A universal reach

All-encompassing themes that resonate with audiences and a love for literature are what inspire the artist Sacha Abou Khalil 

Moving from dentistry to art is quite a leap! Did you paint when still working in the health industry?

I’ve always loved painting; I used to paint on Sundays to unwind and that’s now my only day off, which shows just how much things can change! As a teenager, I was focused on studying to become a doctor. It was only when I first returned to Lebanon around 10 years ago that I began thinking about taking my art more seriously. At that time, I decided to open a restaurant and hung some of my paintings there from time to time. To my surprise, they sold well! I eventually sold the restaurant, but carried on painting. The turning point was meeting up with a gallerist and making the decision to hold a show of my work. The show was a sell-out and, at the same time, commissions for portraits were coming in. The two elements combined convinced me that I could earn a decent living from painting. Even now, I sometimes see it as miraculous that at the age of 50, what I initially thought might be a midlife crisis is paying off!

Do you see identity as a key theme in your work, given that you’ve moved between countries? 

Not really; I’m much more interested in exploring the concept of exile, perhaps because I find myself drawn to universal concepts and I see exile as falling into this category. Everybody thinks the grass is greener and the possibilities greater elsewhere, whether you’re seeking the American Dream or want to reach Europe. I remember a discussion with a gallerist ahead of a show where the idea emerged of including a series of vintage touristic posters about well-known cities – Paris, Berlin and New York, for example – relaying a sense of the reality of living in them. People dream about the opportunities they think they’ll find without realising that cities eventually devour, digest and reject you. That’s what’s behind the suitcase motif in my works and why protagonists are barefoot; they have nothing and have no idea of what’s waiting for them where they’re going.

Do you think there are pros and cons to being a self-taught artist?

Undoubtedly. One of the disadvantages is that when you don’t have a recipe to follow, you can never be certain of the result. I create art instinctively and that can produce fantastic results, but without the theory of technique, I wouldn’t necessarily know how to reproduce it. Sometimes the colours go my way and I get the results I’m looking for and on other occasions, I have to start again. That said, experience has made it easier to work instinctively.

What can you tell us about the way that literature inspires your work?

My solo show titled ‘Breaking the Frozen Seas’ was inspired by a quote I found while reading Franz Kafka. I wanted to explore the idea that everything is sacred for the Middle East, while playing on words, which is something I like to do – several of my show titles include puns. I’m an avid reader, especially of classic literature, and definitely want to do more shows inspired by the modern classics – there’s so much to work with and illustrate.

Do you find it easy to flit between commissioned paintings and your other work?

The portraits I do are time-consuming and painstaking since I like to incorporate as many details as possible. In my other work, when I adopt a freer technique and really immerse myself in my art, the process is usually easier and takes less time, although if I’m unhappy with the results, there’s no going back! My philosophy is that while the style and technique are important, they are less so than the subject itself. If a subject talks to you, you can do anything you want with it. 

What are you working on right now and has the pandemic influenced your art?

Right now, I’m working on a show for Dubai next year and another for Brussels which was postponed. I haven’t really been out much during lockdown due to health issues, so was happy to continue spending time in my studio. The pandemic did inspire one piece of work I did, which was a painting showing the marks left by a mask after a nurse had removed it from her face. I’ve been amazed by the bravery of medical teams worldwide working in the pandemic and this subject suited the way I like to paint, which is highlighting universal themes that are understood by everybody everywhere. 

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