What Dreams May Come

What Dreams May Come

For Syrian refugee, Anas Albraehe, intimately painting those who find no other peace but of that in sleep is a mirror for his own dreamy soul, as he seeks the child-like serenity of being human without identity, obligations, or affiliations.

Words by Elianna Bar-El


Born in the rural village of Soueida, nestled on the border where Syria meets Jordan, painter Anas Albraehe started showing his thought-provoking works in galleries in 2015. But the 32-year-old’s vibrant silhouettes offer depth beyond their initial visual impact. After studying painting and drawing at the Fine Arts University in Damascus, a colossal war broke out in 2015 in his native homeland, and he set off for Beirut to further his studies with an MA in Psychology and Art Therapy from Lebanese University. At the peak of Syria’s scorching tragedies, Albraehe sought refuge - and inspiration - in others, also displaced, also seeking solace in an intangible space: sleep. “I am a person who sleeps a lot and dreams daily,” Albraehe explains. “I have a full life when I sleep. I love it more than my life while I am awake.” Unexpectedly, his weary journey as a refugee informs his most serene oil paintings; the sights and circumstance became a backdrop for his vibrant-colored reveries. The subjects are almost always en route from one place to the next, or have simply found a pillow upon grass for a restful slumber. 

Albraehe chronicled his view with deep emotions for what lay before him: “The painting is all that surrounds me of beauty and sadness combined together, and certainly it is part of my childhood and my surrounding environment. What you see in front of you is my dreamy soul, forming on the cloth,” he explains. “A moment of wild serenity of a human being without identity or affiliation, belonging only to earth from east to west.” His zoomed-in portrayals include infinite lines of traffic with people piled high on improvised mattresses in flat-bed trucks in transit at the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing connecting Syria and Turkey, off-work sites in nondescript fields with hammocks slung haphazardly between trees and a deflated backpack as one’s sole possession, and four to five people to a bed in a makeshift room comprised of nothing but walls. Yet, despite the impoverished contexts, Albraehe’s strangers are, in fact, each one a sleeping beauty. Their expressions are peaceful and at ease, and even those whose only features visible are eyes beneath a burqa are beautiful in their calm and inhibition.

Albraehe has shown his work in Beirut’s Agial Art Gallery, an artist residency at The Cité internationale des arts in Paris, and most recently, a solo exhibition at New York’s Anita Rogers Gallery. He will also be part of upcoming artist residencies in Benin, West Africa, in April and in Curitiba, Brazil’s Museu Casa Alfredo Andersen in October.

“I let myself feel with the painting as I go along. I have a colorful imagination, but if I stopped to think for a moment about what color I was choosing, I don’t think I would be able to paint honestly,” Albraehe relays. “Often, it’s only when I step away from the painting to take it in that I see how the colors have all come together, almost as if on their own. I cannot be sure exactly why I choose the colors that I do, but I certainly choose them in order to separate my work from reality. I draw what my eyes see. I monitor the colors of nature and the environment in which I feel like I see new colors overlapping. They stir my imagination, and I think about how each color tone affects its neighbor.”  

In context, what might seem like a deeply intimate portrait of struggle within crisis, actually plays out quite differently in the keenly intuitive artist’s vibrant portraits. They are interpretations of a deeper reverie; heads bowed, eyes shuttered, each subject is in the midst of being carried away to that desperate pleasure of sleep following a full day of labor. Amidst heaps of blankets, thick, generous swaths of oil layer each of Albraehe’s painted sleepers, curled up, seemingly bowing down to the gateway of sleep. Their graceful hands peek out from blanketed limbs, wrapped arms, elbowed angles, and bended knees propped up in every which way. The fantastically-bright textiles and woven Syrian handiwork are aflame with sunny yellow, fuschia, and pomegranate-colored quilts and ubiquitous Afghans. These vulnerable strangers are warm, protected, and safe. After all, in the glorious state of dreams, isn’t everything and everyone equal?