"IRAQI ARTISTS IN EXILE" SHOWCASE THEIR HAUNTING WORKS
by Beth Secor
January 13, 2009
To fully appreciate "Iraqi Artists in Exile" at the Station Museum, start with "Tamziq #1" (1991) by a founding father of Iraqi modern art, Shakir Hasan Al Said (1925-2004). The work, which translates as "cutting up," is a small painting on wood, whose surface has been scratched, with entire areas of the board cut out and into. His paint, in earth tones with small bits of blue, has been smeared, dripped, and dabbed on, in a method that has some calling him the Jackson Pollock of Iraq. Al Said died of a deep depression in Baghdad in 2004. "Iraqi Artists in Exile" is dedicated to him and includes the works of 14 other artists, all but one living outside of Iraq. The show, whose chief curator is Alan Schnitger, is only the second museum-level exhibition of contemporary Iraqi art to come to the United States.
In 1951, Al Said co-founded the Baghdad Modern Art Group, a collective that aimed to achieve an artistic approach both modern and embracing of tradition, a truly Iraqi modern style. In time, Al Said transitioned from figurative to abstract work, a shift that had more to do with Islamic Sufism than the allure of Western modernity. To Al Said, painting wasn't "creating" but rather an act of sacred contemplation, like a calligrapher writing the words of the Qur'an. Based on his beliefs, Al-Said developed an art philosophy called al-Bua'd al-Wahid, or One Dimension. Briefly stated, One Dimension is that area located between the visible (our world) and the invisible (the realm of God). By cutting, slashing, and piercing his paintings, Al Said "opened up" the One Dimension trying to contemplate the Sacred and seek the Truth.
Almost all 14 artists in the exhibit, regardless of the medium they work in, employ Al Said-like techniques including cutting, splashing, scratching, obscuring, and peppering works with bullet holes. By doing so, they ask us to contemplate the terrible devastation brought by the U.S. war and occupation to Iraq, its people, and its culture, one of the oldest in the world.
In the front gallery, Dia Al-Azzawi's painted triptych "Bilad Al-Sawad" ("black ore fertile land," 2006-2007) speaks of the desecration of antiquities, of torture and murder, of the greed for oil. As a young man, Al-Azzawi studied anthropology and art, and he often integrates ancient forms into his work. Bullet holes riddle the surfaces of all three works.
Both "Bilad Al-Sawad No. 7" and "No. 8" are bordered in cuneiform hatches, referencing ancient Sumerian letterforms. "No. 7" has a black background with drips of red paint running down its surface; in its center is seated a fiberglass figure, modeled after Sumerian votives and wrapped in barbwire. "No. 8," with its sludge-gray background scratched to reveal the color of red clay, has in its center an upside-down fiberglass Sumerian figure, suspended by barbed wire. Both figures, painted white and gray with patterns and newspaper collage, have red handprints slapped on their chests, a symbol repeated throughout the show. (The bloody handprint may denote the sacrifices of one of Islam's most revered heroes, Hazrat Abbas.)
Very different from the others, "Bilad Al-Sawad No. 5" looks like an abstract aerial view of Baghdad, painted in layered divisions of black, grays, and tans. A dark grey area corresponds to the Tigris River flowing through the city, and the final black layer seems to designate streets, specific structures, and neighborhoods destroyed. As in Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic," black symbolizes death and here also refers to oil, the real cause of the war. Black as an obliterating force is another motif repeated throughout the show.
Sadly, "No. 7" and "No. 8" remind me of the very worst of student work. "No. 5," however, is an incredibly strong piece, beautifully painted and more evocative of the very real human impact of the war.
Another strong piece in the front gallery is a large manipulated photo on canvas diptych by Nedim Kufi called "Home"/"Empty." For "Home" (1966), Kufi has enlarged a Polaroid of himself taken by his father when the artist was four years old. In the photo, the young boy, wearing a pair of overall shorts, stands on a tile floor in front of a stucco wall. The young Nedim proudly hoists his new tricycle, upside down, with a very palpable joy on his face. In "Empty" (2008), there is no more joy. Kufi has digitally removed himself and the trike from the original, with only the tiles and wall remaining, symbolizing the untold number of Iraqis exiled, killed, or imprisoned. The pieces are strategically hung, so that when initially viewing "Home" you do not see "Empty," making the absence of life even more apparent.
The second room contains an exhibit of dafatir, or notebooks, a uniquely "modern Iraqi art form [that] fuses the Iraqi history of ancient illuminated manuscripts and paper making with a modern stylistic expression, creating an evocative visual narrative about the injustices . . . endure[d]." (Wall text)
Commemorating the annihilation of Al Mutanabi Street, known as the cultural artery of Baghdad and famous for its book markets, Himat Mohammad Ali's "Al Mutanabi Street" (2007) consists of 12 notebooks, displayed so that we are able to view only an open page of each. Some incorporate old manuscript pages, others images from magazines and newspapers. One notebook is opened to an old manuscript page set against a larger black background, the edges of which are tinged red. The manuscript itself is dotted with red marks, each resembling a bloody knuckle print. Another of the notebooks shows a neighborhood of beautiful tile buildings with minarets. The sky above is filled with the metallic billowing clouds of a bomb. The juxtaposition of jewel-like architecture with the poisonous cloud accentuates how great this cultural loss is to all mankind.
The notebook "Seven Days in Baghdad" (2007), by Rafa' al-Nasiri, focuses on November 2007, one of the deadliest months of the war. Each page has an image of an Iraqi woman, eyes closed and arms raised in inconsolable grief. Some pages incorporate collages from newspapers, Arabic calligraphy and thick black shapes of ink smeared across them, but every page is emblazoned with red handprints. The first page has a few prints, but on each subsequent page the numbers increase, with the red of the hands darkening to the color of dried blood. Because the *dafatir* are more intimate than other pieces in the show, I more deeply felt the sorrow, loss, and anger that went into making these works.
The show closes with "Born April 9" (2007), an installation in three parts by Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, referring to the 2003 fall of Baghdad. Alfraji, now living in the Netherlands, considers April 9 not a day of liberation, but the day a plague was unleashed upon Iraq. The title piece consists of 11 videos. Each monitor shows either a man's head (in several positions) or his praying hands, and projected upon these are quickly changing images of the war. Opposite these is "In the Name of Freedom" (2007), a large ink painting on rice paper that depicts, in silhouette, a multiheaded hydra either attacking a man or perhaps growing from the base of the toppled statue of Hussein. The dense black ink insidiously overpowers the delicacy of the rice paper, reminding me once again of Motherwell's "Elegies" in its ability to convey an overwhelming sense of sorrow and fear for the evil that exists in the world.
The final installation piece is "You Cannot Erase the Trace of War" (2007), a series of 12 Lambda prints. In each an image is superimposed upon a man's chest, but the quality of the prints isn't great, and I could only make out a few of them -- a torture victim with a black bag over his head, telephone poles receding into the distance, and images of ancient Babylon. Maybe they were supposed to look unclear, like someone tried to erase them, but that part of the installation didn't do it for me.
Although some works are better than others, "Iraqi Artists in Exile" is an important show, as these Iraqi artists bear witness to the never-ending and incomprehensible havoc wreaked upon their land. Go see it.
IRAQI ARTISTS EXPLORE THE TRAGEDY OF WAR
By Douglas Britt
November 18, 2008
[PHOTO CAPTION: Iraqi artist Mohammed Al-Shammarey poses with two of his paintings, both part of the Iraqi Artists in Exile exhibit at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art.]
That Iraqi Artists in Exile, at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, serves up a scathing view of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
But the exhibit goes beyond simply being an anti-war show by connecting the work on view -- mostly created since the war began in 2003 -- with Iraqi modernism and 7,000 years of artistic tradition, much of which has fallen victim to fire, looting, and pillaging. Spotlighting artists who are “among the few remaining bearers of Iraqi culture who have survived the American onslaught,” as Station director James Harithas and chief curator Alan Schnitger describe them, may be the show’s greatest service to Houston audiences.
The exhibit is dedicated to Shakir Hasan Al Said, a seminal figure in Iraqi modernism who co-founded the Baghdad Modern Art group in 1951 and died in 2004.
Said is represented by "Tamziq No. 1," a 1999 mixed-media painting on wood. The Arabic word tamziq can refer to dismemberment, the destruction and scattering of a people, or the rending of garments.
Each of those meanings could apply to this painting, which seems bound up with violence and grief.
Two features distinguish this work by Said from that of his Western abstract-expressionist counterparts, whose paintings bear some resemblance to his. Holes have been burned into the top layer of wood, evoking decades of bombing Iraqis have endured during wars with the United States and Iran. And the painting’s abstract forms appear to be derived from the Arabic alphabet, a touchstone for many of the artists in this show.
Those elements -- the written word and an artistic replication of physical damage -- echo throughout "Iraqi Artists in Exile," especially in a room devoted to *Dafatir*, or contemporary Iraqi book art.
Here the traditional illuminated manuscript meets contemporary artistic practices in work that seems prematurely aged.
Notebooks created last year look like they’ve been through decades of wear and tear.
The burnt-hole motif reappears in the collaged pages of Kareem Risan’s "Al-Mutanabi Street." Its holes reveal notes written in Arabic script on the sheets below.
Compositionally, Risan’s "Uranium Civilization" evokes paintings by Robert Motherwell, whose own work often combined text and abstract, elegiac imagery, but the colors conjure up oil and blood spills.
The title refers to the reported use of depleted uranium weapons by U.S. and British forces during the Gulf and Iraq wars despite scientists’ warnings of cancer risks posed to civilians.
Hanaa Mal-Allah’s monumental collages, among the most powerful works in the show, also incorporate burned passages and text, as in "The Active Ruins of Mesopotamia" and "The Map of Iraq," in which she’s pieced together layers of burnt canvas to create a fragile cartography -- another recurring element in the exhibit.
In the achingly beautiful "Looting of a Bagdhadian Manuscript," Mal-Allah fills a huge canvas with the fragile pages of a manuscript, blotting the top row with what look like dabs of ink, a bit of which drips, tearlike, into a few of the pages below.
Schnitger says the pages don’t come from some ancient text but Mal-Allah’s own handwritten notes.
The title has added poignancy when you realize that Mal-Allah’s works in the Modern Museum in Baghdad -- along with the rest of its contents -- have disappeared during the Iraq war.
Not all the art on view is this effective.
Juxtaposed next to Mal-Allah’s work, whose potency is backed up by formal rigor, Dia Al-Azzawi’s mixed-media canvases look art-school literal, as does Ali Talib Alkayali’s "To Whom It May Concern/101 Faces," which consists of plaster heads strewn across a bed of sand.
But a 12-monitor video installation by Netherlands-based Sadik Kwaish Alfraji, which features Iraq-war images as they flash across the surface of a man’s face -- perhaps that of the artist -- underscores how heavily events back home weigh on the minds of exiled Iraqis.
“Like Vietnam, Iraq will unsettle our personal and national conscience for years to come,” Harithas and Schnitger write.
Let’s hope so.
At a time when media coverage of the Iraq war has dwindled to a fraction of what it once was, it may well be up to the artists to fulfill that prediction.
Arts in Houston
Theater, dance, art, music, and books with the *Chronicle*'s staff
'IRAQI ARTISTS IN EXILE' AT THE STATION
By Douglas Britt
November 19, 2009
[PHOTO CAPTION: Hanaa Mal-Allah, "Looting of Baghdadian Manuscript," 2008, old manuscript on canvas.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Hanaa Mal-Allah, "The Map of Iraq," 2008, layers of burnt canvas and oil color.]
[PHOTO CAPTION: Hanaa Mal-Allah, "The Active Ruins of Mesopotamia," 2008, layers of burnt canvas, string, old manuscript, and oil color.]
IRAQI ARTISTS IN EXILE
By James Harithas, Director of Station Museum of Contemporary Art, and Alan Schnitger, Chief Curator
The Station Museum of Contemporary Art -- Houston, Texas
'Iraqi Artists in Exile" is the second museum-level exhibition of contemporary Iraqi Art in the United States. It follows the ground-breaking exhibition "Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art," organized by Nada Shabout. It consists of thirteen artists who have been forced out of Iraq and two artists, the late Shakir Hassan Al-Said and Abdel Karim Khalil who lives in Baghdad. The artists in this exhibition are important because they are among the few remaining bearers of Iraqi culture who have survived the American onslaught.
Let us take serious notice of the fact that Baghdad was until recently one of the great cultural centers of the Near East. The arts have flourished there for seven thousand years. As a result of the U.S. war and occupation, the culture of Iraq has been severely damaged, if not virtually destroyed. The National Museum has been looted, the National Library has been burned, the Museum of Modern Art has been pillaged, and the universities and schools have been destroyed or ruined along with the book stores, art galleries, and artists studios. Artists, poets, film makers, intellectuals, and professors have had their lives threatened and have been forced out of the country. Many of them have lost their life’s work. Nevertheless, these exiled artists have gone on to create new artworks that not only reflect the pain but also the collective creative imagination of the Iraqi people.
Iraqi contemporary artists connect the modern era to the ancient past, keeping Iraqi traditions alive and at the same time, they communicate their search for new ways to express their existence in a modern context as exiles from terrible wars. One of the artists, M. Al Shammarey explained, “It would be impossible to call yourself an artist if there is no reference to the war in your work. The war is the time you are living in.” In this way and because of the high quality of their art, Iraqi artists are making a unique and timely contribution to world culture.
Like Vietnam, Iraq will unsettle our personal and national conscience for years to come. Americans should feel ashamed, disgusted, and outraged by the United States government’s war against Iraq -- a war justified by government lies that has not only consumed thousands of U.S. soldiers but also the lives of more than a million Iraqi civilians, mainly women and children. In addition to this horrific crime, the U.S. war and occupation are responsible for the wanton destruction of the cultural patrimony of the Iraqi people, for erasing their history, and for leaving them at the mercy of military and mercenary occupiers, corporate exploiters, and common criminals.
Will the world ever forgive the United States for the genocide and destruction of Iraq?
SADIK KWAISH ALFRAJI
ALI TALIB ALKAYALI
JANANNE AL ANI
MAHMUD AL OBAIDI
SHAKIR HASAN AL SAID
MOHAMMED AL SHAMMAREY
ABDEL KARIM KHALIL
FAISEL LAIBI SAHI