The brush, wheel and chisel: Iraqi artists in Kuzguncuk

MATT HANSON
ISTANBUL
Published 27.07.2018 22:22
Updated 27.07.2018 22:26
Painting by Wadhah Mahdi, 150x150cm
Painting by Wadhah Mahdi, 150x150cm

At the contemporary Kelimat Gallery in the Bosporus shorefront neighborhood of Kuzguncuk, director Adnan Alahmad continues to bring the cultural works of the Arab world to Turkey, currently with the Azamil Comprehensive Exhibition of Contemporary Iraqi Art, featuring paintings, sculptures and ceramics

Two children are caught in a storm. They float over a faded copper, cement-like ground tinged with light, skin-tone purple. The colors at the heart of the fluid topography bleed around its soft, imperfect edges into a blue-green marine ambiance reflecting a metallic upper atmosphere of turquoise illuminated only very subtly at its off-center peak. They appear to be a boy and girl, locked in a gentle, sibling's embrace.

The boy wears a dirtied white shirt and high red shorts that expose his legs as equal to the shade of the backdrop that he is seemingly flung from and onto, twisted and stretching his limbs with legs pointing back 90 degrees at the kneecap. His thin black hair is lightly cast over his characterless face, pockmarked with yellows, reds and greens. The girl is of the same complexion, also nondescript, clothed in a stained long white dress over her deep purple socks. She brushes her hair with a simple comb, while the boy raises a yellow paper windmill toy above his head.

A strange breed of stiffly mechanical fish have washed up ashore into the field where the children sprawl, but with a second glance, the figments double as the nightmarish shapes of aerial bombs, at first innocent within the impressionistic surreality of the painting, only to reveal a most sinister underlying motif. Its delicate contrast is painted with powerful humanity by the Iraqi artist, Wadhah Mahdi, whose work is displayed in the countrified storefront window on Bostan Street, the avenue of gardens and open-air markets in Istanbul's beloved Bosporus village neighborhood of Kuzguncuk.

An eye on Arab art in Turkey

The seasoned Syrian gallerist Adnan Alahmad reclines at his busily ringing and richly cluttered desk inside the relatively remote Kelimat Gallery, sheltered from the heavy late July rains typical of the Eurasian megalopolis, besieged by bodies of water on all sides, from the Black Sea to the Golden Horn, the Bosporus to the Sea of Marmara. He is warmed by the presence of his family and the art of his many talented and distinguished friends, who he has known closely and often dearly in his long years collecting, exhibiting and dealing, reminiscing frequently on his heydays when he was based in Aleppo.

Inspired by a lifelong pursuit to spark creative dialogue and cultural exchange between Europe, and especially Turkey, with the Arab world, Alahmad is generously vocal in his mission, as he now prepares to show his current series of Iraqi artists throughout the country from Ankara to Izmir and beyond, setting his sights on Madrid, among other plans and schemes. Interestingly, the Iraqi artists now under his curation, titled Azamil, after the Arabic word for "chisel," include many names that are certainly not strange to international travel. For example, Qasim Sabti graced Kelimat Gallery with a single mixed media work utilizing textual elements exclusively for its latest opening on July 14 before sending his piece to Tokyo for another show.


Sculpture by Samira Habeeb (2018, 40 cm).

Sabti is particularly distinguished, as Alahmad confirms, being the very first contemporary gallerist in Iraq when he founded Hewar Art Gallery in 1991, and also as head of the Plastic Artists Society in Baghdad, to which Mahdi belongs, along with a number of Azamil artists. Among them is the fellow Baghdadi painter, Hasan Ibrahim whose layered abstraction is striking in its play on spectral geometry, intricately unfolding towards a core exercise in vibrantly technical coloration. Aesthetic semblances from his peculiar streak of nonrepresentational stylization are found in the majority of paintings at the Azamil show.

The painting professor Hussam Al-Muhssen delivered a surprise to Alahmad, as his oil on canvas at Kelimat Gallery is altogether different from that shown in the exhibition catalog. Instead of a lush, lathered concoction of spilled and waving strokes of forms, he delights in a more balanced array of collagist, rectangular foundations, heaped in fantastic disarray, nonlinear and frenetic with dissonant pigmentations. And yet, his approach has a childlike humor, likely an influence from his work at the Children's Culture House in Baghdad where he studied and worked to exhibit his artworks throughout Iraq and Europe, participating in such dignified affairs as the Institute of the Arab World and UNESCO's exhibitions of contemporary Iraqi art in Paris in 2007 and Beirut in 2010, respectively.

A year later, the Azamil painter Murad Ibrahim entered work at the UNESCO Hall in Beirut for its consecutive Iraqi artists' exhibition. His piece as shown on the wall at Kelimat Gallery begs a strong and enduring spotlight as its emergence from pure impressionistic, non-pictorial techniques into a street scene of unsuspecting beauty triggers a uniquely absorbing, harmonious visual experience, though not without a mild touch of poignancy. A trio of ladies walks across a street that is almost entirely obscured by downpour of thickly daubed palettes, forming a cinematic cityscape.

It has the air of a time imaginably wrought of the nostalgia for life in Iraq before the devastation of the ongoing war and its blinding traumas, when, with rose-tinted glasses, its people and cities had the enviable, uncomplicated quality of normalcy, one rife with Iraq's special brand of Middle Eastern elegance, of refined culture that exists now arguably only in its art, before the sense of daily hope in a brighter future was dashed by the apocalyptic, incessant drive to carve disaster into the stone that once held the foundation of a proud and truly global heritage.

The women of Iraqi bronze

When archaeologists discovered a Bronze Age city in Iraq late in 2016, they knew they were working in a country with a history of metal sculpture uninterrupted since the 3rd millennium B.C.'s flourishing of the Akkadians, who built what is considered the first world empire in human history. In the footsteps of Babylon and Nineveh, contemporary Iraqi artists live and create on the giant shoulders of a megalithic past. And yet undaunted, only fired by the undying passions that provoked legendary antecedents, craftswomen specializing in bronze, such as Samira Habeeb and Atika Abdulsatar Alkhazraji continue to sculpt new bronze statues under the influence of the eternal soul incarnate in the land.


Painting by Murad Ibrahim, 100x100cm

Untold secrets of world history are locked beneath the sunburnt, mystifying sands of Iraq, waylaid by human conflict and the unearthly silence that once stirred the ancients to develop the creative techniques and mediums of expression that remain valid for novel artworks today. Habeeb made her piece within the year, and although dated 2018, it has a timeless, cyclical resonance, foreseeably itemized among precious Akkadian finds. Only her vision is profoundly contemporary for its conceptual design, its feminine poise, conceivably abstracted from the forms of a woman, a fish and the moon, its sumptuous curves evoke the female beauty and universal wisdom in nature's recurrent symbols.

With like-minded expansiveness, creating well beyond the confinements of modern time and the artifices of national borders, the bronze sculpture "Bird of Saturn" (2018) by Alkhazraji is a testament to the stellar divinations of her terrestrial legacy in relationship to the higher elements, and by that meaning, to wider planes of reality. The hooked twig of an arboreal limb shoots up like a branch lunged out of its trunk, rising as a two-pronged stand of legs for a creature entangled in chains. The thin, headless avian body strains upward and from the neck is again transformed out of its organic evolution, reaching with a wisp of frozen smoke to a ringed celestial body, Saturn.

Almost all of the works at Azamil, organized by Alahmad of Kelimat Gallery, were made within the year, including the two ceramics by Saad Talib Al Ani, who currently works at a fine arts institute for girls, and Akram Naji Shakir, a self-described full-time artist who has participated in most of Iraq's national art programs. Shakir's piece at Azamil is titled, "Woman" (2018), standing aside thematically pro-women relatives, the bronze sculptures "Woman in the Heart" (2018) by Naser al-Samarae and "Woman" (2018) by Fadhil Witwit.

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