Years after fleeing Syria, painter Aboud Salman finds a home in Edmonton
By Caroline Barlott | September 6, 2023
Aboud Salman remembers being in Grade 3 and secretly gathering the residue from his mother’s oven. He had an art project in mind. He went from wall to wall in the Syrian town of Al Mayadin where he painted birds, horses and flowers on the white exterior walls of his neighbours’ homes. After each work of art, he signed it like an intrepid graffiti artist.
“According to my neighbours,” says Salman through his son’s translation, “Aboud didn’t see a wall and didn’t paint on it.”
But his parents were initially upset. It didn’t take long, though, for them to also feel pride in their son’s passion and strongly support his obvious talent.
Some of Salman’s recent artwork pays tribute to that familial support. In 2020, Salman was awarded a grant from the Edmonton Arts Council to complete a series of 12 richly layered paintings that depict his own life’s journey alongside Syrian folklore elements.
He calls his mom a supporter of dreams — depicted as a legendary bird in the first painting of the series. And she was his first art teacher, weaving beautiful carpets while he would watch. She sold eggs to help him buy his first art supplies at the age of 12.
Salman later applied for art school in Damascus, but was disappointed to learn that entry into the school was more about connections than hard work or talent. “It was a challenge that pushed me and gave me a space to develop my art style,” says Salman. “I returned to Damascus later on, but as an exhibiting artist.”
In fact, Salman went on to exhibit his art in 15 countries across Europe and the Middle East. In his late 20s, he was asked to be part of a solo exhibition in Paris but he did not have enough money for a plane ticket. His father sold 99 sheep, allowing Salman the chance to exhibit his art in France.
Salman taught art to high school students and had a successful art studio in Al Mayadin where he lived with his family. Though he felt somewhat restricted by a curriculum, he was able to share his passion with his students. And, he says, many of them became artists — some focusing on calligraphy, others becoming caricature artists and one was also an art teacher — with their own distinct styles.
“There was lots of chaos. I started to receive threats. So, I had to leave with whatever I could carry,” says Salman.
Much of his work was critical of authoritarian regimes, and when ISIS took control of his town, his studio was lit on fire and much of his work destroyed. His mother buried some sculptures on the family farm, but Salman does not know exactly where, as she died shortly after.
He fled in 2012 to Lebanon, fearing for his life, but did not anticipate being stuck there as a refugee for six years without his family. He had a stroke and still struggles with memory issues and learning a new language.
But his art sustained him. “At the start of my refugee journey in Lebanon, I didn’t have many art supplies. So, I scavenged for fabric and used shoe paint as ink so I would be able to continue painting. To me, art was how I could cope with my situation,” says Salman.
Those incredibly difficult moments are documented in some of Salman’s recent Canadian work including a dark painting where the eyes of prisoners look out through a broken window. Salman kept adding line after black line until the eyes are barely visible.
“During the painting I would often have sad memories of my parents, which caused me to start crying,” says Salman. “I remember when I left my mother; I had promised to return for tea, but I couldn’t fulfil my promise.”
Other times, he says, the process would cause him to be overwhelmed with joy.
In 2017, Salman and his wife and four children were reunited and came to Edmonton. Here, he found many friends who were incredibly supportive of Salman and his art and “made me feel at home.” The paintings that depict this time are richly colourful and full of light.
When asked about re-establishing himself as an artist in Canada, Salman says: “To me, I was always an artist and it’s something that one can’t lose as an artist. And my goal has always been to create art that allows me to support my family and fill my world with bright colours. Art is how I communicate with my world.”