How do you get world leaders to experience firsthand the suffering of refugees? Syrian artist Abdalla Al Omari has found a solution, placing some of the most recognizable politicians in their shoes — by painting them.
The Syrian-born artist, now based in Belgium, is driven by the emotions created by the massive displacement of people in his home country. His artworks are bold statements that open the viewer to new perspectives — by taking public leaders and depicted them as refugees. His series entitled Vulnerability, features compelling, fictional portraits and scenes that reflect the familiar imagery we’ve become accustomed to over the past few years in the mainstream media.
Yet, instead of the nameless refugees we’ve seen in countless photographs as this human tragedy unfolds, we’re confronted with Barack Obama in worn-out clothing staring at the viewer with a deflated expression, Angela Merkel depicted as a rural peasant woman and a disheveled Donald Trump holding a sleeping girl and a photograph of family left behind.
Instead of showing veneration for the familiar political protagonists, Omari eliminates all suggestions of strength, charisma, and righteousness. Setting aside the hallmarks of autocratic visuals, he depicts them in moments of despair.
Initially, the artist was driven by his experiences of displacement, and the anger that consumed him as the situation in his native Syria escalated. Intrigued by “the romantic idea of vulnerability and the impact it can generate” while depicting his subjects, Omari eventually arrived at the “paradoxical nature” of empathy.
As he developed the series, his aim shifted from an expression of anger to a more vivid desire to disarm his figures, to picture them outside of their positions of power.
“I wanted to take away their power, not to serve me and my pain, but to give those leaders back their humanity and the audience an insight into what the power of vulnerability can achieve,” says the 33-year-old artist.
Omari graduated from the University of Damascus with a degree in English Literature while also attending the Adham Ismail Institute of Visual Arts. His paintings are housed in the collections of Barjeel Art Foundation, United Arab Emirates, Kamel Gallery, Syria and the Syrian Ministry of Culture, among others worldwide.