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RETURN FIRE
by Ben Davis
 
"Ashes to Art: The Iraqi Phoenix," Jan. 19-Feb. 22, 2006, at Pomegranate Gallery, 133 Greene Street, New York, N.Y. 10012

The current group show at SoHo’s Pomegranate Gallery is the first American glimpse of contemporary art from war-torn Iraq. It paints a picture of a national school in formation, and offers a subtle essay on the many things that art can mean in dire times.

Pomegranate, which has only recently opened, claims the distinction of being the first U.S. space dedicated to contemporary art from the Middle East. The setup is a little unusual. A large coffee bar occupies the front of the space, and the gallery is filled with tables where people can chat and have lunch. Gallery director Oded Halahmy, a sculptor who is an Iraqi Jew by birth, says he wanted an atmosphere that recreates the social vibe of cultural spaces in the Middle East. In any case, the works in the current show are considerably more interesting than what might typically hang on café walls.

"Ashes to Art," as the show is called, features painting and sculpture by five members of the "Iraqi Phoenix" group (several of whom are friends of Steve Mumford, the American artist who went to Iraq with a press pass from Artnet Magazine, as well as of Steven Vincent, the former art critic and journalist who was murdered in Basra last year). The "Phoenix" label, like most such categories, is a construction for the consumption of outsiders, coined by the present show’s curator, Peter Hastings Falk. Nevertheless, it does represent a set of coherent esthetic concerns.

The Phoenix group is characterized by a strange two-sidedness. Their work clearly resembles late modernist expressionism -- apparently, Catalan mystic painter Antoni Tàpies was a big influence on an earlier generation of European-trained Iraqis -- while at the same time making use of materials that pack an inevitable political charge.

The collages of Qasim Sabti are a good example. Rectangular compositions with blocks and bands of abstract colors, Sabti’s works have a deliberately scarred quality. Their flaking, tattered surfaces are simple, dramatic statements, somewhere between Josef Albers and Anselm Kiefer.

On inspection, Sabti’s collages are clearly made using book covers, their spines broken and flattened out. It turns out that the works were made using the remains of desecrated books, salvaged from the ground after a three-day looting spree in 2003 left the library of the National Academy of Arts and the National Library in Baghdad gutted, as U.S. forces looked on.

On a similar note, Mohammed Al Shammarey offers a small installation featuring his sketches, held between clear Plexiglas like rare documents in a museum. The fragile pages are covered with crisscrossing scrawls of Arabic and English words, including a repeating stamp saying "Baghdad." Abstract lines and burn marks scour the surface, and the paper has a swarthy look, as if saturated by heat.

These marks turn out to be a sort of memory tracing, reflecting the meaningless echo of the markings on shipments of military equipment Al Shammarey saw during the war. Likewise, the choice to make art using sketchbook pages is an effort to create a makeshift monument to life during the invasion, which Al Shammarey spent manning an Iraqi military morgue in the south of the country, cut off from his normal studio.

Hana Malallah’s work has a similar dynamic. The repeating pattern of interlocking triangles that characterizes her large paintings on wood is layered together with patches of black and tan, so that it sometimes functions as figure, sometimes as ground. Other facts intrude on these formal concerns, however: The pattern is derived from a traditional design of ancient tiles; the black color is produced by paint, tar or burn marks; and the wood is scared by gashes and what appear to be bullet holes. The subtext of Malallah’s abstractions is thus the violent ruin of a proud culture, an impression furthered by the fact that from the bottom of one of the paintings she hangs a fragile, 3D version of the same tile pattern, made of thin black material -- a ruined fragment shattered from the whole.

Nazar Yahya is arguably the artist most influenced by Tàpies. His bulky, muscular paintings are entirely nonfigurative, but their heavily textured surfaces -- all sandy browns and oily blacks scored with thick, repeating marks -- evoke roads crossed by tank treads. Esam Pasha’s brightly colored paintings depicting fanciful characters and surreal beasts, on the other hand, seem a departure from the charred abstraction of the Phoenix style -- more convincing in this respect is his "Tears of Wax" series, explosions of choppy colored marks executed on the back of LP record slips using melted crayons during the bombing of Baghdad in 2003, the scalding wax now congealed to freeze the violent explosions in time.

Given the disastrous material consequences of the U.S.-led invasion, it is hardly unexpected that Iraqi artists would have an interest in makeshift materials or seared imagery. What is notable, and perhaps frustrating to Western viewers looking for a simple hook, is the sublimation of this dark political material within an abstract vocabulary. But this stylistic choice is itself a statement: holding onto a tradition that harmoniously melds European inspired painting with Iraqi forms at the very same moment that the media blares crude clichés about the "Clash of Civilizations" on every channel.

Art critics tend to look too much for their politics in content anyway, when real politics is clearly a matter of context. The most timely political statement of this show lies behind the scenes, in the Phoenix artists themselves, a grouping composed indifferently of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. From the headlines, one might believe that these identities partitioned off every detail of Iraqi life, with no acknowledgment of how, in Iraq’s history, "[o]ther factors -- clan, class, history -- have been equally and often more important," as Tariq Ali argues in his Bush in Babylon. Reducing the picture of Iraq to one of ancient, warring barbarian tribes -- as if there were no secular tradition or multicultural mixing -- conveniently avoids any hint that fanaticism might actually have been amped up by colonialist machinations, let alone that normal Iraqis of all stripes might have rational reasons to object to U.S. actions.

This show paints a different picture. The work by this school of artists, who clearly have so much esthetic and emotional affinity, can be considered a modest first shot returned against shockingly clumsy American ideas about the people of Iraq, ideas that grow more deadly every day.

A second part of "Ashes to Art," featuring five more contemporary Iraqi artists -- Hayder Ali, Kareem Rissan, Ghassan Ghayeb, Gassan Ghaab, Delair Shaker and Ismail Khayat -- opens Feb. 28, 2006.


BEN DAVIS is associate editor of Artnet Magazine.