Art Interviews

Jwan Yosef – Portraits of Absence

by Dan Eastmond

I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that a sense of secure belonging, a feeling of the clear and solid order of things, a rooted understanding of ourselves and how we fit with the world, is perhaps not as sure as it once was. This is not to say that it doesn’t exist, just that it’s a rarer comfort than I remember it.

Sometimes, however, a moment or a casual phrase, a shared glance or an image reflect back our tumbling relationships and for a moment we share our predicament, and everything is ok.

Of Syrian heritage, Swedish artist Jwan Yosef now lives in London, making work that stretches, fades and collapses over the shifting plates of a very modern existence.


Geography, religion, tradition and belonging all feed into his images on canvas and perspex, creating portraits that are as much absent as present, capturing fleeting glimpses of the dualisms and uncertainties of the 21st century.

We spoke to him about his work and processes.

Could you summarise your work to date?

Pretty much painting for paintings sake. As a painter at heart I’ve struggled with the medium since day one; trying to work around it I’ve turned to working towards a form of reactive painting; a painting that is aware of itself. The material, working process and the object becomes a focal point of the work I present.

Could you outline your making process, particularly using oil on perspex?

The work on Perspex was a development away from earlier work on canvas. It’s like painting in reverse. I paint on one surface of the Perspex and from there I add layers backwards in order to finally present the mirrored unpainted surface. It’s really thinking in a backward manner.

Also the acrylic glass gives a feeling of something temporary and cheap which for my process was important, at least initially. A kind of less valuable material.

Your images have a drawn quality, do they start life as pencil on paper?

It’s funny you say that, I’m terrible at drawing with pencils but my painting has always had some kind of drawing quality to it. In many ways I feel like I’m drawing with brushes.

Your palette is very muted, can you explain why?

Yeah sometimes muted towards abstraction. I enjoy working with graphic subjects but in such a muted tone that its vulgarity disappears in an almost see-through hue. Being less obvious creates a kind of mystery; this is key to keeping most things interesting.

Some of your work - “Object” for example - feels very physical, whilst others - “Self Portrait (YALE)” for example - have more of a digital aesthetic. Is this something you look for or feel is present?

You’re totally right, I think my later work like ‘Object’ is about creating a kind of twilight zone in painting. Its painting as much as it is sculptural work, however the process of making it and then deconstructing it is necessary for it to become what it is; which is a reactive painting. For my Perspex work the way the glass feels together with the extremely quietly painted subject very much relates to looking at a digital image through a computer screen.

It is often said that all art is a self portrait, do you agree and does this apply to your work?

Undoubtedly yes, it’s not often that artists completely make up an image world, just like authors don’t really make up stories. Most things you make are very much what one has gone through.


Something we’ve talked about a fair bit here, is the re-purposing of Art in the digital / social age. The shift in aesthetics and tools of production as our modes of communication evolve. Is this something you think about?

It’s impossible not to be aware of it as a painter, in many ways ones medium is questioned constantly; some considering it being an ancient medium. There are some amazing things happening in digital Art that is very special for our time. Art is, as it always has been doing, branching out into different expressions, art is a language and in order to converse, evolves with our methods of communication.

What is the purpose of Art, or perhaps how do you think your work functions for the viewer?

The purpose of art is communication, it’s like a frequency some can hear and others can’t. The same applies to my work, I’m presenting a story with a certain medium, some will relate and others wont.

There is a sense of absence in your work, do you think this comes from your Syrian / Swedish / London existence?

Absence is constant in what I present, or at least the lack of belonging. My heritage and history is filled with a sense of not belonging. Not necessarily in a way that is sad but more so in a position that is constantly standing outside, there’s a lot of freedom in being an outsider.

You mention the search for approval and initiations in your writing. Is this from personal experience?

Yes, very much so. I think all of us go through different kinds of initiations, whether it is through school, work, lovers or anything for that matter?

Has your work responded to the recent situation on Syria?

It’s hard not to be affected by the situation in Syria, especially when coming from Syria. But it’s hard to say now how that has affected my work when I’m in the middle of it.


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