Ayman Baalbaki reflects on friends, family and influences in an exclusive interview with selections
My brother and I were both born in February with only one year’s difference between us, whereas we have a younger and older sister. Although I was the younger brother, I used to look the elder of the two. For financial reasons Said and I used to celebrate our birthdays together, either on the fourth or the 13th of the month. People used to think that we were twin brothers as we were so close to each other. We used to fight a lot, but were never jealous, even when people used to compare us, bearing in mind that Said was a clever student, whereas I used to get zeros and average grades for everything except maths. Said taught me how to be disciplined and I taught him how to be naughty. He used to take care of me and would wrap my schoolbooks in plastic, adding a label with my name on – this was at the age of seven. Even at university, I used to play around and go out with girls in the days leading up to a jury presentation while Said primed my canvas and palette for me. He always encouraged me to work.
When we were kids, mum used to lock my brother and I in the house, since it was a time of war, and we were living on the demarcation line surrounded by snipers. She used to move the furniture around and create a playground indoors on the condition of not leaving home. While she was out, we would create stuff. We once transformed a wooden box into a tank and added some wheels and an iron rod to move it around. There was room in it for eight kids. We used to sit inside and move around the house in it until our neighbour got fed up and talked to mum, who asked us to remove the wheels. Local gangs of kids were interested in our tank and asked to buy it, so we sold it to them. With the 18 liras we got for the tank we bought 18 bags of plastic soldiers and spread them around the room creating two fronts.
My mother never understood how I managed to escape after she had locked us in, but I always managed to sneak out by finding a spare key. After I got found out my last resort was to slide down the pipes from the balcony. I used to go and play with the other children on the street. I wanted to try everything, from tasting electricity to understanding the consistency of urine; my parents were always on the edge of their seats. One day we were at home with all of our cousins in Wadi Abou Jameel and my mother went out to get groceries. We went to one of the rooms, and I got inspired to draw on the wall. Everyone got excited and joined in. We made a massive fresco across a full room. Of course, I got punished because they knew that I was the ringleader.
Among my cousins, I am really close to Monzer. We’ve been friends since childhood. He has a weird language and talks in riddles that not everyone understands, so I always translate everything he says at parties. We used to fight a little when we were young, but he, Said, our cousin Oussama and myself were close. All of us had different interests to other kids and even read different books. Oussama used to get zeros for maths in school, yet he had read “Das Kapital” by Karl Marx. He always had a book he was currently reading hidden inside his schoolbooks. Our family used to talk about history a lot. When we were seven years old, Said, Oussama and I used to act like archaeologists searching for prehistoric flints and skulls. When we were in the fields and the Israeli tanks crossed over, we used to hide in the grass for fear of anyone thinking we were the Resistance when we were out playing.
The first people who influenced me were my father and uncle. As a child I would sit and watch them paint. When I was younger, I asked my father lots of questions that would sometimes distract him, but later I sat silently observing. He always asked my opinion on colours and shapes and called me his private secretary. I used to love cleaning his paint brushes for him in a bucket of water with local Arabic soap. It made me aware of painting and how things are born.
My father is organised and has a warm personality. We have different natures, but he worked on the foundation of our characters culturally and he gave us the base for the techniques. When I was around four years-old he would buy colours for us. We used to draw on paper, on walls, and on the floors. There was a day when we stayed up until around 5am. We were so happy painting that our parents had to carry us to bed. It was as if that was the moment when I felt I would go into painting. My father used to gather up all our works and put them in a file. I have this auto destructive streak, meaning I would paint, not like the result and rip it into pieces. Once he realised this habit, he would start picking up the artwork before I got to that point. He would ask me questions about the work and make notes on the back. Then, one time, we returned from a trip to France, and realised that some people had been living in our home in our absence and had thrown all these works away.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #58 BEING AYMAN BAALBAKI