fear – of knowing that unless we are cautious, we can do them harm.
The Fasaeen are often painted with missing arms, which to me suggests a feeling of helplessness and perhaps the artist’s as well, but Kurdieh’s intention is to portray connection; that when two people truly connect, they must connect with their hearts. The little girl is the leader of the pack and he relates most with her. The characters act as a conduit through which his stories flow and he says that they seem to control him. The narrative develops as the painting progresses and he does not begin with the end in mind.
I am unsure exactly what it is that draws me to his work. I wonder if it is my Syrian roots on my father’s side or the simplicity of his work that makes one feel that if he can paint, well then, so can I. Perhaps it is the stories of war, displacement, and trauma that have come knocking on my
door since I began my clinical placement as a student of Art Psychotherapy. Something in me awakened as they revealed their stories, the impact of war, the senseless loss of lives, and the strength of the human spirit to survive. They had left in a hurry and were not prepared for what lay ahead.
Irrespective of our circumstances or where we live, there is a need to know in our innermost being, who we are, and where we belong, and in the comfort and safety of that knowledge we no longer just survive, but we begin to thrive. Majd Kurdieh stays anchored to his roots through the stories and poems of his favorite authors. Books occupy a big part of his home and are a tangible reminder of where he came from.
The initial paintings of Kurdieh seem hurried and the words of the poem look as if they were placed without much thought of alignment. Some of the words in a few paintings have even been crossed out with a line running through them, as if the artist is granting permission to make mistakes. The rawness of his work is appealing. I was intrigued to learn how his method of drawing the monster morphed intentionally from the way he draws the dove. Nuances like this draw the viewer in for a closer look at Kurdieh’s work, and new layers of meaning are revealed.
The first series, ‘Stealing Sadness’ showed the characters outlined with bold black lines. The removal of those boundaries in his second series ‘Surrender to Love’, was a simple but inspired way to visually free the characters of the restrictions they faced, and empower them to do more.
For the past two years, I have been facilitating creative art and writing workshops in collaboration with an art gallery in Dubai, and of all the artists I have seen exhibited here, Majd Kurdieh and his series ‘Stealing Sadness’ remains my favorite.
Kurdieh’s poems written in Arabic on the paintings are replaced in later work with more concise statements like “the country is the wound and you are the honey”. Other than the motley crew of animals, most of the repeated motifs in his paintings are from nature and include the sun, moon, clouds, flowers -particularly the poppy.
There is an invitation to look at what is within us in his paintings and the condition of the heart appears to be a popular theme. An elephant with the heart of a butterfly has the message, “If your heart is as light as a butterfly, anyone can fly”. In another, the elephant is seen to have the heart of a fish.
Kurdieh is in no way bitter about the path that has led him to Lebanon. Art making and poetry have served to channel his pain through the Fasaeen, transforming it into a message of hope and optimism. He is the best-selling artist at the gallery here in Dubai and his work is gaining global attention and popularity.
The very scary butterfly gang Kurdieh says, lives in the hearts of each one of us and the artist poignantly tasks us with the responsibility of finding ways to take away the sadness from the lives of people and make the world a better place.
Don’t miss the chance to check out Renu Thomas’ online class, Identity and Belonging: An Exploration through Visual Art and Creative Writing. The class runs from October 26 – December 7, 2022, at the TLA Network.
Renu Sarah Thomas is an Art Psychotherapist (British Association of Art Therapists – BAAT) and workshop facilitator. She has several years of experience in introducing and conducting programmes that promote the personal, social, and emotional well-being of individuals in Dubai, India, and Scotland and adapting these programmes to suit the cultural climate of the region.
She is a self-taught artist and although Renu finds pottery making and acrylic painting centering and enjoyable, it is through writing that she has found liberation and empowerment. Her growing areas of interest include displacement and trauma and through her spontaneous creative art and creative writing workshops, she passionately encourages people to pursue some form of creative expression, embrace their authentic selves, and intentionally find their purpose.
Born in India and raised in England, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, Dubai has been her home for the past 20 years.