Syrian Artist Walid Agha Searches for the Spirit of the Letters’

By Rebecca Joubin

Syrian artist Walid Agha is well-known for his paintings, which draw upon the rich cultural traditions of his country. In October 2008, Rebecca Joubin interviewed him in his art studio in Sahnayah, Damascus. Here he talks about the sources of his inspiration as well as future plans.

How did your childhood stimulate your art?

My father worked as a customs official, and thus my family moved often from one part of the country to the next. In just a few years we had lived in Aleppo, Homs and then up north in Hassake and Qamishle. As a child I noticed how the decorations and architecture of the homes in each region were varied. In the north, the Assyrian reliefs inside and outside the homes fascinated me. The tree of life symbol was often present, as well as Assyrian stamps and tablets. Usually the owners of the homes did not know much about the history or meaning of these symbols, which were there merely for decorative purposes. From early on, these interesting decorative items instilled a deep love of art in my being. Even when I was a child, if anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I would become an artist.


I was fortunate because my parents not only supported my interest in art, but they enthusiastically encouraged me. When I was in elementary school my parents enrolled me in private art lessons in the studio of Arto, an Armenian artist in Aleppo. These private lessons were invaluable, and from the time I entered high school I focused on getting accepted in the Fine Arts Department at Damascus University, which I did.

Your art is known to draw upon the rich tradition and history of your country, and calligraphy – Arabic, Assyrian, Sumerian – prevails. Tell us about your first experiences as an artist in Syria.

At university I was lucky to receive the guidance of important art professors such as Abdel Ghader al-Naut, Mahmud Hamad and then later, Faten Mudaress. These teachers taught me how to treat calligraphy as a symbol, as poetry, in my paintings. As a student of art I felt fortunate to have a rich history to draw upon. I regularly visited museums, and the deep-rooted traditions and mythology of my country inspired me. As a child, when I had seen reliefs in different homes across the country, I had not understood the real historical significance. Now, much older, I grasped their meaning. I combined calligraphy against a background of symbolism from Syria’s history. I was searching for the spirit of the letters, and the colors I used were usually earthy, related to history. In 1984 I had my first exhibition of Arabic calligraphy on silkscreen graphic at the Spanish Cultural Center in Damascus. I saw the interest people showed in calligraphy, and then rather than just depending on Arabic letters, I explored Sumerian and Assyrian letters.

During your early period, your paintings are busier. But I notice that in your later periods there is less calligraphy and symbolism, and more emptiness on the canvas. What has happened here?

In my early period I was so excited to use the symbols of my country. Often my canvases were full. I tended to leave very little empty space. But perhaps in my later period I have gone back to my childhood memories, back to the village of my childhood, to the homes, decorations and symbols. My work is more relaxed, less hectic. I have more confidence in myself and the power of just one symbol and what it can express. And this also applies to the art deco I now create. For example, sometimes a chair is just one letter of the alphabet. Though you can sit on this kind of chair, it is certainly not a traditional piece of furniture.

What are your most common techniques?

While I rely wholly on Syrian history, culture and tradition in my work, and never leave my roots, I am always experimenting with technique. For example, I combine graphics, painting, stamp reliefs in one painting, so the textures are often rich and varied. I often mix the different calligraphies. Most of my paintings have a small circle somewhere on the canvas. This is from Sufism, which says that all humans circle around one point, that the whole universe rotates around one point. I draw from Sufism not from a religious perspective, but a scientific perspective. I also combine contradictions – young, old, hot, cold, sad, happy. So you see me use very warm colors next to very cold ones on one canvas.

You have exhibited all over the world, from Syria, France, Germany to the United States and Japan. What exhibitions do you have planned now?

During February of 2009, I have a joint exhibition with three other Syrian artists in Berlin, Germany. In September of 2009, there is a conference on Arab poetry in Cuba, which will be honoring the late poet Mahmoud Darwish. I will be presenting paintings on the poetry of Nizar Kabbani.

This interview appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid


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