When Symbols Make Significant Statements

The artist Elias Ayoub talks to Artscoops about his longstanding fascination with iconography and a belief in its power to take art to the next level.

The reasons people leave their homeland vary greatly, ranging from a desire to further their education to wanting to see more of the world. Something that many expats agree on, however, is that distance only serves to heighten the affection they feel for their roots.

It’s a sentiment that the Middle Eastern artist Elias Ayoub, who travelled abroad to study, recognises and has channelled into his art with a passion over the years, with concepts such as identity, heritage and memories all hallmarks of his work. 

“Early on, not long after I’d graduated, there were times I’d struggle to find my personality in my work,” he said. “I’d stare at the elements of the painting, such as the composition, lines, colours and gammas, and the materials for making art, analysing these components and trying to find myself. I’d also think about the drawing methods and the perspective. Then, when I moved to a different continent, the distance somehow drew me closer to the Middle East, making me want to explore it in more depth in my art.” 

2016, combination of different materials and elements from different words

A sense of the importance of iconography and its significance in the seminal works created by the Masters of art throughout history was also instrumental in helping Ayoub find his individual style, bringing his ideas to life through the use of small motifs and symbols from Arab culture. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by iconography’s longstanding existence in visual art, whether it’s a ring on a finger, a headdress or letters and words,” explained Ayoub, who is currently based in both the UAE and Lebanon. “I believe its allegorical and historical qualities has the power to take a painting to the level and truly transform it into piece of art.” 

2019, finding my own iconographic symbols with the image of my hometown Damascus

In this way, since 2011, Gustav Klimt had proved to be a key source of inspiration for Ayoub, particularly the way he introduced small details into his motifs and his use of repetition. As well as finding himself drawn to the work of Klimt and other Modernists, Ayoub also experimented with different ways of arranging objects and figures in his composition to make illustrations. In this way, the art of the East and the oriental perspective, as found in miniatures and Byzantine and Persian Arts, proved to be the key, as evidenced by the technique he favours for his icons and miniatures, including the depiction of buildings and architectural elements found in cities across the Middle East.

“Often, when the lines arrive at the vanishing point in the eye of the viewer, it gives the impression that the subjects in the painting are moving or appearing on the viewer’s side,” he explained. “I see these elements as helping me to recall my birthplace in my art, but also, in many ways, making it more global somehow and, overall, more satisfying.” 

2012, Klimt period

Time spent in Russia, where he lived from 2013 until recently and completed a PhD at the Surikov Art Institute in Moscow, inevitably added another dimension to his work, both on and off the canvas. “I started to become more accurate, more mature and more organised and systematic in my work,” he admitted with a smile. Perhaps one of the most unusual aspects of Ayoub’s art is the combinations he makes when choosing his subjects and backgrounds – decisions, he explained, that still today stem from the words spoken by one of his professors. 

“I remember him saying that combining expressionistic figures with an abstract background was a popular way of working amongst many painters in parts of the Levant and I recognised this as a flaw in some of the regional art I’d seen,” he said. “That prompted me to think long and hard about the kind of backgrounds with which I wanted to fill my compositions, including the choice of colours and motifs. I also found myself inspired by Cubism and, additionally, Picasso’s post-Cubism work, especially in the area of shape deformation. For me, it’s a kind of never-ending discovery of the human figure - its aesthetic and flexibility. 

2021, pandemic time, balanced on one finger

Inevitably, regional conflicts also weighed heavily on Ayoub’s art. “I think subconsciously, it became important to make my art meaningful and focus on core messages, like the need to keep alive longer than the duration of a wars, while also highlighting the fact that young people were leaving their homelands in droves,” he admitted. “I found myself rejecting decorative elements without even thinking about the changes I was making, and focusing on symbolic, expressionistic elements, such as a mother and child, and, later on, birds and destroyed houses.” 

The importance of staying safe was also a theme that found its way into the art Ayoub created during the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw him paint human figures positioned and balanced on one finger. The concept, he explained, was that life can be finely balanced and dependent solely on one finger.

2018, the Last Supper

“I noticed that when people ventured out during the pandemic, they often kept touch movements to a minimum, using just one finger, for example, to open a door,” he explained. “I felt the message coming across was that one finger, making tiny movements, had the power to keep us safe, and this was something I wanted to relay in my art at the time.”

In a change that dovetails with the world’s emergence from the health crisis, Ayoub is now preparing for a new phase in his art, which will see him channel his creativity in a slightly different direction, while working on larger-sized canvases. “Arabic calligraphy is a focal point. I’ve become interested in taking small elements from popular Arabic songs from classical periods and expressing them in a visual way,” he explained. “It involves exploring three layers of human perception – the visual, verbal and emotional – and combining them in a melodic image. It’s a nostalgic concept, and one that I’m really enjoying working on.”

Sign in to your account to get exclusive access to new works, receive personalised experiences and place bids.

Forgot your password?