"Iraqi Artists in Exile" Showcase Their Haunting Works

Shakir Hasan Al Said cuts, slashes and pierces his paintings.
Courtesy of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art

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.

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