‘Itinéraires’: Iraqi art once or twice removed

BEIRUT: Acrylic paint, vibrant color, human closeness – the unifying features in group exhibitions are rarely this obvious, but these qualities sing through “Itinéraires,” an exhibition of work by 10 Iraqi artists now on display at Art Factum Gallery.

Ataa Baghdadi’s “A Man and a Woman” is comprised of two nudes – a female rendered in textured reds, oranges and yellows and a male in purples, greens and blues. They stand side-by-side, facing forward, eyes closed, utterly disconnected except for their shoulders which graze intimately.

The work of Mouhanad Walid is represented in three canvasses. In each, distorted human forms, both adult and child, appear to grip each other for dear life against backgrounds of solid red, green and blue.

These works are among those on display here that plumb the landscape of human interdependence.

In many, figures appear to be in motion, as if captured by the artists in the midst of departure, in flight in fact.

Nowhere is this as clear as in a pair of canvasses by Waddah Madhi entitled “1 Refugee is too many.” Among the darkest works in this exhibition, these two paintings find faceless figures apparently struggling toward the onlooker. Rendered in black and gray, these nude and clothed figures are occasionally marked with incongruous splashes of pink, blue and orange – as if illuminated by explosions.

The title of Mahdi’s works imposes coherence on this five-day show. The artists whose works are on display here are regularly lumbered with two additional designations. All are Iraqi. All are refugees. The exhibition title “Itinéraires” thus refers to the artists’ personal journeys as much as it does their art’s subject matter.

As the show has been organized by the U.N. refugee agency in anticipation of World Refugee Day (June 20) – thus foregrounding the artists’ “Iraqi refugee” status – it risks sending the signal that the work is not to worth taking seriously as art.

The refugees whose works the UNHCR has assembled here are all professional artists who have trained at art institutes in Iraq and Syria. Most remain based in Syria, while a number have resettled elsewhere.

These artists’ works are regularly sought. As the UNHCR’s Dana Sleiman explained, some of the pieces they’d hoped to display had been sold by the Tuesday’s exhibition launch. She had to put a hold on other works to ensure they weren’t traded ahead of the opening.

Syria hosts many Iraqi refugees (an estimated 100,000 to Lebanon’s 8,000) and Sleiman says that one of the UNHCR’s goals with this show was to challenge preconceived notions of what it is to be a refugee.

It is to the UNHCR’s credit that it has refrained from disclosing the artists’ stories of displacement, exile and grief. The exhibition catalogue photographs each artist at work and gives their year of birth, details of their arts education and the length of time each has been a refugee. The only personal disclosure is to note the marriages between the artists on display.

Within the exhibition space, the paintings hang next to conventional information cards. There is no lengthy introduction to the show or heavy-handed selling of its goals.

The sole exception is a short film made by the UNHCR in Syria, which shows some of the artists at work. The sound is muted, but there are English and Arabic subtitles. Here artists comment both on their profession and their lives as refugees.

“The word ‘refugee,’” one said, “creates a feeling of inferiority inside me.”

Any inferiority is invisible on the walls of Art Factum.

You will hear the clear note of these refugees’ struggles, whether in the work of Ahmad Abdulrazzak – with lines and color redolent of the impressionist work of early 20th-century Irish painter Jack Yeats – or Madhi’s “Contemplations in a disturbed time” – a pair of unsettling canvasses depicting women who appear to be simultaneously blooming and disintegrating.

Yet you’ll hear this tone exactly as it should be heard – as it reverberates through their art.

“Itinéraires” is up at Art Factum in Karantina until Saturday, June 9. For more information please contact 01-443-263.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 07, 2012, on page 16.




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