BEIRUT: Massive, solitary and seeking recognition. These are the three most striking characteristics of the tall black figures that have briefly taken over the Beirut Exhibition Center, in a solo exhibition of work by Iraqi artist Sadik Alfraji, “Biography of a Head.”
The looming figures are all the offspring Alfraji’s imagination. More than 15 huge pieces – some exceeding 3 meters – are on display in the venue, immersing viewers in an unsettling work.
Alfraji has previously exhibited work at Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery, where the art was characterized as combining art with philosophy to deal with the notion of identity.
Perhaps it would be wisest not to mention that Alfraji’s figures are essentially responses to the events of the Arab Spring, lest the fact they represent so much more be overlooked. These figures appear to embody a character waiting, hoping and wishing. Waiting for what? There is no certainty, but perhaps it is for freedom? Is he supposed to embody the average Arab man?
The gargantuan figures – all of whom have a single eye – seem to lurk in wait of visitors like artistic Cyclops. Alfraji places his figures on enormous canvasses in a void, depriving them of context and preventing viewers from placing them within a particular place or time.
For some visitors, Alfraji’s work may seem vaguely familiar. His simple figures on their blank backdrops bear a light resemblance to Henri Matisse’s “Blue Nude,” but with rough edges in place of Matisse’s cutout perfection.
The BEC exhibition includes several works of video art. Unfortunately, one work, entitled “Godot to Come Yesterday,” was not operational when The Daily Star visited. As the title suggests, those lucky enough to find it in working order will observe that it deals explicitly with Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.”
“Godot that would never come,” as Alfraji writes in the work’s exhibit tag, “is something which I believe exists in me.”
Expecting the unexpected, waiting for the nonexistent – these existential states are explored anew in Alfraji’s reconstruction of Beckett’s masterpiece.
A three-minute installation, “Sisyphus goes on Demonstration,” captures Alfraji’s figures walking in the void, on a featureless white background. Shouting voices embody the demonstration referred to in the piece’s title, forming a chaos that is all the more intriguing for its ambiguity. The doomed Greek king’s boulder is nowhere to be seen.
Titles like “In Baghdad, Under the Freedom Monument,” “Where Rain Comes Down,” “Between Two Points” and “Once I Could Fly” guide onlookers in understanding Alfraji’s message. Through his understated artwork, the artist tackles such notions as hope, freedom of speech and action, and injustice.
Crosses between human and animal, some of his figures arouse a certain compassion and pity, even as they titillate viewers’ curiosity. Although some might consider them scary, they aim to represent those on the fringes of society.
What makes Alfraji’s work interesting is that the artist leaves room for so many interpretations. For instance some viewers might assume the figures – who cannot be identified as male or female – are painted black to imply that they are the shadows of their proper selves. Maybe the shadow that we see is mistaken for reality, as in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Until someone demonstrates that what you see is not real, the shadow is all you are left with.
Other viewers may believe that these shadows are personifications of Alfraji himself. This may be why the artist leaves viewers no means of distinguishing the identities of his figures. They might prove to be duplicates of the artist, a means of conveying an autobiographical aspect in his art.
Sadik Alfraji’s “Biography of a Head” is on show at the Beirut Exhibition Center until April 13. For more information, please visit beirutexhibitioncenter.com or call 01-962-000 ext. 2883.