It was weeks before the opening and Samer was spending day and night in his studio, skipping work and deleting any non-art activities off his calendar. There were canvases scattered everywhere, some primed, new and naked waiting to be touched, while others showed signs of struggle and confusion left in odd corners in a paint smeared muddle. Empty tea glasses populated the area as the radio and street sounds of downtown provided the ambient noise. In a room in the back was a stack of old paintings, now wrapped neatly in plastic. Some of them were out and about in the space for inspiration. Somewhere between the old and the new, Samer once again was searching to reinvent himself through his art.
Prominent in his field, Jordanian painter, Samer Kurdi has been a notable figure in the local art community since returning to Jordan from the US in 1997. Popular for his large and lush painting of the Balad cafés and downtown street scenes, his work has helped form a uniquely Jordanian identity in the Arab art world. But, as all good come to end, so to must Samer’s stretch in his Homeland. At the end of this year, Samer and his family plan to move once again to the States. “Jordan inspires me and most of my work comes from my environment. I think when I leave; the work will become more internal and psychological.”
In the time leading up to his final art exhibition at the Zara Gallery in the Hyatt Hotel, Samer Kurdi could be seen sketching, wandering and walking through the streets of the Balad. “When I paint, I spend 60 percent of the time walking around the Balad, 10percent of the time washing my brushes, and with the rest, I paint.” Most of the object and imagery in his work can be directly placed in specific areas and in some cases certain shops in the Balad. In fact, Samer is forever ready to relate a story behind each of his paintings.
In Samer’s earlier style, his subject matter seemed to revolve around more detailed scenes with strong bold brush strokes, while his recent exhibition reflects a move towards more minimal and abstract imagery. For instance, in his work, The Card Players, Samer creates in interior scene, yet the singular elements of the fan and broad table dominate the composition. However, some of Samer’s latest paintings, in a departure from his earlier style, focus on one single subject, such as his work, Backgammon. Here, the subject is isolated and taken completely out of context. The background is dark, pushing the subject to the foreground. The abstraction and lack of detail in the image give it a dreamlike quality. The ending result is a board which may stimulate memory and hold personal association to its viewers. Memory is, after all, what Samer will be taking with him to the States. It is these singular objects, which first caught Samer’s attention, walking around in the Balad, and that eventually came to represent Jordan.
Nostalgic yet optimistic, Samer holed no regrets about leaving. “I’m ambivalent about leaving but happy also. I have a fantasy that in the States I’ll be able to work as an artist and people will be able to interact with my work more than they do here.” The visual language is perhaps the most powerful medium of communication. For Samer, the move towards abstraction reduces literal interpretation and taps into an immediate reaction. One of Samer’s frustrations regarding art in Jordan is that many lack the sensitivity and patience to fully interact with a work. “I remember going to galleries in New York, looking at work and feeling completely overwhelmed. I’m kind of sad because not many people react to my work like that here.”
Where at once the paintings seem enigmatic, put in the context of Samer’s larger body of work, the collection is clear to reflect a departure.
Recurring symbolism of doors, windows and staircases symbolize change. His exhibition depicts a subconscious preparation for leaving and a reverence of the images that will stay with him. There’s an anxiety in the paintings, shown through the quick and repetitive brush strokes, reminiscent of Van Gough. His work, Staircase to Heaven, clearly exemplifies his transitory state. These old, dingy stairs are highlighted against their dark background. The staircase ends at the top, representing an end goal. It is unclear, however, whether the staircase is leading up or down, pointing to an uncertainty in the future. Yet, as the left hand side of the painting is covered in darkness and the right side bathed in light, the future seems optimistic. An allusion to a window is present in the upper right corner, also offering a reassuring hope for a brighter horizon.
His show at Zara Gallery will be on display until July 10. The art community in Jordan will be sorry to see another great artist leave, but this diamond in the rough won’t be gone forever. Samer seems confident towards his inevitable return to Jordan. Although he’s leaving, his heart and inspiration lies in Jordan, as dose his identity as a Jordanian painter.