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Fresco Painting in Contemporary Context: Chafa Ghaddar’s ‘Breathing Grounds’ at ‘In Real Time’ Exhibition


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One of the current standout exhibitions in Abu Dhabi is In Real Time at the NYUAD Art Gallery, curated by Maya Allison and Duygu Demir (who curated the work of Gözde İlkin).

This is an exhibition not only to attend, but above all to visit again and again, since it is in constant evolution. The exhibition, in fact, testifies both the presence of artists continuously engaged in the creation of their works and the presence of the visitors themselves. It is not something closed and concluded. A characteristic of contemporary art is its perpetual openness: Cubism, in this sense, with its broken lines and forms, marked a point of no return.

From this point of view, nothing seems more distant from the contemporary world than the practice of fresco painting. Yet it is not so. Among the artists featured in the exhibition is Chafa Ghaddar, who, on the occasion of “In Real Time”, created the fresco Breathing Grounds displaying seven “giornate” (days).

We met the Lebanese artist and discussed the meaning of her work. In particular, we questioned her about the significance of using the ancient fresco technique in the contemporary world. Chafa, although also working with other media, has often employed the fresco technique in her works. It is a technique she also studied in Florence – one of the most important places for this way of painting.

How can fresco painting be a contemporary language? This is the question we asked Chafa Ghaddar. The answer lies in the greatest challenge facing the contemporary artist: the representation of time.
The starting point, Chafa told us, was not Giotto (1267-1337) – one of the masters of this type of painting – but the technique itself. Fresco painting involves both time and the body.

Fresco painting was born to challenge time and the centuries. However, for me, it is a technique that should not be interpreted in absolute terms: it is indeed something very human, mysterious, and alive”, says Chafa.

Let us take, for example, the frescoes of Masaccio (1401-1428) in the Brancacci Chapel (1424-1428, Florence, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine): after more than five centuries, we can see Masaccio’s work. The fresco technique, in fact, involves the division into “giornate” (days) which are visible to an attentive viewer. Remaining within the Brancacci Chapel, after so much time, we can still see Masaccio’s hand painting.

Masaccio, The Tribute Money, from the Brancacci Chapel (Florence, Italy), c. 1425

We see, in short, the presence of the artist, despite his absence: “and only fresco painting makes this possible”. Fresco painting, it is true, is a technique that challenges time, yet it makes us perceive it in its flow and fragility. Masaccio’s hand is not present, yet we see it.

Fresco painting is something fragile, something to be taken care of”, was Chafa’s response to our question regarding the connection between the technique she used and Lebanon, her home country.

For Chafa Ghaddar, fresco painting is a perfect metaphor for the fragility of the contemporary world.

Speaking with her, we were reminded of the great American artist Joseph Cornell (1903-1972). Cornell collected waste from American streets and everyday objects to assemble them in boxes. Cornell also felt the urgency to represent his own time and did so by putting it on display. Chafa Ghaddar, instead, has shown us something we can define as the soul or skeleton of time. Perhaps for this reason, the work on display, “Breathing Grounds”, was executed without any preparatory study and, above all, will be destroyed at the end of the exhibition.

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Palais de Cristal), ca. 1953. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas

There is no eternity in art. Art is born in time and belongs to it. It is merely a weak trace of human presence in history. Like the great architectures that have now become archaeological relics. Like Masaccio’s hand in Florence.

The exhibition In Real Time is curated by Maya Allison and Duygu Demir. Among the featured artists: Moza Almatrooshi; Rana Begum; Chafa Ghaddar; Julie Becton Gillum; Gözde İlkin; Kiori Kawai; Sol LeWitt; Cristiana de Marchi, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian; Haleh Redjaian.

It is possible to visit the exhibition until June 9, 2024, at The NYUAD Art Gallery (Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi).

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