Syrian painter Sabhan Adam’s work brings us face-to-face with creatures that might have crawled or hopped or slithered out of our dreams and onto the couch. Though each may characterize a different animal or mood, Adam’s figures all share the same face—his own. His paintings are a thoughtful look inward, examining deeply personal moods and impressions with dark humor.

Adam’s paintings are showing at Cavin-Morris gallery in New York City through October 11. All images copyright © the artist, courtesy Calvin-Morris gallery, all rights reserved.

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I read that you are self-taught. Why did you start painting?

It’s complicated to simplify the reason I started painting because it came to me in a very mysterious way. I used to write poems when I was young—living through isolating myself from other people, trying to find balance between me and myself. If it wasn’t painting, it could have been any other job. But I think I was meant to be an artist, so I carried on working until painting filled my soul and it will always have this place until the last day of my life.

How has not having a formal art education influenced your painting?

Although I haven’t had any art education, this hasn’t affected my artwork. I paint because I consider painting as a need, the same way a human being needs water to go on living. When I started my project it was just a passion regardless of the financial side.

Who are these heads on animal bodies in your paintings? Does each caricature represent something or someone different?

The figures I paint have so many things in common with me—they look like me, they have the same head and the same Asian eyes as me. I draw myself with everything that exists inside—the sadness, the misery, the shocking things I have faced, the isolation, and the feeling of not belonging to this world. These heads could be stuck on any kind of animals’ bodies. I spread Sabhan Adam on all the canvas, so Adam exists in many shapes.

The figures in your paintings have a certain sadness, but I also can’t help finding them funny. Is humor intentional in your work?

The humor in my artwork is not intentional, it shows out naturally. There were so many funny stories in my childhood and I laugh a lot when I sit alone and remember these stories. There is so much happiness in my life that people cannot imagine. My artwork has a strong effect on others who suffer from problems. It is like a vitamin for weak people. My paintings have that protective role; they wrap people’s souls with blessing. Be in the desert alone with a painting from Sabhan Adam and you will survive.

Your paintings have a very physical, tactile presence. Do you use materials besides oil? How do you achieve this effect?

I use a mixed technique. Using oil paint is limited in my work. I use some substances made of soil and chalk and some substances I have created that are hard to describe.

Are there artists or writers who you admire and who influence your work?

My chances are limited when it comes to other people’s experiences. I don’t have particular writers or artists that I admire. My soul can absorb others’ experiences. I admire every positive action in life, even the effort of football players, Charlie Chaplin, and Mickey Mouse.

Has your work had a different reception in the U.S. than in Paris, or Dubai?

How my work is received in the U.S. or Paris is not that important to me. The most important thing for me is being in my hometown, Al-Hassakeh, and painting.


TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka