Depicting the shrouded face of a lone, heroic figure gazing up to the skies, Ya’illahi is without question one of Baalbaki’s most poignant and powerful paintings to ever come to auction. Realised in explosive swathes of thick red and white impasto, the impenetrable visage of the subject rises forcibly up the picture plane, towering above the viewer in a vertical crescendo of expressionistic brushstrokes. The characteristically ridged vigour of Baalbaki’s thick mark-making intensifies the sculptural physicality of the portrait; which the artist here sets in dramatic contrast against a lustrous gold leaf panel whose delicate surfaces and curved top draw their inspiration from Byzantine religious icons. However, close inspection reveals the tomb-shaped gold panel to be the antithesis of a religious altarpiece. For in its former life, it was the top of a lowly wooden vegetable cart - a clever Dadaist twist that adds to the acute physicality and authenticity of his subject. Baalbaki further breaks with the conventions governing traditional portraiture by denying the viewer access to the subject’s face. Looking up to the skies, perhaps in prayer, possibly despair or even defiance, here only a glimmer of the eyes and forehead are left exposed to examination. The viewer is therefore forced to speculate as to the sitter’s emotions, searching instead for a possible meaning amongst the methods and materials constituting this monolithic composition.
One such clue is found beneath the curved upper edge of the panel where Baalbaki has set into the golden sky seven lightbulbs that together form the outline of the Big Dipper constellation. Recalling a famous story from Arabic mythology of a funeral procession, hovering suspended above the figure’s gaze, the pan of the Big Dipper symbolically portrays the Father, dead in the coffin, followed by his three sons, the three stars of the handle, as they head toward his murderer, the North Star, to seek retribution for his death.
Painted with such expressionistic force that it almost seems to implicate the hidden identity of the sitter, Ya’illahi is a powerfully charged portrait saturated with ambiguity, nostalgia, controversy and hope. Dominated by the traditional red and white kaffiyeh headdress, a garment worn by men throughout the Arab world as protection against sun exposure and sandstorms, Baalbaki’s monumental portrait evokes a broad spectrum of interpretations and responses ranging from the political to the emotional. Viewers often misread Baalbaki’s kaffiyeh portraits as specific references to the fighters in Palestine’s civil war. However in reality, the artist’s intentions are far broader and further reaching. By focusing upon the kaffiyeh, he seeks to explore the acute tension and ambiguity within this everyday garment which has, through war, conflict and the media, morphed from a traditional utilitarian object into a powerful symbol of turmoil in the Middle East today. Examining its function, meaning and misinterpretation both as metaphor and mask, the artist tackles universal issues of identity, prejudice, and tradition. Most importantly, the work remains essentially introspective, posing the personal question to the viewer, "How has war shaped who I am?".
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