Mas­ter of cer­e­monies

Hav­ing fled two war zones and sur­vived a shelling, painter Zad Jab­bour be­lieves in di­vine power. Lee Um­bers hears more.

The Press - Your Weekend (The Press) - - Feature -

Zad Jab­bour was paint­ing an icon of Christ on the cross when an ar­tillery shell blasted him across his home stu­dio. The ex­plo­sion, just 10 me­tres away, smashed up his parked car and hurled art works to the ground around him. Mer­ci­fully, nei­ther he nor his wife Amal and young son Hadi, who were also in the house, were in­jured. Jab­bour, an An­ti­ochian Greek Chris­tian, will not call his es­cap­ing un­harmed mirac­u­lous, but says, “There is al­ways a di­vine in­ter­ven­tion… we do things with the in­ter­ven­tion of God.”

And the artist adds, “When we are work­ing on icons, the pres­ence of the di­vine power is there.”

Jab­bour, who fled his apart­ment in then civil war-torn Le­banon just hours af­ter the bomb blast, has brought his mas­tery of re­li­gious art to his new home­land of New Zealand. His in­tri­cately stylised icons adorn churches in Hast­ings and New Ply­mouth.

Rem­i­nis­cent of the works by Old Masters he has based his call­ing on, at 74 he is in the mid­dle of a two-year project, liv­ing in a church in Syd­ney while he paints its ex­ten­sive iconic im­agery.

Jab­bour grew up in Le­banon’s cap­i­tal Beirut, his fa­ther a well-known painter of re­li­gious works.

His own artis­tic path be­gan with a self-por­trait in pen­cil at age five. By 10, he says he was al­ready known as “the artist” of his col­lege. With ge­om­e­try the only other sub­ject he found in­ter­est­ing – “be­cause it has draw­ings” – he left high school at 14 to be­come ap­pren­ticed to his fa­ther.

He com­pleted a course in ac­coun­tancy, how­ever, to pro­vide a more cer­tain pay cheque. For the next decade, eight hours of book­keep­ing a day were fol­lowed by eight hours of draw­ing and paint­ing.

At 24 he mar­ried Amal Bou­sader, whose Kiwi fa­ther had set­tled in Le­banon af­ter wed­ding a lo­cal woman.

The young cou­ple moved into a town near her home in Mount Le­banon, and Jab­bour be­gan ex­pand­ing his art – do­ing por­traits and land­scapes, fres­cos in churches and ex­hibit­ing. Then the bloody and com­plex 15-year Le­banese Civil War be­gan in 1975, “and it stopped ev­ery­thing”.

Jab­bour says he and his wife stayed out of the fight­ing but shel­tered and helped a stream of refugees headed to neigh­bour­ing Syria.

Their ground-floor home be­came a sanc­tu­ary for res­i­dents of the other 43 apart­ments in their build­ing block when bomb­ing got too close.

The con­flict came right to their front door in 1990 dur­ing clashes be­tween army and mili­tia.

Jab­bour was work­ing on the icon mid-af­ter­noon, Amal and four-year-old son Hadi else­where in a house full with peo­ple, when the ex­plod­ing ar­tillery shell hurled him across his room.

An­other shock fol­lowed soon af­ter, he says, and it con­vinced him to leave. When a mili­tia tank drove up to his apart­ment, its tur­ret pok­ing through his door­way, he got neigh­bours to help hastily re­pair his car, packed a suit­case with Hadi’s be­long­ings and fled to Beirut. On their sec­ond day in the city, the ve­hi­cle – parked out­side his brother’s house – was hit by an aerial bomb and blown to pieces.

Jab­bour de­cided to seek safety in Iraq, where his brother-in-law was a cit­i­zen. “Iraq was calm... And then Sad­dam Hus­sein de­cided to go into Kuwait.”

Sad­dam sealed his bor­ders, prevent­ing for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing Amal who had en­tered the coun­try on a New Zealand pass­port, from leav­ing.

“Af­ter a month, he said women with for­eign na­tion­al­i­ties can go out.”

They made their way back to their apart­ment in Le­banon, be­fore mov­ing to Qatar where Jab­bour worked as an artist for two years, paint­ing land­scapes, por­traits, and dec­o­ra­tive art in palaces.

He re­turned to Le­banon to es­tab­lish an art school and gallery, be­fore leav­ing for the United Arab Emi­rates in 1998, bas­ing him­self in the oa­sis city of Al Ain­for the next eight years.

He con­tin­ued his por­trai­ture, and painted mu­rals and dec­o­ra­tive art in ho­tels and palaces.

In 2006, Jab­bour, who had vis­ited Amal’s fam­ily in New Zealand – “a beau­ti­ful calm place” – five years ear­lier, de­cided to move here and en­roll Hadi in an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing course at Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy.

He ex­plored a new artis­tic di­rec­tion, re­al­ism – con­cen­trat­ing on cap­tur­ing or­di­nary peo­ple as they go about their daily lives. Af­ter his works were dis­played in Welling­ton gallery Kiwi Art House, he was com­mis­sioned to por­tray slices of life in the cap­i­tal.

Jab­bour has had three ex­hi­bi­tions at the Kiwi Art House, in Cuba Street. Owner Alan Aldridge no­ticed his work on an on­line gallery of New Zealand artists and “was taken by it”.

“That sort of re­al­ism style, with the level of ex­per­tise that he has in it – you don’t ac­tu­ally get that much,” Aldridge says. “He’s def­i­nitely an ex­tremely tal­ented artist, Zad.”

Jab­bour’s work at the gallery cen­tred heav­ily on scenes and peo­ple in the cap­i­tal. He says he feels an affin­ity for both.

On his first visit to the “calm, nice, com­pact city, I saw Cuba Street and the life there, and it was re­ally in­ter­est­ing”.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful city… I re­ally loved it,” Jab­bour says. “With the hilly land­scape that it has, it re­minds me of Le­banon a lit­tle bit.”

He has been de­lighted with his re­cep­tion and en­cour­age­ment in the Welling­ton art scene, and made close friends with a num­ber of con­tem­po­raries, paint­ing por­traits of nine of the artists who also ex­hibit at Kiwi Art House.

De­mand has also con­tin­ued in the Mid­dle East for him to pro­duce copies of works by the Old Masters, in­clud­ing Rubens and Rem­brandt. “Ev­ery time I go for a visit to Le­banon, peo­ple are wait­ing for me.”

Jab­bour has brought his re­li­gious art here, his icons adorn­ing Ortho­dox Churches of Saint Demetrios in Hast­ings and Saint Ni­cholas in New Ply­mouth.

While he can bring his flair to his works, there is limited room for artis­tic li­cense in the craft­ing of icons. Al­most ev­ery­thing within the im­age has a sym­bolic as­pect. Christ, the saints and an­gels have ha­los. Fig­ures have con­sis­tent fa­cial fea­tures.

Colours too are vi­tal. Gold rep­re­sents heav­enly ra­di­ance; red, di­vine life; blue, hu­man life.

“The Vir­gin Mary has to wear blue in­side, red out­side. Je­sus has to wear red in­side, blue out­side.”

Jab­bour says a deep knowl­edge of re­li­gion is es­sen­tial. “To paint a scene from the Bible, you have to know the Bible.”

It was im­por­tant to be an artist first, rather than try­ing to be­come an artist by cre­at­ing icons, he says. “You have to be an artist and then give your­self to this kind of art. It’s like a devo­tion.”

Jab­bour be­comes to­tally fo­cused on his work, avoid­ing even back­ground mu­sic as a dis­trac­tion.

He has im­mersed him­self in his lat­est com­mis­sion, a two-year project dec­o­rat­ing the in­te­rior of the An­ti­ochian Ortho­dox Church of Saints Peter and Paul in the Syd­ney sub­urb of Rooty Hill. Since April last year, he has painted mu­rals in­side the church, and adorned a four me­tre-high iconos­ta­sis – a wall sep­a­rat­ing the nave from the sanc­tu­ary.

He is now dec­o­rat­ing the ceil­ing arch­way – 10m long, 5m deep, and 7m off the ground, mov­ing around scaf­fold­ing to pro­duce fig­ures as large as 3mx3m.

For­tu­nately, Jab­bour is not afraid of heights, a dome he painted in Abu Dhabi was 13m high. And, at 74, he is still able to squat for up to 10 min­utes at a time when work­ing at awk­ward an­gles.

He sketches his works in pen­cil, en­larges them where nec­es­sary in grids and then paints free­hand.

A room was set up and kitchen and bath­room pro­vided in the re­cep­tion hall un­der the church for him to live while he com­pletes his project. He re­turns to New Zealand spo­rad­i­cally to see Hadi and his daugh­ter-in-law. Amal passed away in 2011, and he still misses her ter­ri­bly.

Jab­bour, in­flu­enced in his for­ma­tive years by French clas­si­cal artist Ni­co­las Poussin, says peo­ple were con­stantly telling him he was like an Old Mas­ter – liv­ing and work­ing in a church. “But I’m not that good – I can’t say I’m Michelan­gelo or Raphael,” he says with a laugh.

He is work­ing 12 to 14-hour days, six days a week to com­plete his project while he still has the en­ergy, he says. He has al­ready had an in­quiry about dec­o­rat­ing a church in Le­banon. “I feel re­ally, re­ally blessed to be able to do this kind of work. This is a labour of love.”

Clock­wise from above: Zad Jab­bour uses gold leaf as he works on re­li­gious icons for the church of Saint Demetrius in Hast­ings; a com­pleted icon; a self-por­trait from 2015; Jab­bour at work 7 me­tres off the ground as he paints an arch­way in­side the church o

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.