Of sand and stars: The contemporary Arab artist

MATT HANSON
ISTANBUL
Published
Balasim Mohamed (Baghdad, Iraq), oil painting on canvas, 195 x 175 cm.
Balasim Mohamed (Baghdad, Iraq), oil painting on canvas, 195 x 175 cm.

At the Bağlarbaşı Cultural Center, uphill from Üsküdar pier on the Asian side of the Bosporus, an exhibition of 70 artworks by 59 artists represents the diversity of the Arab diaspora, from Iraq to Morocco, the UAE to Syria, presented by the Istanbul-based Syrian gallerist Adnan Alahmad of Kelimat Gallery

A gray rain falls lightly over the subdued colors of the municipal building. Its neatly crisscrossing square motif, a kind of outdoor linoleum, entices walkers across a gated courtyard toward its entrance. Pale seagulls screech overhead, almost disappearing into the misting overcast cloud cover that drips relentlessly as it floats past.

The beige, block concrete facade at the entrance has seen its day, waterlogged and soiled with runoff. The slate-hued lettering identifying the building as government-owned and as a center for culture and community seems to have leeched its colorant. The traditional, Islamic architectural feature called the "muqarnas" is built over the entrance, an inverted geometrical complex of pyramid shapes, surrounded by labyrinthine dimensions of black mirror windows and wooden-like panels reminiscent of office desks.

Men in suits that vary in shades of blue stand outside the automatic door to exhale and phone-gaze. A pair of them return back inside the building, where they stand under signage for an exhibition hall named after "Rumeli," recalling the Balkan region of olive lands once extended European Turkey to the Ioanian Sea.

Atop the stone staircase leading inside there is ample advertisement for the current exhibition of contemporary Arab art, courtesy of Üsküdar, a metropolitan region synonymous with a traditional song, "While going to Üsküdar" ("Üsküdar'a gider iken"). The melody was first heard in the U.S. as the klezmer arrangement, "Der Terk in America." In the Arab world, it is played to the title, "Oh Girls of Alexandria." Incidentally, the lyrics begin with its first line complaining about the rain. Some might interpret it romantically.

The show extends across two halls, from the "Rumeli," to the "Anatolian" room. It is billed as an exhibition of paintings, but there are also 13 sculptors, two ceramicists and an installation by Rachida Amara of Tunis. Her material drives onlookers from the public – and also the occasional building employee – to reflect on the discomforting presence of military life as an immediate, concrete influence from the very earliest instant of rising to daily consciousness. Flattened, army-issued, camouflaged sleeping bags lie open across the hard, reflective flooring in the Rumeli space. Each is accompanied by an alarm clock with hands reading different times. All sense of an individual, human presence is absent, rivaled by the structural centralization of a mechanized artifice. And they are juxtaposed with a firm touch, albeit simple and thoughtful.

Dhuha Alkatib (Baghdad, Iraq), mixed technique on canvas, 245 x 280 cm.

Amara is one of four women at the exhibition. Despite the gender imbalance, the curation centered these women at the heart of the show. In the largest of the exhibition halls, "Rumeli," the large-scale piece by Dhuha Alkatib of Iraq, is a mixed technique work of gloomy abstract expressionism stained onto a plush canvas 280 centimeters tall. It is displayed at the core of the room against a dedicated wall, standing over the installation by Amara, both exuding a dystopia of historic atrocities, dehumanized psychological landscapes of an embattled mental interior set in unnatural netherworlds inhospitable to life, growth and beauty.

"The artist should continue to research the laws of nature, which I consider as the main reference for each artist in general, and for me in particular, in the search for new sophisticated techniques, and the development of intellectual understanding through communication. I like and respect all artists and their works. I do not compare myself with any of them. Every artist has his own feelings and a special intellectual perception. The most important thing is that the artist is honest with his work," wrote the Iraqi sculptor Atika al-Khazraji from Baghdad.

Atika Al-Khazraji (Baghdad, Iraq), bronze, 71 cm.

The sculpture exhibited by Khazraji is an expression of sheer verticality. Her animate forms metamorphose from arboreal to avian to celestial. Her studied grasp of sharp lines erected with bronze showcases a refined ability to convey concept. She asserts that she was born to sculpt and has remained faithful to raw materials like stone, wood, metals and natural plant fibers. As a child, she first molded soap and sculpted the faces of her close family, spending nights fascinated by the phenomena of space, wrapped in the prehistoric, riverine arms of the Fertile Crescent, where stargazers had contemplated the nature of being since time immemorial before the dawning of civilization.

"I love birds, with their beauty, the smoothness of their bodies. They are intelligent creatures with their laws. Every person I meet reminds me of a kind of bird. In addition to being a symbol of freedom, the bird in this work symbolizes political and social constraints while connected to land. The trees and thorns indicate suffering in spite of these restrictions, to reach the summit embodied by the planet Saturn," wrote Khazraji, explaining the more searing dynamics of her aesthetically arresting work, with its chained bird-like body, cut thorny stumps, and a heavenly body out of reach. "I used bronze in my work to show hardness and cruelty."

Traditional neighbors, contemporary visionaries

The district of Bağlarbaşı in Üsküdar has that classic multiethnic Ottoman mix of Jews, Armenians and Greeks, as is observable by its distinct cemeteries, as well as the number of minority schools and churches still in use. And it is not uncommon to pass a house with antique wooden facades carved so intricately as to summon astonishment. The municipal airs of the Bağlarbaşı Community Center exude a monolithic social atmosphere, one aligned with a resurgence of core Turkish traditions.

Streams of schoolchildren sweep past the exhibition halls on weekday afternoons to attend assemblies led by the booming harangues of well-amplified speakers who thunderously affirm the value of education. In the wake of such exclamatory power, there is a clear cultural affinity to reclaim the values of Ottoman society, by that meaning a pluralist social identity in Turkey as formed in solidarity with former subjects of the Ottoman dynasty. The ideological climate encompasses a nominal acceptance of the people from its bygone imperial territories, specifically inhabiting lands now defined by modern Arab nationalism. In which case, it is significant, with respect to the prevailing milieu in Istanbul, to recognize the greater context to the celebration of contemporary Arab culture at the center of Turkish officialdom.

"Personally, my concept is based on the 'Human Ordeal' and the impact of the public. There, the human being transforms into another being that is unfamiliar. My painting is an attempt to find a special composition style that moves the viewer. When I am painting, there is a space full of beings that I recall to recompose them. When I finish my own work, it becomes the people's ownership," wrote Iraqi painter Balasem Mohammed from Baghdad, reflecting on his more than 40 years of painting. "In Baghdad, I can say that a change occurred among generations of artists as to vision and style. The pioneer generation established the so-called 'Al-Baghdadiyat.' Their styles were mostly derived from Iraqi settings."

A closer look into the contemporary art of Arab visionaries at the Bağlarbaşı exhibition reveals a nuanced expression, an introspective dimension that threads seamless, eastward trends once fundamental at the height of Ottoman achievement. As was popularized by late 20th century Western liberalism, when the East was synonymous with soul-searching, Iraqi art could be understood to adhere to certain principles, beginning with a variety of nativism, steeped in the myths of Mesopotamia, later the calligraphy of the Quran, before political ideologies and modernist movements galvanized late developments in the nation's art narrative. The greatest proportion of works presented by Kelimat Gallery for the show are from Iraq due to close collaboration with Azameel, a collective of Iraqi artists, many of them sculptors, formed under a name that means "chisel" in Arabic.

"Our generation is called 'The Eighties Generation.' We were raised with wars for more than 30 years. I lived with three wars. Our generation is saturated with death and destruction. After the American occupation of Iraq, this generation was affected by the supposed openness to contemporary arts. This generation hasn't discovered its own way yet," wrote Mohammed, whose abstractions have a soft, watercolor-like texture. "Art needs luxury, while here people are engaged with living problems. There is no culture of buying artworks. Galleries vanished, although they were so many during the 1970s. Kelimat Gallery can contribute to the worldwide circulation of Arab artworks. That is most important."

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