Nancy Lindisfarne writes:
The Syrian painter and printmaker, Rida Hus-Hus, died in Mannheim, Germany on the 30 July 2016 at the age of 77. His courage, uncomplicated generosity and celebration of all that was beautiful is to be remembered and cherished. His life drawings and portraits reflected his affection and interest in other people. Through still-life drawing and flower pictures he celebrated the joy of quotidian detail, while his vibrant pastels captured the sweeping landscapes outside of Damasus, and literally painted Syria in a most beautiful light. Yet Rida was also intensely political in the dangerous environment of the Assad dictatorship, and to keep himself sane, and preserve the independence of his art, he lived an extremely modest and cleverly managed life.
Rida was the eldest son of a large working class family from the provincial city of Homs. A promising student, he won scholarships to study art and design in Paris and the United States, and took up a teaching at the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus.
By 1988, when I first met Rida, he has long since left that job at the Institute to escape the stultifying bureaucracy imposed by the Assad regime. One time, on the pretext of introducing me to a friend and one of his former colleagues, we visited the Institute together. I could easily have been introduced to the friend elsewhere, but Rida was determined that I should see how the regime exercised control over art, as it did over all other educational and cultural institutions. What was striking was that the oppression was visibly ugly. The large foyer of the Institute was treated as an art storeroom, a jumble of unloved bits of sculpture, wooden easels and torn canvases covered in thick layer of dust. Rida drew his fingers along the top of an ornate but damaged frame. He looked at me and spat out a ‘Bah’ under his breath. It was Rida’s favourite way of expressing his utter disgust for the regime, and how it stifled and punished any whiff of transgressive imagination or creativity.
Rida lived precariously. His aim was to keep his art practice as far away as possible from the near omniscient gaze of the regime, and the associated demands and constraints of the Damascus art market. The regime was corrupt, and strangled the state, while providing plenty of opportunities for cronies to become rich. Once a woman close to the Assad regime admired his work at an exhibition and sought to commission him to paint a landscape that would blend in well with the lavender colours of her newly decorated flat. Rida finished telling me this story with a quiet, but utterly dismissive, ‘Bah’.
When I met him, he was keeping body and soul together by doing drawings for a children’s magazine and giving drawing lessons to several lucky children. He had a small flat high in Muhajarin high on the mountain above Damascus.
The flat had only two rooms: a studio-cum-living room, and a tiny bedroom and balcony which I rented from him during the time I was doing anthropological fieldwork in Damascus. Rida was often on location working as a set-designer for a small lively group independent Syrian filmmakers – among them Omar Amiralai, Mohammad Malass and Usama Mohammad. When he was away, he encouraged me to use his easel and teach myself to use pastels. And when he was back, he cheerfully decamped to the sofa in the living room.
Whenever he could, he sought ways to keep in touch with the world of art and politics outside Syria. A chance to study printmaking in Berlin was a source of much pleasure, as much for his close friendship with the painter and printmaker, Jürgen Parusel, as for the skills he acquired.
Rida aimed for at least one public exhibition a year, finding support from the Goethe Institute and French Cultural Centre and from gallerists like Mona Atassi who were sufficiently independent to promote his work. During the late 1980s, Rida worked mostly in charcoal, pastels, or in watercolours, because he had no easy access to a print workshop, and couldn’t afford oils. He framed his work himself and sold it from home. His studio-living room was an ever changing gallery of recent work, and was always kept ‘shiny’ as he would put it. He detested mess, and kitsch and anything physically drab. Each year, the flat was painted bright white, and the sofa and chair were recovered in vibrant new fabric. There was little else in the room but his books, and bouquet of fresh flowers – roses in a blue vase on the single glass topped coffee table, or a tall stand of gladiolas on the beautiful pearl-inlaid chest that he added to his few possessions. And there always small surprises: an amusing collage, found objects, a small figurine or a striking postcard would appear the window ledge, or on a bookshelf, and then disappear.
Rida spent some time drawing every day. He had previously enjoyed working outside in the city, but spoke of how constrained and unpleasant such activity had become as the eyes of the regime multiplied and were everywhere.
He also took regular day trips out of Damascus, sometimes drawing in pencil, and sometimes working in pastels in situ.
I joined him on one such trip to a small mosque and shrine overlooking Damascus.
Later Rida’s field-trips tailed off in favour of more abstract landscapes. Rida would work a full day in his studio whenever he was at home, also drawing and painting flowers, fruit or anything to hand.
Rida was disciplined, scholarly and sociable. He read constantly, did translations from both French and English into Arabic and wrote for a number of journals.
I couldn’t believe my luck and was immediately delighted to learn that it was he who had translated John Berger’s Ways of Seeing into Arabic. The two men had exchanged kind, admiring letters. Rida met John Berger face-to-face some ten years later, at the Istanbul Book Fair. He wrote,
‘We found ourselves immediately embracing each other as any friends who haven’t seen each other or been separated a long time. He is really physically well built. It as a moment of joy. … We sat and he asked if I would like to drink a glass of raki, or to smoke. At that moment I was really in no need of anything. We started to talk. I felt his presence with a halo of white light coming from his so white hair. It is really rare to see people who are wholly present… with nothing left outside of them. Only he and Gadamer, the philosopher, gave me this feeling. The next day I went to his lecture carrying with me a bottle of wine with one of my labels.’
Like so much else, Rida’s taste in music was catholic. He liked both popular and classical Arab music, jazz and the Western classics too. He went to concerts whenever he could. Sometimes these were held in a private house, which he much preferred. Public concerts always involved a compromise. The regime had co-opted all public spaces, the cinema clubs, concert halls and made their presence felt – you could listen to music but at a price.
Rida’s research into art never stopped. He went regularly to the libraries of the British Council, the French Institute, the Goethe Institute and the United States Information Service, each week checking out one or two large art books for further study. In the evening, either friends came to visit, to talk of books and films and listen to music, or he walked down into the city to meet other artists – poets, novelists, playwrights – in town, though he and others preferred to meet in their homes because it was safer there. The circle of intellectuals was small and beleaguered but deeply supportive.
Having first met in Damascus, Rida and Christiane Krämer were together for over twenty years. With their children, Karl-Frieder Saadi and Hanna, they lived in Bucharest, Amman, Istanbul, Tehran and Nicosia, but home and families were centred in both Damascus and Mannheim.
Rida delighted in his return to a cosmopolitan life. He excelled as a photographer of all that was new.
Rida continued to work at his art daily and exhibit regularly. And even towards the end of his life, he took lessons and found much joy in the practice of calligraphy.
Rida was a man of character. He will be greatly missed. May he rest in peace.