Interview with Yaser Safi

He draws parallels between worlds in his work, representing street life in Damascus and Berlin with the same elegant stroke. The vibrant paintings and more somber black-and-white etchings by Syrian artist Yaser Safi (*1976) bring to life a cast of abstractly rendered characters that emerge from his memory, imagination and lived experience. Safi will show his work as part of the group show “Clearly Ambiguous” at SMAC, for which the artists were asked to respond to Heraclitus’ well-known adage about change: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” From his apartment and studio space in Neukölln, Safi discussed his inspiration and whether or not the artist has an obligation to address political strife.



SMAC: As a Syrian artist currently living and working in Berlin, how do you find the city? How did you end up here?

Yaser Safi: This is my third visit to Berlin. I find the city to be very energetic and, unlike many other cities, Berlin has various social layers ranging between simple and complex levels. Artistically speaking, Berlin is a generously inspiring city.

In 2010, I participated in a cultural exchange workshop titled Tripoli-Leipzig which was between the University of Leipzig for the visual arts and that of Tripoli, Lebanon. I came to Germany for that workshop, which was about etching. When I visited Berlin the second time for an exhibition in 2014, I was still living in Damascus. The third time I came to Germany was when I visited Cologne for an exhibition in late 2015 and then decided to move to Berlin, so here I am.


You mentioned that looking out over your small balcony here in Neukölln reminds you of Damascus in some way. Can you elaborate?

The thing I find most beautiful about Berlin is its street life. It has a very dynamic street life and a strong sense of community, which is very vibrant, as opposed to other Northern European cities. These streets are a big inspiration in my work.

You work in a variety of media – painting, etching, sculpting – what is your artistic background?

My academic background is in etching. I studied and eventually taught etching at the university level. Later, my work evolved into other media. I think each medium is a language and I don’t like to borrow from amongst the different media to support one medium technically: each should be given its right. It’s as though I am drowning in whichever artistic language I happen to be working with. I give each medium the energy, time and feeling it deserves.

I try to focus on working with one medium at a time but it happens that I sometimes work in parallel. I get inspiration from sketching and I want to expand it in another medium. Though it’s translated into another medium, it still has the same thoughts and emotions. It’s important, emotionally, to give whatever medium you’re working with all of your energy. I sometimes feel a sudden desire to make sculptures, for example. It’s like a secret call from the medium that draws me towards it.


I think each medium is a language and I don’t like to borrow from amongst the different media to support one medium technically: each should be given its right

The abstract human figures in your paintings are reminiscent of Paul Klee’s work. Where do you get inspiration for your depictions?

I am always inspired by the streets and the social relationships in our communities, where complex interactions play a big role. Solitude is very rare in our communities, there’s always rich social interaction that can often be exhausting. These complexities incite you to raise questions about the relationship with oneself and one’s relationship to others.

I really like Paul Klee as an artist. Perhaps the relationship between the abstract characters and spaces I develop reflects that. Historically speaking, abstract modern art was heavily inspired by Persian and Islamic miniatures. The relationship between the object and space influenced many artists in the 20th century. Much of the inspiration derived from the sense of space in Islamic and sufi manuscripts. Paul Klee, like many other modern artists of the 20th century, admired and even appropriated African, oriental, and Islamic art references. I personally find myself drawing more roots from the ancient oriental and Islamic art.

Tell us about your contribution to the upcoming group exhibition “Clearly Ambiguous”.

Returning to the concept of the exhibition, which revolves around the idea of change, I was drawn to respond to this. We, as artists, are often working around this concept subconsciously. Sometimes it’s change in our reality or in our work itself. I am contributing etching works and ink on paper sketches that I did here in Berlin.


How do you address the injunction from Heraclitus that you cannot step in the same river twice – that both we and the river are always changing – in relation to the political situation in Syria at the moment and the changes happening there?

Syrians are experiencing a disaster. It’s impossible for a Syrian, regardless if it’s an adult or a child, to detach himself from the current reality. When the people took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations in 2011, they were asking for change. They demanded reforms and liberation from tyranny and oppression. However, changing reality comes with big consequences. The international community does not support the sense of revolution, revolt and change; the world wants things to remain constant.

When a country is under a dictatorship and people revolt against that in pursuit of their rights, democracy and freedom, it’s easy for the government to turn that into a civil war. It’s still though, at it’s core, a struggle between the people and the oppressive regime.

Is it the role of an artist, who exhibits worldwide, to speak about these political issues?

Every artist should be free to do work about an insect, or a still life of fruit, during a time of war. However, in the face of a such a brutal reality, it’s often evident in the artist’s work that they are living through a war. Historically, I don’t believe that artists or their work have a direct relationship to political change. Many poets and artists have tried to effect change with their work through their outcries to denounce violence, but Picasso’s Guernica couldn’t stop the war. German artists couldn’t stop WW2, but they felt a duty to attempt it. It is rather a dream or a delusion to stop killing through art. Art will eventually have some influence in the long run, but it’s the duty of politicians and parliaments to have direct influence and make change.

Every artist should be free to do work about an insect, or a still life of fruit, during a time of war. However, in the face of a such a brutal reality, it’s often evident in the artist’s work that they are living through a war

How do you conceive of a narrative – is it spontaneous while working or thought out in advance? You mix memory, fiction, and reality in your scenes.

I always start from scratch, without prior planning and or a reference sketch. There is a process of concealing and revealing in my work. The traces that occur from the action of concealing are parallel to those of revealing, therefore the initial sketches are evident regardless of the development of the artwork. A scene from reality triggers thousands of images in the imagination, which in turn mixes several scenes or situations together, meaning that the work is inspired from various timeframes.

Your vibrant paintings of metropolitan street life in Damascus are empowering, compared to the media image of the war in Syria at the moment.

In my work, there are references of temper, love, hate and violence as an attempt to capture the dynamics of life on the streets. There are moments prior to death or moments that go beyond the moment of death that the media's camera lenses cannot capture.


Interview: Alison Hugill
Photos: Andreas Bohlender