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Refugee finds solace in art

26 June 20172 comments

When a bomb almost claimed his daughter’s life and tragically killed her friend, Aghiad Al Atassi decided it was time to leave his home forever.

Syrian refugee Aghiad had lived all his life in the once beautiful city of Homs where he had become a respected and sought after artist.

Fearing for his family, Aghiad, 48, took them to Mersin in Turkey where they lived for a year and half before coming to Australia through the United Nations refugee program.

He had to leave many of his paintings in Homs when they fled and greatly mourns their loss along with many of his friends and the life he knew and cherished.

From tragedy however beauty has emerged – an achingly sad and painful beauty in the form of Aghiad’s portraits.

Painted from memory and from photographic images, Aghiad’s portraits tell the stories of the refugee experience, of war and displacement and of new beginnings. These portraits are deeply personal, they have helped him to heal and find humanity amongst the tragedy.

Self-taught painter Aghiad hopes the viewer will appreciate the fragility of life and realise that behind the statistics of war and the arguments over ideologies there are people, ordinary people wanting a better life and wanting peace.

He says he is very influenced by the post-impressionists, especially Van Gogh and Cezanne, and also draws inspiration from Edvard Munch.

“I love the work of these artsists – it is almost sublime,” he said.

Like his other great influence Modigliani, Aghiad has developed his own unique style.

Painting predominantly in oils and acrylics but also occasionally in soft pastels and watercolours, Aghiad was initially drawn to natural scenes and the exquisitely detailed architecture of his beautiful town of Homs.

“I think art must be a simple expression that can be easily understood by the viewer so as to evoke an immediate reaction,” he said.

But in 2014 everything changed.

“The war came to my home. Life became filled with fear and turmoil as the bombs destroyed our peaceful, beautiful town,” he said.

Suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, Aghiad turned to art as a therapy.

“I painted as though to save my life: art became a kind of therapy,” he said.

“I had to leave many of his paintings in Homs when we fled along with many of my friends and the life I knew,” Aghiad said.

The faces of the women, children and men cry out from the canvases with a yearning for understanding and compassion. They are faces of people caught in the horror of war; fear, torment and sorrow are etched in their eyes but also there is life and there is hope.

Aghiad’s portrait form part of the Heartland 2017 Arts Project, currently on display at the Walker Street Gallery in Dandenong. The exhibition will be on display at Federation Square in September.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist