BEIRUT: Enter the Ayyam Gallery nowadays and you will be immersed within a world of historically referenced abstract figuration, some depicted in vivid hues, others in more monochrome shades of black and gray. The work on display in “You’ll Never Thrill Me Because You’ll Never Kill Me,” the debut exhibition of Athier Mousawi, resides at both edges of the chromatic scale – colorful acrylics and black-and-white screen prints. In his hands, both techniques are equally elaborate – so complexly layered as to verge on the sculptural.
Mousawi’s works turns upon the twin motifs of the eagle and the king – though anyone looking for figurative representations of birds of prey or dynastic heads of state will likely be perplexed by what they find.
The exhibition’s catalogue essay refers to the eagle as that of Saladin, one that stands for the “oppressive truth,” rather than “freedom” with which it is usually associated.
The artist is trying to answer several questions with his work. “How does an eagle live, how does it move?” Mousawi asked. “How is it born and how does it die?”
Mousawi’s inspiration was the eagle depicted on his Iraqi passport, though he says he’s tried to represent the beast in a less-static manner than that document.
The series “Birth of an Eagle” and “Destroy a Lie” elucidate the artist’s vision of a symbol that has been perverted or deprived of its metaphorical meaning. “Whether you like or not,” he said, the eagle is “a figure that has been chosen to represent the people.”
These series introduces onlookers to the artist’s vision of an eagle’s misconfiguration.
The screen print “Destroy a Lie III” (137x105 cm) is a black-and-white depiction of the eagle’s fall. From afar, the onlooker may discern an eagle’s head with an arrow or spear piercing its eye, as if to deflate its mythology.
Geometrical figures and Arabic calligraphy form a sort of cocoon around the bird. Upon closer scrutiny, it is possible to see bits and pieces all over. On the left edge of the figure, nude men and women have been depicted in a manner reminiscent of the scenes of hellfire found in certain Medieval European churches.
To the upper top right side of the figure, something like fabric seems to be billowing from the eagle’s head, as though the blood flowing from the animal’s eye has transformed into a sort of windblown veil.
In his artist’s statement, Mousawi says he takes significant inspiration from his dreams as well as personal experience. While en route to Istanbul, for instance, he dreamt that a woman transformed herself into a monster in order to eat the man sitting behind her.
The series that grew out of this dream, “Thrill Me,” consists of a triptych: “Do I Thrill You?” “You’ll Never Thrill Me Because You’ll Never Kill Me” and “She Has Eaten Him.” Each work follows the feminine metamorphosis from human to bestial.
“Every Hunter Can Be Hunted” alludes to the Gilgamesh Epic. Here the eagle and the king merge, as though the bird were trying to usurp the monarch. At the center of the painting, the observer may discern an odd-looking creature that appears to be wearing an anthropomorphic mask with a beak – as if to underline the unity of the two figures.
“I always picture the Gilgamesh in my mind as the glory of the past,” Mousawi says of the king in his artist statement. “How would he respond to the world around him? Would he be as strong as he was or would he be so weak about what his land has become?”
The artist’s mastery of acrylics is a tour de force. In all his works miniature scenes punctuate the whole in order to add more depth and meaning to each figure. “I use acrylics not as a substitute [for] oil,” he said, “but because I love the paste. It’s so fast you don’t have time to think.”
All these tiny sketches immerse the viewer within the artist’s world and should be seen as windows into Mousawi’s inspiration. They are darker than the major characters and scenes represented, and invite the onlooker to “step in” visually.
“There are almost windows, more intimate moments,” Mousawi said. “The way you are supposed to look at the work is about scale.”
He wants viewers to read his works variously – to receive one overall impression from afar, and a totally different one from up close. His art is a visual treasure that must be seen.
Athier Mousawi’s “You’ll Never Thrill Me Because You’ll Never Kill Me” is up at Ayyam Gallery until Nov. 28. For more information please call 01-374-450.