Taste and smell in Ali Eyal’s paintings

An installation view of one wall of Ali Eyal's "Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?" up at Platform 39. Photos courtesy of Ashkal Alwan

BEIRUT: While working on the pieces in “Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” Ali Eyal tried to imagine what it would be like if he tried to explain to architects and illustrators how his childhood home looked. For this reason, the works’ principal media are the backs of large brown envelopes - and paper made to resemble envelopes - as if he were packaging and posting pieces of home to be rebuilt.

On one envelope, a man lies in bed. His neck is adorned with a tight tie and his face replaced with the petals of a flower - identified by the scent he left in Eyal’s thoughts rather than his appearance.

In other works, fragments of letters are pasted on top of each other. In another, a boy stands alone in a field of oversized leaves. While some of the leaves are rendered in greens and textured with brushstrokes, others are left left empty, only the faint line of an HB pencil visible.

Commissioned by Ashkal Awan for Home Works 8 and on show at Platform 39, Eyal’s installation of works on paper is an exercise in memory, namely the artist’s attempts to retrieve, preserve and protect the recollections that are all that remains of his life in Baghdad.

A resident of Lebanon in for the past three years, the heart of the 26-year-old Baghdad-born artist remains in Iraq. In this work he tries to remember the smell of wildflowers that would grow at his grandfather’s farm, the taste of his mother’s food, the faces he saw at the time his father was disappeared.

If a Matisse can be recognized by the curved naked bodies, and a Picasso by the sharp angular lines, then Eyal’s signature is the short black strokes on paper. The brisk lines - some darker, some longer - mimic terrain, the furrows that make up a face, the sticky side of an envelope.

For the most part, the lines depict a feeling. They are the static sound of a television without reception, a hazy memory of a past time, a place changed, a city destroyed.

Eyal speaks quietly and deliberately about his work, his shy demeanor hiding a fundamentally industrious core. He is among the youngest Iraqi artists to have his work featured at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Currently MoMA is showing “Theater of Operations: The Gulf War 1991-2001,” a series of paintings depicting different aerial views of his grandfather’s farm over the years.

When asked how he felt to have his work hung at MoMA, he spoke both of elation and humility. Eyal’s art has a cosmopolitan mobility to which the artist himself - who carries an Iraqi passport and has consequently been refused entry to many countries - is not privy.

Eyal spoke to The Daily Star as he prepared to leave Beirut for a two-year residency in Amsterdam.

The experience of viewing Eyal’s work feels, at times, intrusive. The vacant leaves and blank, forgotten faces opens a window into his particular experience of loss. His father’s disappearance when he was a teenager and the murders of his uncles, relatives and neighbors plays a strong role in the work. It’s not only that he’s forgotten, unable to retrieve particular childhood colors and sensations; it’s also a story of war, invasion and occupation. These moments have been stolen from him.

Asked to describe the feeling evoked by his work, Eyal likened it to that of being possessed.

“Like a jinn inside your body,” he said. “When it’s inside, it changes your voice and when it suddenly leaves your body you awaken but you don’t remember anything.”

With this work, Eyal says, he’s attempting to regain agency and control of, familiarity with, his body and mind. The scrambled pieces, incomplete pictures and muffled sounds show the difficulty of his task.

While Baghdad is at the epicenter of his art, Beirut has also left an impression on the artist. During his three years here, his life has largely been contained within the space between his apartment and the three walls (and glass door) of his studio at Ashkal Alwan. In this daily journey, Eyal was marked by the rapidly changing city, where abandoned buildings were pushed aside and idle construction cranes were erected in their place.

In one of Eyal’s larger paintings, depictions of tiny figures - mostly a flurry of little men dressed in suits - have been superimposed on top of the scene. These men, he explained, are inspired by the pictures he would see on the hoardings of construction sites - idealized versions of what the future would hold, of how this lot would one day look. These people are not from his memory but from a brief expression of an idealistic imagination.

Ali Eyal’s work is compelling for because it offers an honest insight into the raw, detailed and sometimes sporadic workings of the human mind.

“Where does a thought go when it’s forgotten?” is up at Platform 39 through November. For more, contact

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 09, 2019, on page 8.




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