in Kfrawe, south Lebanon in 1965, Aoun graduated in fine arts from
the Lebanese University in Beirut in 1989. He had an internship
in graphic arts at the Institute of Fine Arts in Paris in 1993 and
in 2004 received his master's degree in lithography from the Lebanese
Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA) in Beirut. Since 1991, he was taught
at his alma mater. He held many individual exhibitions in Beirut,
mostly at Gallery Epreuve d'Artiste, ALBA, and Gallery Janine Rubeiz.
Aborad, he exhibited his paintings at MAC 2000; Manif-MAC (Seoul
2003), Mers-Les-Bains, France in Milan (Magenta Gallery, 2006),
and in Kuwait (Sultan Gallery 2007). From 1991 onwards, he has regularly
shown his paintings at the Salons d'Automne of the Susock Museum
in Beirut (1991 - 2010) and in many other group exhibitions in Paris,
Strasbourg, Sharja (1995), Dubai (Lebanese stories show at the DIFC,
Dubai, 2008)., and Cairo (International Biannual, Cairo, 1998)
He was awarded the first prize at House of the Future (1998), Lebanon
in 1998, the Dorothy Salhab Kazemi prize for Young Artists at the
Salon d'Automne of the Sursock Museum in (1991 & 1995), and
the prize of the Jury of the Sharja Biennale in 1997. Youssef Aoun's
work is permanently shown in Paris at Gallery Claudine Legrand and
at the National Museum in Dubai.
His work can be found in public and private collections including
the Sursock Museum, Beirut and the Audi Bank, Beirut.
His work is abstract expressionist with subtle play of the Lebanese
luminosity of the Mediterranean Sea.
In meeting with
Youssef Aoun early this week, I found him deep in conversation with
a young German woman who is visiting Lebanon. They were, of course,
talking about art, and more specifically about how cultural differences
show up in art.
When she explained that she was here to explore Lebanese participation
in a multinational exhibit she hopes to organize and show in Germany,
I commented that she may not find Lebanese contemporary art much
different than that of other countries. To my mind, cultural heritage
carries little visible weight anymore in this shrinking world of
We need to keep in mind that contemporary art today is a unified
international activity, without national boundaries. Artist all
over the world are utilizing the same universal language and styles
of plastic art - albeit with varying idioms of expression - and
their work is no longer marked by easy-to-see anecdotes of cultural
This is not to say that peculiarities of expression linked to land,
time and human experience do not exist. They do. As Picasso, always
the Spaniard whose genius flourished in France, once remarked: "You
can't get away from your own country." And in his art - in
the bold drama and assurance of its images - he revealed the effusive
energy, passion and spontaneity of his Spanish spirit.
I am looking the paintings of Youssef Aoun, I thought about how
un-Lebanese they appear. But then I also thought about how un-Lebanese
so much of Lebanon's art is these days, especially the art being
produced by those whose childhood and young adulthood was marked
by the experience of war and denied access to the blessings of nature
and a normal life.
I say "un-Lebanese" because I remember how different the
art of twenty years ago was, how ebullient and vibrant in color
and expression, how much a paean of love for nature and all living
Aoun was ten years old then the happy, peaceful security of his
south Lebanon countryside childhood was shattered and his family
moved into the intermittent bomb shelter existence of Beirut. He
vividly remembers the years of colorless, nature-less, fearful,
introspective living within walls and is shocked by how quickly
and easily the Lebanese have been able to forgot the war and resume
life as though nothing had happened. "It's like they have no
memory," he says.
In his art, Aoun is still living within those walls, still imprisoned
by the introspective images of a fearful existence, still disturbed
by the deadly forces of human oppression. But slowly, insistently,
the undying bright colors of his land begin to emerge.
Projected on the grayed and scarred walls he has recreated are his
memories. We see human figures huddled or reclining in isolation,
heads bowed or in fetal position. We see cord-bound bundles of lined
suggesting bodies clothed for burial. We see limbless effigies to
ward off evil.
But then we also see quietly assertive patches and circles of lovely
color - salmon pinks, warm browns, pale translucent blues, caramel
and canary yellows, soft reds, ivory whites and somber blacks. We
think of a more livable Lebanon, but we see no peaceful greens.
The materials of Aoun's art drive largely from the land. He uses
sand, cement, plaster, wood, hemp thread and marble dust, plus acrylic
for color. Working on the floor and using a trowel and a broom,
he applies thin layers of the various materials, one over the other.
It is a slow process, he says, waiting impatiently for each layer
to dry before he can apply the next.
Most of the works are quite large, some extending almost two meters
up the gallery walls, and all are unforgettably impressive and handsome
in their visual impact. At thirty-three, Aoun is still young as
an artist, but the high quality and authenticity of his production
shows an uncommon maturity of talent and skill that is bound to
take him far.
In its preoccupation with the expressive and textural potential
of dense earth materials, Aoun's work resembles that of the Spanish
painter Tapies. They belong to the same international school of
art and, on this level, reveal no evidence of differentiating cultural
heritage. But how each artist has handled the materials, conceived
the imagery and orchestrated the chromatic voice tells us that each
belongs to a different land, time and experience. Tapies is abstract;
Aoun is not. Tapies is intense drama, Aoun is poetic prose. Tapies
uses color sparingly and in low key; Aoun wants to give color its
full Lebanese rein.
How far and in what direction color will take Aoun, we have yet
to see. Will he one day tear down the walls and bury memory? The
signs are that he will, but cautiously, one step at a time.
The Daily Star, February 28, 1998, subtitled "Helen Khal finds
a young artist who is exorcising the past by painting it",
exhibition at Gallery Epreuve d'Artiste.
Ascension of the Black, Mixed media on canvas, 100 x 80
Hermeticism, Mixed media on canvas, 100 x 100 cm
Infinite Black, Mixed media on canvas, 100 x 80 cm
Red Light, Mixed Media on Canvas, 150 x 150 cm