When did you start to become interested in art? Do you have memories of an art culture at home, or in the wider sphere of Baghdad, where you grew up?
I’ve been attracted to art making as far back as my memories can take me. I grew up in a secular Baghdad where my parents would hold soirees, gathering musicians and artists. I would sit in the adjacent room with my paper and paintbrush making quick strokes of color and every now and then one of those artists would come into the room, give me a mini critique and shower me with praise.
I also remember my playroom in our house in Baghdad, where I used all four walls as my canvas and filled them with characters, narratives, concerns, jokes, and discoveries. Those are my memories of Baghdad.
You were forced to move to Sweden at the age of twelve due to the Gulf War. How did your art education develop in this new context?
It flourished. I had an art teacher during middle school who acted as my mentor. He was this crazy artist (and farmer!) who pushed me to think big and believe in myself. During early teenage years and in a context where I was clearly the “other” as literally everyone around me was tall and blond, it was of tremendous value to feel that I was good at something. And it was more acceptable to be “different” if you were an artist.
Your work to date has in many ways focused on the disconnect between Western and Middle Eastern culture, from your own personal perspective as a person who has experiences of these two places. When did you become aware of “back home” once you had settled in Sweden?
As soon as I landed in Arlanda, Stockholm. We were ushered to a detention room quickly after revealing that we didn’t have passports and from that moment on the concept of being a refugee/ foreigner was created. It was as if you I got stamped with that fixed identity and with it came a multitude of problematic assumptions.
The female figure has been your vessel for transmitting your narratives and memories of Iraq. How did you come to this symbol, if it can be called that?
My figures are extensions of my own body blended with the esthetics of the renaissance. “She” actually emerged when I was in Florence, Italy. I went to every single museum, did copies of old master paintings and was engulfed by the technique of that era. “Her” emergence, her white diaphanous flesh, her contrapposto, was an embodiment of someone who was colonized; someone who was taught to believe that European art history was the ultimate ideal. She became an expression of whom I had become as an assimilated woman. I’m now working to give her agency and a voice and as I obsessively repaint her again and again, she becomes part of a collective. I am concerned with the multitude not the self. This is not only my story. It can be the story of more than 5 million people within the Iraqi diaspora or any diaspora.
What about the form of this figure? What does her (stylistic) consistency represent? And what was your process for creating her aesthetic (the curved black hair, the strong eyebrows, and so on)? Also, her clothes – very interested by the patterned fabrics. Where are these sources from?
I think “her” formal emergence was instinctual. It was a synthesis of the art I was surrounded by (Raphaello, Michelangelo, Caravaggio) ; i.e. what I was taught “ fine art” was but also my own body, the hairy Arab; big black hair and thick eyebrows.
I was also studying graphic design in Italy at the time, so simplicity, solid filled colors and focus on line quality were key elements of whatever I was fabricating. The pattern and tessellated geometry in the fabrics are accents that I add after everything is set in the painting. For me they form a way to balance the work and create more of a systematic order but they also bring me back to what I’m familiar with; the esthetics of the middle east.
Your first major show in New York – Let the Guest Be the Master – in 2013 incorporated these female characters within wood panel structures that were based on floor plans of houses in Baghdad. How did you choose the houses, and was architecture a literal way of referring to “home”?
The houses were chosen after conversations I had with a few Iraqi architects and further research I had done on vernacular Iraqi homes with courtyards. What ignited these works was the selling of our home in Baghdad. The home that housed that very playroom I mentioned above and the only tangible space I felt that I could physically go back to in order to recover my lost memories. Using the floor plans of various domestic homes some still standing some not, enabled me to archive them.
Your next show from 2015, How Iraqi Are You?, was a more direct investigation of your experiences of exile. The show not only presented the question of how identity is judged and defined, but was also your way of preserving your memories of Iraq. What role does remembrance play for you?
This necessity of archiving my memories is getting more and more urgent in my work. Perhaps because the gap of what I considered my “home” is getting bigger. I live in the US, far away from anything I was born into and the only way to connect to it is to go back in time. I think this is common for refugees perhaps more so with Iraqi refugees as we have that sense of the glorious Mesopotamian past ingrained in our skin. And when you work so hard to shed that brown skin and black hair in order to fit into a western context, eventually you grow tired. So where do you go after that? Back to the past..
Could you please say a little about your current show at the Joslyn in Nebraska (or indeed any other current show)? The Joslyn show will still be running when the interview is published. How did the show come about? Its aims? Expectations of a different kind of audience?
The catalyst for this show was the sonic memory of the air raid sirens I grew up hearing in Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war in the early 80’s and the first Gulf war. You knew whenever it would appear that an event that might or might not end your life was about to take place. I have multiple memories that involve this terrifying sound so I started the research in how to translate a sonic memory into object. This lead me to a book titled “Listening to War, Sound, Music and Survival in Wartime Iraq” written by ethnomusicologist Martin Daughtry where he describes an interview with a mother shielding her children from the violent sounds of war by holding them tight and pressing her arms against their ears. Her body, her flesh then acted as a perfect, natural microenvironment to protect her children.
I wanted to mimic this concept of “flesh as defense” so I introduced pyramid acoustic foam in the paintings. These sound absorbers function by scattering the sound waves in several directions causing them to dissipate. An object that “detains” sound.
I started surgically cutting my linen and pushing the foam through it from the back.
As it was penetrating the surface, that I so meticulously prepare, I felt as if I was conducting an operation of resistance. These calculated cuts and wounds were enabling the painting to breathe, letting air pulsate through the surface from the front to the back and to the front again. Inhaling and exhaling it was reacting, resisting, defending and accepting these sonic wounds. Concurrently I started implanting the acoustic foam and found that I was creating a new surface. A synthesis of materials that act as armor, against traumatic memories of war. They’re not just paintings hanging on the wall, they are hybrid shields that absorb sound and will alter that dynamic in the space they are hung.
I’m also working on a performance at the museum that evolves working with 4 women from the area who will via their own voices recite a script that is rather personal, involving my life as a refugee in Sweden and the work that was produced because of that. The idea is to connect the female voice and bridge borders and experiences creating something of a collective consciousness.
Lastly, what is coming up in 2017 and how will the new work develop?
I’m very excited about what I’m doing right now in the studio. In the previous works I experimented with altering the linen in different ways and that has lead me to understand the material on a deeper level, detaching it, altering and manipulating it in a way where I’m creating something similar to a weave. In short I’m re-weaving the linen into itself. The idea also came from an object; the “Mahaffa” that is a traditional Iraqi handheld fan made out of palm tree fronds.
As my mother decided to hire a smuggler for us to flee Baghdad to Sweden, we were told to only bring one suitcase; to leave everything else behind and to never return again. One of the few objects we decided to bring with us was a small Mahaffa. This object traveled with us and our falsified passports through the Middle East, Africa and finally Europe where we landed in Stockholm. The Mahaffa has become something of a relic (for me) carrying a host of problematic stimuli. An object that carries memories of a lost past that is both idealized and imaginary. Remnants of a connection to something that was interrupted. Perhaps I am re-weaving the linen in order to re-weave my experiences.