Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Louay Kayali: An Artist that Died Twice

Louay Kayali
The painting “Restorer of fishing net 4”. Credit:

We found the legend of the truly sane

Youssef Sharqawi

The Syrian modern painter Louay Kayali (1934-1978) was not an ordinary artist. Instead, he was a madman who exposed the falsehood of our sanity, our indifference, and our acquiescence. Kayali broke the norm and disclosed the extent of our submission. He also showed us how rejected, despicable, and stifling the world is and how unreasonable and unacceptable it is. Kayali showed us how heart-breaking and tearful the world is and how frightened and submissive we are.

Kayali was a human before being an artist, a politician, a bohemian, or a revolutionary. When he passed through all those stages, he did that as a human being.

Kayali was well-known for both educated and grassroots circles. He discovered the life of the poor and those that lived in hunger. He travelled on a life journey with fishers, reapers, and homeless children. That journey was vital for him to learn what makes people die for and how worthy such things might be for them. That made him know about the sufferings of people. Sometimes, he was able to see how unworthy life might be for some people. Such a thing urged him to align himself with the wretched, the downtrodden, and the homeless poor. When he saw these people, he immediately abandoned his old bourgeois audience.

The madness of Kayali remained a subject of controversy for decades. Nevertheless, there was a consensus on the genius of Kayali that died out of burns in mysterious circumstances. Turning into that legendary figure requires the scattering of many hopes that one should vigorously hold. So were the hopes of those who knew Kayali. Losing these hopes was the thing that made Kayali both mad and genius in a time ruled by humiliation, waste, and defeat of humans. Nevertheless, the story of his family was a different one because it was of a class origin.

Being born and raised by a high-class family and feel connected to the poor was like dying two times for one man, as stated in a novel written by Jorge Amado. Louay Kayali, as a legend, was like Quincas Wateryell, who was the protagonist of that novel.

Kayali depicted in his paintings the terrifying hell that prevailed in his time – and still does. It was evident in his drawing Then What and his exhibition For the Sake of the Cause. It appeared in his other artwork like Shoe Shiners, Sellers, and Fishermen. He was complicit, secretly and openly, with human freedom and called for it.

His drawings do not highlight poverty, homelessness, and misery. Instead, they stem from an aesthetic human emotion towards people that encountered these situations. Kayali does not look at reality with its present. Instead, he casts his eyes deep at the now and then anticipates the future.

The meagre bread bite of the children he painted did not show the despair of the Kayali but rather a tenderness. In other words, he does not betray that love with an exaggerated dissection, nor with a distortion that turns away from the beauty he adores.

Kayali used to appreciate the characters he drew and did not condemn them. However, he dreamed and demanded that they be in other positions worthy of their human status, without ado or rhetoric speeches. He painted them with a tender touch that was more painful than a million speeches and direct violence. Kayali was able, for the first time in the history of modern Syrian art, to revive and establish an Arab civilized project in painting, based on the human being and its subject; human dignity, says researcher and critic Anwar Muhammad.

On the other hand, no term was used that refers to the political reality that pushed the artist towards the poor. Even his doctor, Dr Abdul Khaleq Sultan, described his madness as a psychological problem and listed psychological, social, and family factors, but he neglected political factors.

Why did Kayali choose the poor then? Why did he go for shoe shiners, gum, roses, and lottery sellers? Without a doubt, he refused these professions that jeopardize human dignity and diminish his pride. If Kayali has gone crazy, it is because he was the prey of a dictator who burned his dreams and mutilated them in front of his eyes. Kayali showed his anger and contentment, saying yes or no without calculations or fear of anyone. That was his vision. The madman freed his mind from madness and our sane madness.

But, after the artist abandoned his old audience, did his new audience welcome him? Actually, no. That was probably one of the reasons for the madness of Kayali that was a daemon of Van Gogh. Like the Dutch painter, Kayali lived his spiritual suffering and his catastrophic end. He wrote about Van Gogh to describe his suffering and rejection by those he addressed: “Van Gogh, whose great heart was big enough to love the whole world, had to work as a preacher early in his life in prisons and mines. He gave them clothes and food. Then, his love for people, who never understood him and called him crazy, pushed him to cut off his ear and present it to a woman he admired. He did that as an expression of his love for her. They rejected his love because they did not understand it. After all, it was unfamiliar to them, so they dismissed him too. He abandoned them without giving up his love for them, as he resorted to painting and colours to express his love. But they rejected his paintings again. He gave them twice, and they rejected him as a human being and an artist. Such a thing forced him to abandon them and his love for them through his great escape to nature to live with it a new tragedy. Nature gave him but rejected his gift, as well as his love for life. Finally, a pistol bullet shattered this creative and generous talent. He shot himself to escape from the same overwhelming love for people, nature, and life.”

Finally, the artist ended up in the ashes of suffering, says Mamdouh Adwan. Louay suffered from being burned twice. The first was when he burned the paintings of his exhibition For the Sake of the Cause shortly after the June War, and here the transformation began. The second burning was due to one of his cigarettes, which led to his death.

Kayali died as an artist, and his death was artistic, like one of his paintings, where death – as Sylvia Plath says – is an art, like anything else.



  1. Adwan, Mamdouh. Defending Madness. Mamdouh Adwan for Publishing, 2012. Damascus. Source:
  2. Saleh, Nabeel, A Novel Whose Name is Syria. V.3, a private edition:
  3. Kayali, Louay. Journalism Archive, the website of Louay Kayali. Source:



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