The term “innate art” was created to refer to any form of visual art produced by a human being who didn’t have some degree of mainstream education to be a professional artist. In the past centuries, artists have tried to dwarf non-specialists who mimic aesthetic objects in their paintings, often describing their productions as “primitive” or “naïve art.”
Innate art has often been snubbed by “professionals” as it is created by people who are perceived to not know what they are doing. This evaluation undermines the creativity associated with the unrestrained and instinctive subconscious boundaries of these simple artists. Despite the fact that professional artists are averse to the reality of this wonderful primitive artistic style, it imposed itself by accumulation and stability through the human heritage to form what has recently been called folkloric and folk art. Folk art was first considered an art model in the twentieth century when a group of fair-minded art critics attributed this innate art to the inspiration of its artists, drawn from the contexts of history and societal culture.
One of the most famous practitioners of this art form in Syria was the artist Muhammad Harb, nicknamed Abu Subhi al-Tinawi (1888-1973). Born in Damascus, he was surrounded by ancient columns, Damascene water fountains, and al-Sham pergolas covered in aromatic jasmine, al-Tinawi began helping his father, a professional painter, when he was 10 years old, laying the groundwork for his artistic career by painting glassware, jugs, vases, and cups, and decorating them with flowers and birds.
Al-Tinawi was also greatly influenced by oral stories and the anecdotes of the storyteller who was an important pillar of Damascene life. Al-Tinawi’s artwork embodied these stories, especially the poetic saga of Antara Ibn Shaddad and Princess Abla, because of the importance they represented in the popular conscience as an example of virility and courage. He portrayed Antara with dark skin and long mustaches, with his spear and sword, dressed in clothes of innovative shape and form that were not devoid of decorations.
Al-Tinawi’s figures were generally painted on a base of vegetal forms that gave them stability. He often included spontaneous writing related to the painted subject in the background and some plant elements to complete the balance and frame the components of the painting. In his paintings of Antara and Abla, al-Tinawi would also play with the facial expressions of both of them as well as the configuration of the horses’ feet to make them look as if they were dancing.
As for his representation of Al-Buraq (the winged creature that some people believe carried the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem), al-Tinawi merged the head of a woman with two wings with the body of a horse and added many colors, miniatures, and script. This work is reminiscent of ancient Syrian sculptures where the artists used to integrate animal and human elements, a creative idea in its time.
In the same context, al-Tinawi painted the death of Kulaib, the elder brother of al-Zeer Salem, and his venerable wife, using some words to explain the position of each of the protagonists of the story. Jassas treacherously stabs Kulaib in the back, Kulaib falls to the ground with his weapon lying next to him, and his venerable wife tries to hug him while his horse stands away looking towards its owner. The painting is also made more interesting by the fact that some of the elements of the painting extend beyond the inner frame on three sides.
As for al-Tinawi’s apparent lack of restriction in dimensions, there is a funny story told by his son about when his father was drawing one of the paintings of his favorite hero, Antara, who had fallen off the back of his horse. When it became apparent that the area of the painting could not accommodate the drawing of the entire horse, the artist decided to draw a missing piece of the horse’s tail at the top of the painting, separate from the body, and wrote next to it: “This is the tail of this horse.”
Of course, this happens in popular painting, where exceeding the boundaries of the frame is possible and not considered to be defective in terms of the drawing, but it was rarely done in al-Tinawi’s time.
Some of the artist’s paintings, including the one below, are reminiscent of the miniatures of the Iraqi artist Yahya al-Wasiti (1237 AD) with their similarity in composition, and the way the animals are painted in a style that invokes a rhythmic musical movement.
Arab Muslim painter and calligrapher, famous for the art of Islamic miniatures, born in the town of Wasit in southern Iraq
Another famous al-Tinawi painting is called Meeting Al-Zahir Baybars. Its importance lies in the innate conception of symmetry in all its details: the movement of swords and flags, the colors of the horses, the decorative patterns, the plant fence at the bottom of the painting, and the filling of space with small stars that reach the feet of the horses. All of the figures have the same facial expression in addition to the front horses. The characters in this work by al-Tinawi display a mixture of joy, preparedness, and fortitude.
In general, the simplistic features of this artist’s work can be reduced to a balance in composition, depending on repetition and symmetry, and not paying attention to space or the rules of the third dimension. All figures and animal beings are static, not suggestive of movement. Most of the block lines rely on the curved line as a warm emotional line, which is taken from the formation of domes and arches and the drawing of the Diwani line preferred by people in ancient times.
Al-Tinawi was a simple man; he did not like fame and knew nothing about other artists. He followed his own technique, dissolving colored powder with water and Arabic gum, removing fatty substances from the glass surface with onions, and even using sugar in creating his work.
He was the first Arab artist whose work was displayed along with Picasso’s paintings in an exhibition organized by a French collector and one of his works is still on display in the Louvre. Nearly 20 paintings were acquired by the Museum of Popular Traditions in Damascus and the General Organization for Cinema also produced a short film about him: https://youtu.be/wOAMJg6F80c
As further proof of his disconnection from the art world at large, al-Tinawi’s son recounted another story of when a French TV channel once visited his father. The presenter asked him what he thought of Picasso. After being silent for a while, the artist replied “I don’t know him; he didn’t buy a painting from me.”