Elias Zayat, a Syrian painter who helped formulate a kind of modernism specific to his home country, has died at 87. Dubai’s Green Art Gallery, which mounted an exhibition of his art in 2015, announced his passing on Monday.
In a statement, Green Art Gallery called Zayat “one of [the] country’s most significant artists of the 20th century, and a key founder of Syria’s modern art movement.”
Zayat, who spent portions of his career abroad, synthesized styles derived from European modernism with early Christian iconography and Sufi imagery. Often, the result was richly hued paintings in which mystical beings appeared to emerge from abstract backgrounds.
Born in 1935 in Damascus, Zayat studied abroad, in Bulgaria and Egypt. By the time he began taking trips back to Syria in the ’60s, he had a significant knowledge of European modernism, in particular works by Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. Spurred by a desire to better understand the region’s history, he also spent time studying centuries-old Coptic art in Cairo and and ancient sites like Palmyra in Syria.
“Everything I’ve done in my life stems from my attachment to my country,” he said in an interview with the National in 2015. “My family has been in Damascus for at least three generations and this initially inspired me to discover my roots and relationships tied to Syria and the Levant. With these paintings, I’m telling you that this is where I am from.”
Zayat, who went on to achieve a degree in art restoration from a Bulgarian university, later permanently returned in the ’70s to Syria, where he remained for the rest of his career. Gradually, his work moved away from European modernism, toward a more mystical style that he said was rooted in Syrian history.
Recognition for Zayat beyond the Middle East has been slow to come, although his work has been canonized in the region. The Sharjah Art Foundation, the Barjeel Art Foundation, and the Ramzi and Saeda Dalloul Art Foundation all own his work. Skira produced a monograph of his work in 2017.
The images that Zayat painted may seem divorced from reality, but he told the National that they could offer a look at where we’re headed. “Art, after all, is a look into the future,” he said.