Naim Ismail (Syrian, 1930-1979)
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Naim Ismail (Syrian, 1930-1979)

Al Fiddaiyoun (‘Freedom Fighters’)

Naim Ismail (Syrian, 1930-1979)
Al Fiddaiyoun (‘Freedom Fighters’)
signed and dated in Arabic (lower right)
oil and textile collage on canvas
39 3/8 x 51¼ in. (100 x 130cm.)
Painted in 1969
The artist’s son.
Anon. sale, Christie’s Dubai, 18 March 2015, lot 77.
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner.
Alexandria, Alexandria Biennale, 1969.
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Lot Essay

One of the pioneers of modern art in Syria, Naim Ismail fuses both traditional aspects of his native Syria with abstract geometric motifs. The present work is a remarkable example of the artist’s artistic development’ in the late 1960s, with a genre that combines geometric motifs and defined representational form. The word fidaiyoun translates literally to sacrificing one's life for a noble cause; in this case, it is concerning freeing the occupied land heavily associated with the Palestinian resistance as well as the fight against modern imperialism and colonisation.

In Fidaiyoun, Ismail vertically overlays two distinct groups of people marching in opposite directions. The bottom crowd, painted in dark colours evokes depression and devastation, and represents the 1948 mass exile of Palestinians, when thousands of civilian Palestinian families, along with their children, were forced to leave their homes by the Israeli occupation. With grim, unknown fates their identities are unclear within the darkness, but the subtle differences in their monotone silhouettes hint at the presence of tightly wrapped women carrying their infants. The figures are being pushed out on foot by a little devil painted in red. The scene depicts their painful and suffocating situation, in a world that has largely turned its back on their cause.

The overhead group, on the other hand, painted in various, hopeful shades of green, is marching in the opposite direction, back to the very lands they were forced out of. Representing the resilient Palestinian spirit fighting against the Israeli occupation and loss of their homeland, the rebellious group of freedom fighters consists of six Palestinians of varying ages, genders and social status, led by an older man who is in turn followed by a woman and children, all wearing the symbolic and traditional keffiyeh headdress. The artist has succeeded in adding richness to the painting's texture by using real keffiyeh fragments within the work. The keffiyeh, currently a widespread nationalistic and political symbol of Palestinian resistance, was once a traditional headdress worn by Arab and Kurdish farmers of varying ranks. It was popularised by Palestinian activists, especially Yasser Arafat, who used the headscarf to symbolise their attachment to their ancestral land.

Ismail, an exiled Arab himself, hailed from Syrian Antioch before it was annexed by Turkey. He was eventually forced to head to Damascus and was unable to return to the home he yearned for. After travelling to Rome to study art, he moved back to Damascus and became a prominent art teacher and journalist. After the death of his brother Adham, who was also an artist, Naim became deeply affected by the political instability in the Middle East. He switched from painting landscapes and familiar scenery to portraying the Palestinian Cause he was deeply moved by and felt akin to.

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