Young Syrian painter Noor Bahjat allows images to form spontaneously on the canvas

When Noor Bahjat approaches the canvas, she makes a point of not knowing what or who it is that will emerge once her paintbrush finds its path. This freedom might, in part, be attributed to her youth (she was born in 1991 in Damascus) but it is also indicative of her innate talent.
“When I start to paint, I start with an empty mind,” she says. “My idea comes with the process. I don’t like to think too much as it blocks my inspiration. I just let the characters come to me.”
As such, the haunting portraits that form the bulk of her first solo show at Ayyam Gallery are full of characters that evoke similar emotions. Through wide eyes, they search for their viewers from the canvas, and, through piercing stares, they reveal an untold tale, which to me seems to be heavily laced with the trauma of conflict.
“I’m not a political person, I’m too young for that,” Bahjat counters when I put this suggestion to her. “It was not my intention to focus on the war. However, I did study in Damascus during the war so it is natural that it should appear in my work.”
In one painting, which is untitled like the others, a woman dressed in black flops across a table upon which a crow stands and atop which a globe has rolled from its stand. In others, the same object repeats in different states of disarray, suggesting a lack of stability and offering a bleak outlook. Even the several self-portraits, which the artist practices between her larger works, have a sombre feel.
“I don’t title the paintings because I want people to create their own stories,” she says. “When you look at the painting it is a personal experience, so whatever you see is the right interpretation.”

Bahjat is the first recipient of Ayyam Gallery’s Young Artist in Residency Programme, meaning that she has spent the last six months working from Ayyam’s flagship space in Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue. The influence of her mentors, Tammam Azzam and Mohannad Orabi, is clear to the well-trained eye and it is fitting that the two senior artists, who got their first career boost back in 2007 with the Shabab Ayyam programme, are now in a position to help the next generation.
“It is a dream to have a solo exhibition so soon into my career,” Bahjat says. “I was so lucky to have this residency and I only wish the same for other young Syrian artists.”

by Aya Ibrahim

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Colours Issue #32, on page 39