Marwan Chamaa’s paintings are pure pop bliss

There’s an infectious joie-de-vivre to each of Marwan Chamaa’s paintings. His exuberant, colourful brushstrokes channel the very best of pop art to create multi-panelled love stories inspired by comic books, tragic Arab songs and cities that have left an imprint on his soul, like New York and Beirut. His most recent work, Chagrin D’Amour — The Musical, on show at Dubai’s Opera Gallery from April 1 to 14, encapsulates all that the artist loves best. “The paintings focus on the purity of tarab and the purity of love,” explains Chamaa.

The 51-year-old Lebanese artist, who’s lived in Germany, Lebanon and the United States, has been painting for over 30 years, and he’s worked in various media — oil, watercolors, acrylic — using different techniques. But it wasn’t until 2010 that pop art became his distinctive expression. “Pop art always fascinated me,” he says. “My specialty was advertising, and I enjoyed glorifying commercial items.”

Marwan Chamaa, portrait

Marwan Chamaa, portrait

Chamaa’s attraction to pop art resulted in his first major pop art work, La Dolce Vita, a love story told in 12 chapters, across 12 paintings that were exhibited at Beirut’s Galerie Tanit in 2013. In this landmark work, Chamaa makes references to old Beirut via vintage cars with ancient Lebanese license plates, bottles of Canada Dry with Arabic text and covers of Little Lulu comic books. At the same time, there are nods to such contemporary icons as Starbucks, Chanel and Domino’s Pizza, as Chamaa explores unrequited love in the age of consumerism.

Contemporary issues take centre stage in Chamaa’s Ecstatic, two large-scale paintings that resemble those once created by communist regimes for propaganda purposes. Here, Chamaa looks at two successful mid-20th century revolutions — the Chinese Revolution and McDonald’s fast-food revolution — in an attempt to understand why Lebanon’s YouStink 2015 protest movement, which started out with such thunderous power, eventually puttered out and is now almost defunct. In bold Arabic, on a red and yellow background of Maoist imagery, Chamaa asks “What’s the secret?” He explains his question: “Why did those two revolutions succeed while YouStink didn’t?”

Marwan Chamaa, I wish I could forget you

Marwan Chamaa, I wish I could forget you

For his most recent work, Chagrin D’Amour — The Musical, Chamaa returns to his favoured themes of love and music. In a playful nod to Roy Lichtenstein (whose work shows up in the background and who, along with James Rosenquist, Takashi Murakami and Robert Indiana, is one of his favourite artists), Chamaa created a series of tongue-in-cheek paintings, each a different size. “I wanted to reflect the wide differences of love,” he says.

The first painting, entitled Quand?, shows a woman with tears streaming down her face, while a man holds her in his arms. She is reciting a line from the 1994 Arabic song by Asmahan, When Will You Realise?

Another powerful work, Give Me My Freedom, depicts a woman recoiling from her lover as she demands to be set free. Here, the lyrics on the painting are from Umm Kulthoum’s 1964 epic The Ruins.

In Chagrin D’Amour, as in his previous work, Chamaa blissfully blends East and West to tell a story of love, passion and revenge, all in his characteristic pop art style. He calls this new series an “illustrated musical.” I like to think of it as a roller coaster ride through Western art, classic Arab songs and big love — with a Lebanese pop spin, of course.

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The One-on-One Issue #35, pages 64-67.