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The many mutable faces of Manal

BEIRUT: We’re all children at heart, they say. If we could channel that innocence and generosity, perhaps the world would be a less jaundiced place.

With his exhibition “Manal,” now on show at Artspace Hamra, multidisciplinary artist Anas Albraehe expresses this sentiment with great soulfulness.

Rather than rendering the conflict raging in his country, the Syrian artist has chosen to address a social issue. Manal was born with Down syndrome and lived alone and isolated from society. With her playful authenticity, spontaneity, she became Albraehe’s muse and the subject of canvases.

“Anas grew up in Swaida, Syria and Manal used to be his neighbor,” Artspace manager Noor Haydar said. “She still lives there … Anas was working on his thesis when, out of nowhere, Manal popped out of the fava bean field in front of his house.

“She started playing with him and showing him her doll. It really touched him so he asked her if he could paint her. She didn’t understand why. He told her, ‘Because you’re beautiful.’ She didn’t accept that at first. She’s 40-years-old and has white hair but refuses to let Anas paint her with grey hair.

“In fact, in this painting here,” Haydar gestures to Albraehe’s oil “Road,” “she asked him to paint her hair green.”

Most of the works on show are oils on canvas but the exhibition also includes some of Manal’s drawings. Albraehe, who holds an MA in Psychology and Art Therapy from the Lebanese University, wanted to move her beyond her frame of mind for a time and relax her.

Manal’s drawings depict Albraehe, showing him with many eyes, something that Haydar explained was a result of the many hours spent looking at her in the studio.

“The amount of time spent observing her is here defined by the number of eyes,” Haydar said. “It’s so primitively strong and down to the basics. She became a lot more confident and started making more friends. Even the way she walked and dressed began to change so it was a nice interaction between the both of them. She gave him something and he gave her something in return.”

The personality depicted in each piece seems blissful and contented. Manal would often draw on the wall and stand before her handiwork, quietly contemplating them.

Albraehe recreated these images as a backdrop for his own work – in “Neighborhood Scenes,” for example. Her facial expressions and features change from one canvas to another. This may be what Albraehe found so exquisite about his model.

“She doesn’t pose like a model would pose for an art class, to accentuate shapes and curves or light,” Haydar said. “She’s just very natural. She gets into a pose and she’s just comfortable and can sit there for a long time. It’s refreshing. We hope that this show will help raise some awareness about Down syndrome in Lebanon.”

A common misconception about people with Down syndrome is that they are helpless, unable to do what others enjoy. Albraehe addresses this pre-conception head-on. The show is accompanied by a short video about the real Manal. It demonstrates her contagious smile, passion for life, gentle, kindhearted nature and eagerness to learn.

It becomes instantly apparent how aware she is. Joy and pain are mirrored in her eyes, and apparent in Albraehe’s portrayals, which reveal the psychology of color and the other’s glance.

“She usually takes care of her parents and she’s able to do everything,” Haydar notes. “She laughs a lot, but then suddenly, breaks into the blues and just starts singing really soulful songs. She’s just an incredible human being.”

Every piece on show was painted from life. Often they were inspired by the stories and discussions exchanged between both Albraehe and Manal.

“Spring,” for example, illustrates a conversation about her ideal world, complete with a house, birds, flashy cars, a garden and the sun brightly shining – rendered behind her.

Some works were painted from memory, such as “A Glance,” “Waiting,” and “The Blue Necklace.” It’s clear in these works how much Albraehe missed Manal, as the backgrounds became more abstract, as if to reflect his feelings of loss and longing.

“Manal is composed of a different harmony,” he writes of his subject, “the honest features of her face, the spontaneous and bold expressions of her movements … She is the mirror that reflects my true self.”

The hardships of war and famine cannot eclipse the delicate personal struggles that mark the human condition as a whole.

Albraehe’s “Manal” series can be read as a vessel for kindness shining in the dark.

 

Source Article At Dailystart.com

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