Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Rashad Selim Iraqi artist in London

Baghdad Pavement 2006

"I have a sense of devastation within me. The works I have deal with devastation. " Rashad Selim

"Art has to do with debris, breaking up, assymetry, loss of grammar. "

The layers of this collage include both old manuscripts which he has torn up and debris. Rashad is echoing the break up of both history and the present in his work.

He speaks of the corruption of language as in the word al Qaida which now means international terrorism, but actually means "fundamental base" in Arabic. It was appropriated by the CIA after 9/11.

"We don't want to lose that last bit of humanity in a state of destitution."

He speaks of the four dimensional war, that includes the destruction of the past, present and future. Depleted uranium is destroying the genetic pool of the future in Iraq.
"There is an absoluteness in this occupation that we have never seen before."

Fragments from the Ministry of Justice, 2007
The large installation was constructed in London as a reference to the devestation in Baghdad.

Fragments from the Seven Eyes

Much of his work addresses symbols of unity such as the intersection of the star of David and Islamic pattern, the importance of symbolic numbers such as the six pointed star, seven eyes, and the circle, symbols that come from the Bible, Buddhism, and many other sources. Here also old manuscripts have been incorporated. Rashad is addressing the possibilities of unity, fertility, goodness and well beingn, as a counter to the divisive language of international politics.

Rashad is the nephew of Jewad Selim who created the Moument of Freedom in 1958. "It is a visual narrative of the 1958 Iraqi revolution told through symbols meant to protray a verse of Arabic poetetry. It is both modern and embedded in Assyrian and Babylonian wall-reliefs."
( Strokes of Genius, 41)

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Hana Malallah

"I am soaked in catastrophe like a sponge."

So states Hana Malallah a major artist based in Baghdad who is currently in exile in London.

Hana Malallah is a prominent contemporary artist who has been teaching at the College of Fine Arts in Baghdad University until last fall ( October 2006), when she reluctantly left the city.

She said recently in London

"My work is about catastrophe. I am soaked in catastrophe like a sponge. I am stamped by Iraq's wars.
During the Iran Iraq war I was 20. There has been war after war.

My pen is a knife. "

This painting is called Baghdad City Map, 2007

The canvas has been burned and painted with black as a record of the destruction of the city. The one green star is a reference to the stars of the Iraq flag, the black stars refer to the US flag.This work is part of an ongoing series about Baghdad the city. Here is another one.

Hana survived the Iran Iraq War, the First Gulf War and most of the most recent war. She is a deeply committed artist who has left here city only to get the word out
"I didn't want to leave my country. I want to do a project about the burning city so the world knows what I have seen. When I was in Iraq, every time I was in the street I had to know that I might die at any moment. I passed many dead people everyday, I took a minibus to work that had to follow long detours because the streets are blocked. Troops are everywhere. When I go shopping there are soldiers with guns pointed. I lived without electricity, water, little food, one hour of electricity if you are lucky. Hell is more comfortable than Iraq.
Baghdad was a beautiful city like London."
She had major works on display in the Modern Museum in Baghdad which have now disappeared as have all of the works in the museum although the scholar Nada Shabout is working to locate them.
Each page of this large format book refers to Baghdad's history and destruction. The City of Baghdad was laid out in a circle in by al Mansour in the mide 8th century AD at the founding of the Abbasid Dynasty. The Abbasids sponsored a flowering of Islamic culture for several centuries.

Ineffective Game I
Anyone can play by moving the red squares around. Obviously it is a reference to the futility of the current situation in Baghdad, and the pointless games played by all participants. It is also a reference to the invention of games in ancient Mesopotamia such as the Royal Game of Ur.

Hana Malallah bases the pattern on the surface on the Sumerian patterns on pottery. She has studied the geometric principles of Islamic painting
and here disrupts that perfect order
The cone like projections are based on the ornamentation of the Temple of Warka in Iraq

Her generation of Iraqi artists emerged during the Iran Iraq war. They were unable to travel abroad, so they studied the history of Mesopotamia and incorporated references to archeological history in their contemporary paintings at the newly established Iraq Archeological Museum only steps away from the Institute of Fine Arts. For Hana Mal Allah the destruction of the archeological museum was a major part of the catastrophe of war, it was a place where she used to spend days studying the art. It is part of her heart and soul.

Hana wrote in Strokes of Genius Contemporary Iraqi Art, ed by Maysaloun Faraj Saqi Books 2001
"Those artists who choose to remain in Iraq despite all the obstacles are building new aesthetic and epistemological values in painting which are drawn entirely from the Iraqi reality with all its current influences and shifting sands." (64)

For more images of Hana Malallah's work see The Aya Gallery, London, which recently hosted a two person show with Hana Mal Allah and Rashad Selim . More on the art of Rashad Selim in another posting.
For a film on these artists see

Monday, October 1, 2007

Not only possible but also necessary, optimism in the age of global war

The lengthy title of the 10th Istanbul Biennial suggests Hou Hanru's desire to address the role of art in the midst of the pressing social concerns of the contemporary moment. To a surprising extent he was successful.
There were several reasons for his success.

First, he looked at the modern and contemporary history of Turkey, rather than being seduced by stunning ancient sites such as a Byzantine cistern or the monumental Hagia Sophia, sites which have so often been used as venues in the Istanbul Biennial. Those sites entirely dominate any contemporary art. There was little or no connection between the art and the site.

Second, Hanru selected venues that have a strong resonance with current issues of gentrification, globalization, urban migration, war, social movements, as well as current concerns in Turkey about relationships between the traditions of the secular Republic founded in 1923 and new economic and social realities. Rather than coming as a tourist to Turkey, he read about the modern history of Turkey, the founding of the Republic, and current texts that examine the Republican legacy such as the work by Resat Kasaba and Sibel Bosdogan, Rethinking Modernism and National Identity in Turkey, University of Washington Press, 1997. ( Apologies, there appears to be no way of including Turkish accents in this blog).

Third, he almost entirely eliminated empty art that said nothing. He placed social concerns in a primary position.
Many critics will bemoan the absence of traditional beauty, poetry or aesthetics, but in fact, intense poetry in a new voice emerges in the collective concerns of artists working in various media that communicate clearly through maps, videos, installations, and even diagrams, about the issue they are addressing. These artists are optimists in the sense that they believe that by exposing issues,rather than simply ignoring them, they can make the world a better place. Hanru was not interested in easy superficial viewing, nor in art that would attract buyers. He wanted people to suffer, to think, to experience the city in the different places that were required to go, off the beaten tourist track.

The title "Not only possible, but also necessary, optimism in the age of global war" suggests that art must play a primary role in addressing current concerns. The word "optimism" is the oddity, sitting in the position where you would expect the word "art" , a word which does not appear in the title. In banners throughout the city, the title was changed in Turkish to "Sanat hic bu kadar, iyimser olmamisti. " There has never been so much optimistic art" " So what do we make of that? The slogan makes it sound like all the art is optimistic, when in fact, the opposite is true. Optimism comes from the fact that artists are addressing problems, not simple platitudes of modernism.

It would seem that by avoiding the word "art" Hou Hanru is purposefully saying that art as such, the tradition of aesthetics, is not what is necessary, but rather, a production that presents the current world even as it offers some way forward. Optimism paired with consciousness is necessary. Optimism can come, he perhaps proposes, not from art itself ( that is a tired idea from modernism), but from our collective experience of the artists' ability to address social concerns, their freedom to expose the horrors of war, the divisions of the left, the impact of globalization, as well as their ability to offer alternatives.

More to follow on the art.