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