Syria-born Talal Fashtouk was forced to abandon his law degree in 2011 because of the Syrian Civil War. He fled to Turkey where he found mosaics. Matt Hanson explores his life and art.
WRITTEN & NARRATED BY MATT A HANSON
Listen to Matt Hanson narrate his article:
On 31 May 2019, the Syrian town of Kafranbel was devastated. The town council made the declaration official after the ongoing Syrian Civil War had displaced eighty per cent of their 15,000-plus residents, destroying their hospitals, schools, and mosques. The town, which is within the embattled district of Idlib, was famous as Syria’s largest producer of figs. To a historian it might seem that a long-standing curse had befallen Kafranbel, as it is also one of 700 “dead cities”, a term used by archaeologists for the well-preserved Byzantine settlements scattered across Syria.
At the age of ten, Talal Fashtouk walked the streets of peacetime Kafranbel and smelled the aroma of olives. He brushed shoulders with the stone ghosts of late Roman antiquity.  It was there he found his muse; a mineral apparition that compelled him to make mosaic artworks. By then, he was already drawing with the encouragement of a sister five years his senior. In a traditional Syrian Arab family with eight other siblings, he formed a bond with his older sister as they embarked together into the art world. Kafranbel was, in fact, renowned for preserving the mosaic craft. He joined a workshop, but his formal art education ended there.
As one of five brothers, Fashtouk was burdened with a heavy lot in life, as they lost their father when he was only two years old. Before he knew it, his mother had placed the burdens of their family’s needs onto his shoulders. He worked every day after school, but he never stopped making mosaics. He studied law at the University of Aleppo, selling his mosaics in order to earn his tuition fees. But in the fourth year of his studies, tragedy struck. The onset of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 forced him to leave the country. He went overland across the plains of Mesopotamia and became a refugee, settling in Antakya, Turkey.
In a twist of fate that merges art history with its contemporary practitioners on the easternmost fringes of classical Western civilization, Fashtouk relocated to a place that could be deemed as the mosaic capital of a region shared with that of his native Kafranbel, and perhaps of the world. In the main city of Hatay, known to the ancient Greek lingua franca as Antioch, there is a nonpareil grouping of over 300 mosaic floors created by artists working from the 2nd to the 6th centuries AD, inspired by their current cultural milieus, which included Athenian mythology, Roman mysticism, and the geometric insignias of early Christianity.
“Antakya is an ancient city rich in archaeological mosaics, and I certainly feel the value of the mosaics that I make when I see the archaeological mosaics,” Fashtouk said. “I only produce mosaics, that is my passion. I don’t have a formal education in art. It is a talent and, with practice, it has grown. I get marble from marble sawmills in the area. Sometimes I travel to Afyon, the city famous for its marble. The production of any work starts from my choice of the painting or at the request of the customer. I make mosaics first because I love it and, second, because it is a desirable work and I can sell it easily.”
At 32, Fashtouk, however, is a millennial with a cause. His well-followed profile on Instagram has a commercial, pop art aesthetic. He is a man on the make of Internet fame, as his publicly displayed work begins with his mosaic copy of the most famous artwork of all, Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. In collaboration with Haas Antioch Art Stone, a business based in Hatay outfitted to acquire natural stones for works of art, Fashtouk reproduced the Renaissance masterwork, photographing his process on social media. He laid out an image of the painting and placed fragments of marble and natural stones over its ruddy surface.
The transformation of da Vinci’s painting into meticulously set pieces of stone render its colors at once brighter, but also more rigid. The original bears the mark of genius because it humanises artificial formalism with its soft focus, its attention to the personal aura of its subject imbued with the love of human creation. Fashtouk did not stop with da Vinci, but also assumed the sculptural vision of Michelangelo, creating a mosaic piece based on David. “As for the head of the statue of David, it was like a challenge,” Fashtouk said. “I am trying to turn all of the artworks of international artists into mosaics.”
Fashtouk is not shy about his ambitions. His spirit of aspiration is powerful, and visible in his works, as it is in his online activity. In fact, about his desire to make mosaics out of the finest works of art in history, he says that it brings him “glory”. In that sense, there is a tone of creative imperialism in his artwork, which, like popular culture, and its pop art evolution, cannibalises the remains of global and historical cultural diversity in favor of modernism, or the primacy of the contemporary moment. In that way, Fashtouk is a “brut artist”, in the spirit of French painter Jean Dubuffet who appreciated artists outside of the West and its institutions.
As a survivor of war, and the lingering dregs of Western colonialism in the 21st century, Fashtouk is an artist without formal training who utilises the raw potency of his technical skill. He is a figurative portraitist. His works are almost photorealist based on images that he finds or is commissioned to transform into his dazzlingly intricate mosaics. Fashtouk makes mosaics from recognisable faces – from Martin Luther King Jr. to Sharbat Gula, better known as the “Afghan girl” after photojournalist Steve McCurry captured her youthful, green-eyed face for the cover of National Geographic in 1984.
One of Fashtouk’s mosaics is a portrait of an anonymous child, in tears, their face bloody after a bombing. “As I belong to Idlib, the picture of the injured child was an expression of my pain about the bombing and brutality of innocent civilians,” Fashtouk explained. He took his talents in mosaic portraiture to a more creative plane with another piece depicting varying complexions of human flesh in one face. “I saw in it a human message for the equality of all. Because of the injustice and international silence about what the Syrians and other peoples are subjected to. The people of northern Syria don’t have the most basic necessities.”