House that? For Iraqi artist Alfraji homes change but not experience - GulfToday

House that? For Iraqi artist Alfraji homes change but not experience

Faceless figures speak of the frailty of the human condition.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

Ayyam Gallery is presenting Those Houses Behind the Army Canal (Feb. 28 — May 1), a solo exhibition featuring Sadik Kwaish Alfraji’s recent body of work. This series is the second chapter of his project, Books of Passage, charting three generations of migration in his family. The first chapter, titled The River That Was in the South (2019) was shown at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Ayyam Gallery, Dubai and in Cairo Biennale, respectively. Books of Passage consists of three chapters in which the artist explores how identity was formed in his grandfather’s, father’s and in the time of his own generation.

As he explores existential questions about the world around him, Alfraji collects and arranges personal and collective memories, in an attempt to understand and dissect them, using the tools he works with as an artist. He believes that memory consists of several layers which may conflict with each other, or exist as fragments, or be interwoven with each other, and are generally also incomplete due to the emptiness that war, migration and loss leaves behind. A fresh layer of memory is created, for example, when someone builds a new life in a different place; but it can also be passed on through the language and culture of previous generations.

 Solitary figures intensify emotions in the artist's compositions.

In the three chapters of this project, Alfraji explores intercultural influences, cultural identity and layered memory of his own family history and also, more generally, of people who have had to flee their country. The second chapter, Those Houses Behind the Army Canal (2021), which was shown for the first time at Kunsthal KAdE, and now being shown at Ayyam, is about Alfraji’s father’s generation, who left south Iraq for Baghdad. Once there, they were forced to live in slums.

When a coup took place in 1958, and the Republic of Iraq was declared, the new leader, Abd al-Karim Qasim, announced a plan to rehouse the inhabitants. He had The Army Canal dug, beyond which the new neighbourhood — Madinat Al-Thawra (Revolution City, now known as Sadr City) — was built, where every family was given a plot of land. The bright promise of the new neighbourhood, however, soon faded. The new residents had to build their own homes using cheap materials available to them — the streets were narrow and initially there were no drains; so the entire district flooded with water when it rained.

 A view of the artwork in Ayyam Gallery.

Alfraji’s father’s generation who had left the south were stranded in a dysfunctional neighbourhood, a canal separating them from the rest of the city, which did not fully accept them. Al-Thawra has more than a million residents now — yet still without prospects of a better future. The people who live there hope for a better life, and so their children’s generation also take the path of migration. In Those Houses Behind the Army Canal, the artist tries to capture the history of his father’s generation in sketch books, animations, archive material, video footage, drawings and etchings. In order to make the work and better understand history, he tried to imagine himself in people’s shoes, and in the city’s, the streets, the trees and the houses.

In a series of journals, he created a dialogue between his father and himself, putting himself in his father’s place, deciding to go to Baghdad and build a house there for his family, and how it must have been to arrive there. Alfraji visualises the concerns and faces of the current generation in screenprints of old portraits he found on the internet and elsewhere, the iconic images and logos discovered there, videos and drawings of what it looked like at the time, and how it looks today. He does not tell a linear story; instead, he presents an accumulation of memories, imaginings and ideas. In one painting, a timeless figure looks out over Baghdad, observing the city, unsure of what the future will bring.

 Display walls in Ayyam Gallery.

Perhaps he sees a history that has already been lived, yet still lives on in many forms for countless others in the same situation. In conclusion, Alfraji explores what he describes as ‘the problem of existence’ through drawings, paintings, video animations, art books, graphic art, and installations. His visual language addresses the vulnerability of human existence and speaks of loss, exile, fragmentation and displacement.The shadowy protagonist who often appears in his multimedia works represents a black void — it is a filter that allows him to explore the intricacies of life. By rendering his solitary character as a charcoal-coloured silhouette and minimising the add-on properties of his compositions, he is able to intensify the emotions of his characters.

 Sadik Kwaish Alfraji explores the human condition in his work. 

His work has been influenced by Expressionism, as well as a love of philosophy and literature, especially existentialism. His signature is shadowy, faceless figures and dark backgrounds, often in agonised postures, which speak of the frailty of the human condition and the question of human survival. Born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1960, he lives and works in Amersfoort, Netherlands. Founded in 2006, Ayyam Gallery is an arts organisation that manages the careers of established and emerging artists.

A blue-chip art space in Dubai, a series of collaborative projects in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia, and a multinational non-profit arts programme, furthers its mandate of expanding the parameters of international art. The gallery owns a multilingual publishing division and a custodianship programme that manages the estates of art pioneers. 


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