Ayyam Gallery Dubai (DIFC) is pleased to present Family Portrait, the solo exhibition of Syrian artist Mohannad Orabi. In his latest body of work, Orabi explores the psychology of memory, and how this mental process shapes one’s perception of formative experiences. Addressing the subject of social relations and how children negotiate a sense of self while developing an understanding of the world around them, Orabi builds on the previous themes of his work. At the same time, the artist’s recent paintings revisit the semiotics of images: how pictures are constructed with forms and concepts, resulting in a system of signs. Orabi has investigated the signified meaning of popular imagery since 2012.

Shortly after relocating from Damascus to Cairo due to the intensification of the Syrian conflict, Orabi shifted the focus of his paintings from portraits describing familial bonds to compositions examining the everyday media that is now integral to social interaction. Displaced from Syria and separated from his family and friends, Orabi began to read the experiences of his compatriots through their social media presence and noticed that an informal archive of images registering the human side of the conflict had formed. Family Portrait invokes the black and white format of old photographs with a limited palette and the figuration of formal portraiture.

In several works, Orabi references studio photography as families sit with formal poses or individuals are closely framed. The horizontal composition of a 2015 painting, for example, shows a mother and her four children huddled yet poised. A thin white border outlines the contours of their bodies with a continuous line as they are rendered against a grey background, describing the collective nature of the family unit. This descriptive formal detail also gives the appearance of a cutout, as though the image has been salvaged from an original photo—an aspect that invites the viewer to form personal associations, as the experience of forging identities and individual histories through the material of visual culture is universal.

Other paintings of the series recall the minimal portraiture of passport pictures with figures that are shown in partial profile, directed towards a focal point outside the image, or sitters who stare directly at the viewer. This subtheme of the exhibition brings to mind the accumulating narratives of those who are now faced with the obstacles of forced migration, a reflective thread that mirrors the Dubai-based artist’s own experiences. A portrait of a small boy dressed in a button down shirt and a checkered jacket describes a child’s state of anxiety. The boy slouches as though an invisible weight presses on his fragile body. Although painted with Orabi’s stylised approach to figuration, the boy’s face is rendered with painstaking detail. Pensive yet attempting to be brave, thoughts of travel and an uncertain future bring the child to tears.