Pull the Strings, 2007-2008

Ali Cabbar and the Forty Voyeurs1

By Roger Pierre Turine
(From Disquiet Shadow exhibition catalogue)

The sea and improbable distances… The man chained to God who travels forbidden lands knows of this mirage, disoriented on every level…

With a range of inconceivable images, Ali Cabbar brings us together to day-dream in a strange and enchanting world -much like himself. And there we stand, wide eyed in face of these humorous poetic openings, looking into the secret aspects of a well perceived life.

There’s a little bit of everything in the graphic universe of the most Belgian of all Turks living in Brussels. A destructive inference inherent in the art of painting that questions our own imagination: from humor to dimensional loss, melancholy to merriness. He magnificently brings together all the personalities we love in this small country of ours, Belgium, replete with modest heroisms, all hidden behind a hat and enigma. They are the people we meet by coincidence; if not themselves, their brothers or someone akin –like in fairytales-: Simeon and our pirates, our space travellers, our gold hunters in outdated utopic colonies.

Cabbar has become integrated with this foreign place which he has chosen as his second homeland. Here, he finds nourishment from art history for his imagination; it’s as if the place was cut out just for him. The spirit and inspiration of Bosch, Bruegel, Magritte, Delvaux, Folon all sprout straight out from the images of his own graphic and mythological conquests.

On the other hand, for those who know him, this world so rich in discoveries, in the unexpected, in heart breaking abstractions, resembles the road he himself walks on in this life -not always a bed full of roses for one who repudiates the law and refuses to march life’s path without self-questioning.

Ali Cabbar is a political artist. This attitude is not to delude; it is to warn us that nothing can ever be won without an awareness that brings clarity to the fact that any strifeless thing tumbled toward us is not only pointless and wretched, but a big lie. His humorous expression of purifying imagination, especially his elegant poetry that cannot be written in words, is priceless.

First a graphic designer

Ali Cabbar is happy to be a graphic designer. Unlike others who at times tire of being a publicist, an organizer, a newspaper cartoonist, he enjoys being a graphic designer. He is an illustrator accomplished in expressing existential chaos with drawings and color. He has arrived at art from print making and graphic design, and this is the only way he expresses himself, despite the fact that he also has works on canvas. He worked as a graphic designer for a newspaper for 25 years, until 2001. He claims to be proud of being an illustrator. He was the art director of The Wall Street Journal Europe for seven years, and periodically drew editorial illustrations for the Herald Tribune. He then professionally became an artist. His whole life decidedly consists of art.

As for his life… Born in Istanbul, Ali Cabbar gets the ever-present symbolism in his works from the country’s politically and socially formidable years.

First there’s the sea, the ferries, the distant light houses. Having to take the ferry daily from the Asian side of the city where he lived, to the European side in order to go the work formed a committed relationship with the sea. Many of his finely detailed pictures are often decorated with fishermen –sometimes lucky in their keeps, sometimes not-, as if the still sea eases his solitude.

Nevertheless, he also draws the imprisoned man, with his hands and feet firmly tied.

A blinded man, hands covering the eyes; or a man without an eye – slightly dizzy; a man without a head… could it be that he can no longer carry it?

Cabbar feeds his imagination with his own stories, his own life experience. He lived through a military coup thirty years ago, when he was a politically active student. He was arrested, sentenced to silence for three years; an anti-fascist, communist who disturbed the established order. Once he was set free, he exiled himself to Australia. He then went to Brussels and stayed there!

Poetic surrealism

I discovered Ali Cabbar during his exhibiton at the Botanique Gallery in 2006, and fortunately for me, took an interest in his extraordinary and rich universe. Shortly before that, he had opened an exhibition entitled “Exilic Existence”, portraying a dream-like world in which he had both good and bad days.

A major source for his imagination are dreams. His plain drawings are inspired from a comic book to which but hasn’t yet committed, but loves. His style of drawing also originates from illustration: It is a way of looking at human beings, their identities, at reality. They are filled with the dynamic of design, the depth of narrative.

He is the story teller not of Life, but more tangibly, the teller of an extraordinary play that is his own experience.

We often come across eyes in his work. Did you notice that? The eye is an unusual, ominous object that belongs to no one. But why this eye, expressed in so many different ways, hidden away in a veiled universe? How does he know all this? Apparently, it’s the whisper of the muse!

Being a man of the times, Ali Cabbar draws on the computer. He doesn’t use pencils, erasers, and paint. The computer is his drawing board, the little cave where he works, his studio. On the computer, Ali plays with colors and then prints everything on paper or canvas. Exquisite works. A graphic designer turned creator. The Demiurg (creator deity) of the inner world who flirts with absurd poetry. A nondirectional aide to personal wounds. His works are usually in the form of a series, with a bit of surrealism here and expressionism there.

In the series “Shadow’s Shame”, a man seems to be apologizing for being there, another curses, begs, mockingly gives a military salute, or there’s a heroic clown playing out the banned acts of an era. A life materializes and surrenders itself between shadow and reality, like an extension of the chaos of our own lives. Somewhere else, a blind man with a skeletal head covered with butterflies walks toward an uncertain future… from life to death.

A man sits, his whole being saturated in unanswerable questions, his body suspended between heaven and earth. Dizzying colors, postures: Cabbar possesses an intense, striking, cutting sense of design, and we are his accomplices. In his self-portraits, he imagines a more humane world, a man floating in the air with an umbrella amongst clouds made of cotton. A tightrope walker, an oarsman, a lampost lighter… the “little prince” stays up waiting in the night. We salute the poetic ballet’s fireworker. The light he sheds opens up dialogue for oppositions, and unites the wounded with the pleasant.

After his show at the Botanique Gallery, I wrote: “Cabbar is an acrobat who walks on the rope of life between dream and reality, the static and the dynamic, comic book and painting, Tintin and Magritte. Despite being Turkish, Cabbar must feel that he is among friends here.” I insist on this and would put my name under these words anytime.

Play of shadow and light, satire and politics, longing and verismo… The artist rows his boat towards waters seldom still, a sea that constantly renews itself… he puts one step after another on land that is more often unstable than solid…

Approach Cabbar in the same manner he approaches you: as an incorrigable voyeur bearing a tongue in cheek smile!

Brussels, 25 February 2010

1   The original French title of the text is an equivocation that makes reference to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves: “Ali Cabbar et les quarante voyeurs”.

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