Saad Yakan: I am pessimistic about the future of humanity

Al Majalla speaks to the artist from Aleppo, who says Syria's civil war has dimmed his hope for the future but that painting the ocean helps calm his anxiety

Saad Yakan
Saad Yakan

Saad Yakan: I am pessimistic about the future of humanity

For Syrian artist Saad Yakan, painting is how he best expresses himself and where he channels his hope for humanity.

His art embodies everything from ancient history to current affairs. This has been his unique style ever since he dropped out of art school in Damascus in 1971.

Yakan’s work reflects his deep connection with his native Aleppo, its history and its streets. He draws inspiration from the nuanced details of its people, cafes, and alleyways. It is authentic and raw.

Al Majalla sat down with the famed artist, who spoke about everything from where he gets his inspiration to his views on humanity. Here is the full interview.

You have long been inspired by ancient tales and myths such as the stories of One Thousand and One Nights and the Epic of Gilgamesh, as well as your hometown of Aleppo. What does your heritage mean to you?

Exploring the region's historical myths helps me connect to a past full of profound ideas. I don't purely focus on aesthetics when creating my art; heritage also plays a key role in shaping my vision. This allows me to put my own spin on ancient artworks. I found that many moral lessons can be drawn from these ancient tales.

Saad Yakan's artwork

Tell us about your deep attachment to Aleppo. Do you still feel the same after living in Beirut for many years?

My bond with Aleppo runs deep. I was raised there. It is a city steeped in ancient history and the lingering aroma of stone. Its residents are special.

Living there, I was exposed to the city's artistic treasures through its talented musicians and visual artists. These artists inspired me greatly.

How did you end up in Beirut?

I’ve been living in Beirut for quite a while now. Following Syria's civil war that began in 2011, my studio was seized, my artwork destroyed, and I was abducted twice.

I decided to move to Beirut because of its rich history and vibrant art scene. It’s where I held many of my exhibitions before the war and where I formed deep personal and professional connections.

Despite my unique love for Aleppo, Beirut did a great job of filling the void I felt after leaving my native city.

Saad Yakan's artwork

What is the role of art amid the political and social changes unfolding in the world today?

Art is deeply connected to life and all of its components. Through their creations, artists present their stances on humanity, history, reality, politics and culture.

Art that purely focuses on aesthetics lacks integrity. Politics cannot be separated from the human experience, so it is natural for art to be political.

In the past year, you've painted some breathtaking portraits of actors on the stages of the People's Theatre in Aleppo and Al-Hamra Theatre in Damascus. How has theatre influenced your art?

I was influenced by Louay Kayali, a prominent artist from Aleppo, who got me into theatre early on in my art career. This is when I began to sketch the visual elements of theatre, music, and movement. This exercise helped to sharpen my techniques.

By 2000, I had some 20,000 pencil sketches in my collection. For a decade, I sketched every day, strolling in the park, sitting in a café, or attending a play. These cultural experiences shaped my view of the world.

A painting of Umm Kulthum by Saad Yakan

Why did you drop out of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Damascus?

When I enrolled, it was more of a natural direction for me rather than a genuine passion. But I only attended for one year. It wasn't for me.

Can you speak about Syria's artistic renaissance of the 1970s and what became of it?

The vibrant artistic awakening that swept Syria in the 70s wasn't confined to the canvas but permeated across literature, theatre, and music. During this time, trailblazing artists produced a rich mosaic of contributions on par with the greatest artists in the world.

This renaissance gradually subsided due to the harsh realities of life. However, its impact can still be felt as contemporary artists continue to draw inspiration from these pioneers.

What are some of the challenges that Syrian artists face?

There is somewhat of a cultural illiteracy that prevails in the domain of visual arts. Unfortunately, artists have no control over how their art is perceived.

Cultural institutions play a key role in nurturing cultural awareness in any country and teaching its citizens the value and significance of art.

Art is deeply connected to every facet of life. Through their creations, artists showcase their political and social views.

Can you define your relationship with art?

It's pretty straightforward: 'I paint, therefore I am.' This philosophy has guided me through my personal and cultural journey. 

Human connection is essential to my art; I get this from everyday interactions with society. Through these interactions, I see human suffering, alienation, and solitude, which filter into my art.

I find it hard to be optimistic about the future of humanity. The horrible civil war shattered the hopes and dreams of the Syrian people. Once a vibrant people, they spend their days struggling to meet their basic needs.

However, from this tragedy emerged a group of artists who are bearing witness to this humanitarian crisis, which is important.

Has this bleak situation influenced your art?

I used to have a strong bond with nature, but that has given way to focus on human suffering. Once in a while, I will paint nature—especially the sea; I love the sea.

But not the Mediterranean. I prefer vast oceans, which I've never seen except in movies. It's a breath of fresh air for me.

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