With Spring Winter Summer Fall: Modernity Identity, French-Chinese painter Yan Pei-Ming responds directly to the events that took place in the Arab world in 2011, focusing his attention on individuals who have played a pivotal role in the region’s transformations during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Unlike the monumental oil paintings for which Yan is best known, each of the 150 portraits in Spring Winter Summer Fall is intimate in both size and media. Carefully detailed in the rendering of facial features yet loose and wet in the application of paint, these watercolors tightly frame the artist’s subjects, which range from political leaders and activists to artists, poets and musicians, as well as others, like Manal Al-Sharif (b. 1978) and Fathi Terbil (b. 1972), who were leaders of social and political change during the 2011 events. Shown against grey backgrounds, the portraits echo the photographs that provided the artist with his source material, toying with the relationship between painting and photography, analog and digital. The sitters’ clothing and hairstyles convey differing markers of national identity or historical moments.
The forty-four portraits shown here feature many of the cultural figures that Yan included in Spring Winter Summer Fall: Modernity Identity. Despite their key contributions to the making of Arab modernity, many of those portrayed, such as Huda Shaarawi and Khalil Mutran, are not well known outside of the Arab world. The artwork of others, including Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani and Mona Hatoum, is also featured in this exhibition, emphasizing the central role of the visual arts in creating the region’s past, present and future. Exhibited together, Yan’s watercolors offer a complex portrait of the region, highlighting the immense range of individuals who have shaped the Arab world and emphasizing the particular importance of Arab artists and intellectuals.