Ever since she was a little girl, Sandra Kheir Sahyoun intuitively saw painting as a hyphen between her inner world and reality. In 2014, during a walk in a cedar forest in Lebanon, she found herself seized with emotion, full of the energy that emerged from the gigantic millennia-old trees. This was when Sahyoun discovered, in some form of revelation, the answer to all her identity-related questions. Here we talk to the artist about her approach to her work and the pieces she produces.
Sahyoun taught herself to observe, feel, and understand what is visible in order to internalize it and analyze it and then create realistic images that can sometimes feel like actual photographs.
Tell us about your relationship with the cedar and why it is the focus of your new series. What was your main inspiration and why?
The canvas has always been for me a kind of laboratory where I was searching for my Lebanese identity. I used to paint the men, women, and children of the world, reflecting their identity in every feature of their face. I used to believe that through this comparison, I might just end up finding myself.
During a hike in a cedar forest in Lebanon, while pushing away the branches of the famous Lamartine Cedar, I had the impression of opening the doors of an immense, empty cathedral and entering. The tree was exuding an energy as if, having absorbed thousands of years of history , it was calling me in silence to open my senses and listen to the life that runs through it. In its shadow, just like a kid in the arms of her dad, it became clear to me that I was about to find the answer to all my identity-related questions. I felt reconnected with myself, but above all, I felt the urge to share and transmit this emotion.
I embarked on the preparation for a painting exhibition titled “The Cedar in Us” with a strong message: The cedar is not just a symbol fixed in the center of a flag. It is a living creature, half-god, half-tree, who breathes “in each of us, reminding us of our roots and giving us wings”.
It is a miracle of resilience, of hope and unity …
Who are the people behind every photo and who or what do they represent?
They are us. The title “The Cedar In Us” literally explains who the people behind my paintings are. I have painted the cedar in men, women, mothers, artists, icons, travelers, and even martyrs who represent our country.
Take us through the process of each piece, how do you start and how does it end?
It always starts with an idea, a message…then I usually draw sketches of silhouettes or shapes that can receive or be mixed with other images that I had already taken from my walks in the cedar forests. I follow my intuition until I feel I have found an interesting composition that I would like to paint.
What’s next on your plate?
After my exhibition in Beit Beirut in May 2018, and my last exhibition in the European Parliament in Strasbourg in April 2019, I strongly believe that “The Cedar In Us” is a theme that I should still develop and that the message behind it should resonate in the heart of each Lebanese who carries the cedar in his heart.
More about Sandra Kheir Sahyoun
As a teenager, she took drawing and painting lessons in workshops where she had the chance to meet Lebanese painters Paul Guiragossian and Samir Tabet. At the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, she tirelessly trained herself to grasp the anatomy of the human body which had fascinated her for so long. This attraction for human forms, expressed through shadows and curves that emerge and die on paper, fills her paintings, particularly her portraits, with emotions.
Sahyoun studied Interior Architecture and Design at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts (ALBA) in Beirut, where she excelled and out of which she emerged with a conviction: that creativity is a free essence that would allow her to abolish academic boundaries between interior and exterior design, object design, and even plastic arts. For her first exhibition in 2006 at the Robert Mouawad Private Museum, Beirut, she painted around forty portraits drawn and photographed during her travels in Yemen, India and Nepal: faces that told the poignant stories of their country and their culture.
Little by little, she began to realize that she was looking for her own Lebanese identity, hitherto torn between East and West. She began to paint men and women dressed in western wear, deliberately drowned in a background of arabesques. She explored contrasts and mixed between realistic and abstract techniques inspired by geometric patterns and Arabic calligraphy. Further exploring this cultural mix, she participated in numerous exhibitions in Beirut, Paris, and Vienna where she exhibited her painting in a number of galleries.