AFIFA ALEIBY - Silenzio: paintings and pastels

By Hans Vogels

In the poetic work of Afifa Aleiby one is presented with a world that seemingly belongs to another time, possibly even another culture. Aside from the fairly straightforward, almost classicist manner of painting, some of the figures in her paintings remind one of the works that Picasso painted around 1920. The pattern of the enchanted, fresh green foliage seems to have been borrowed from the work of Henri Rousseau le Douanier, while the predominantly melancholic figures seem to stem from a 20th century Pierro della Francesca, or possibly even Balthus or De Chirico. Despite such formal references to old masters, Afifa Aleiby’s paintings are works of art genuinely belonging to this moment; they represent the end of this century in everything they are. Moreover, they lovingly speak in gentle terms of the person who has painted them over the past years. We are faced with a world of which, for many of us, the separate elements will be very familiar. Yet its overall atmosphere gives us a slight feeling of being outsiders. It is the personal world of the artist that Afifa Aleiby shows to us in her works, and which, next to questions and admiration, may also sometimes evoke compassion in us.

The thought that, behind the façade of visible reality, there is another, more personally experienced world, perhaps forms the very essence of modern art: the artist’s attempt to visualize a subjective form of reality for others. The temporal meaning of the term ‘reality’ always performs a crucial role in this. A subjective experience of reality is continually being attuned to personal observation, experience and imagination. Such an experience is therefore constantly subjected to change and eventually takes the better part of reality, which presents itself to us apparently immutable on a daily basis. From there on, this subjective experience of the individual forms the criterion for modern art, not seldomly as a flight from the aforementioned, usually banal reality. The artist is particularly well suited to offer such an alternative. Since the middle of the last century this has been providing especially modern painting with a worthy cause.

Scuola Metafisica
Precisely because it concerns a subjective interpretation of reality, it seems obvious that opinions vary between persons or groups. Looking at painting from the last 150 years, it becomes clear that artists have chosen widely differing points of view and styles of depicting and painting. At the end of the last century, symbolism allows the artist’s inner imaginative powers to provide a vision behind the exterior of reality. Within expressionism, during the beginning of the 20th century, the emphasis is more on the unpolished, instinctive sides of society, as they are unequivocally laid bare in both subject matter and style of depiction. In our age, abstract art goes even further, by emphasising in her interpretation the depiction of the underlying structures or relations characteristic of reality. The pristine objective of many artists, to provide above all a personally colored alternative for that daily reality, in the course of time usually develops into a predominantly formal stage, during which the artist is exclusively concerned with the exterior aspects of the arts. The old discussion about form and contents – the increasing lack of a mutual harmony within a particular work of art – reoccurs time and again in art-history.

In the years running up to World War I, the Greek-Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) expressed his irritation with what he saw as formalistic behaviour of his colleagues in Paris. Around 1910, cubism and futurism sincerely took up their goal to unveil part of a reality that previously had remained unknown. One spoke, in this respect, of a fourth dimension, which in painting was given the form of a temporal element of which one had been hardly or not at all aware. All sides of an object could be seen in the painting in one glance, suggesting movement. Soon painters were concerned with solving the technical problems of painting. All focus was on the manner of depicting, much less on the contents forming the basis of it.

‘Everywhere behind me the international gang of painters was stupidly working away in their sterile programs and dry systems. Only I started, in my dirty atelier on Rue Campagne-Première, to detect the spirits of a more complete, deeper and more complicated art. An art which is – to use a word that I fear would provoke an attack of diarrhoea in a French art critic -, more metaphysical’.

The so-called Scuola Metafisica (1913-19), of which De Chirico was the most important representative and spokesman, had formulated the goal of bringing about doubt in the spectator regarding the exterior appearance of the world, as it presents itself to us daily in all her predictability. Different from such styles as symbolism and expressionism, which consciously sought to alter the exterior in an attempt to visualize the alternative of another world, the Scuola Metafisica did not violate reality at all. On the contrary, the correct, almost factual rendering of reality was emphasized in such a way that, oddly enough, it produced the effect of an exterior difference, which could provoke the intended doubt in the spectator. Maybe it is just the difference between theory and practice, which makes that, in metaphysical painting, theoretical reality presents itself in a different shape than the purely physical, practical everyday reality surrounding us. Unlike post-1918 surrealism, which was strongly influenced by the Scuola Metafisica, the latter does not base itself on the unconsciousness, as it is expressed for example in dreams. The Scuola Metafisica bases itself on visible reality and from this tries to bring to the surface the unmistakable mystery, the previously unknown. Next to De Chirico, the most prominent representatives of the Scuola Metafisica were Carlo Carrà and Giorgio Morandi. Officially it existed only a small number of years, before and during World War I. Especially the theoretical writings and the still paintings of De Chirico influenced many artists afterwards.

Backgrounds for the work of Afifa Aleiby
Examining the characteristic fashion in which Afifa Aleiby produces her paintings and chooses her subjects, it becomes clear that the ideas of the Scuola Metafisica have left their traces with her. Her work too is marked by an almost tangible silence; the figures in her paintings are often deep in reverie, causing a certain distance between image and spectator. They often look in the direction of the spectator, but as they seem to stare, the impression is produced that their gaze goes past us. Usually Afifa Aleiby figures in her paintings herself, in one way or another. Sometimes this happens quite literally in the form of a portrait, but often her identity is of no concern. As such, she works herself into the context and style of her paintings, which result in a combination of persons and attributes that in reality will seldomly be found in one image. The result is a somewhat unreal atmosphere within a clearly composed scene, which at first sight strikes one as realistic and true to nature. The bright and natural use of colors and the almost sculptural rendering of bodies, plied fabrics and foliage further reinforce that first impression. On further inspection, the rendering appears to express a different vision of reality than we are accustomed to and initially took for granted. The effect on the spectator is largely comparable to what the Scuola Metafisica once had in mind. Afifa Aleiby appeals to an imagination reaching beyond what the eyes can perceive. The style of depiction and painting, but also the subjects she chooses for her paintings, together create an atmosphere that perhaps can be compared best to the immaterial effect of poetry.

Afifa Aleiby was born in the Iraqi city of Basrah in 1953, and she graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad in the early 1970’s. Contrary to what we are bound to believe nowadays, some 25 years later, during that period there were still inspiring contacts with both the avant-garde artworld in the West, and the art of the former Soviet-Union, based more on traditional values. In the tradition of the latter, socialist culture, painters worked in a monumental, realistic style, which had for its subject a mainly heroic, but widely recognizable reality of the Soviet Union of that moment. Perhaps in this respect it is better not to speak of reality, but of a situation that was upheld as an ideal in the Soviet Union, and for the communication of which painting formed an important medium. Much less experimentally oriented than the art of the West, it was the artist’s craftsmanship and knowledge of materials that were held in high regard in the Soviet Union. Much more than was the case in the West, institutes such as the academy of Surikov in Moscow emphasized the ties with the national (art historical) tradition. There was a great interest in Russian painting of particularly the late 19th century, which was likewise characterised by a heroic, monumental realism, and of which the work of Repin forms a beautiful example.

The budding artist Afifa Aleiby lent an eager ear to lecturers from Moscow visiting the academy in Baghdad at the time; and some years later she decided to continue her studies at the aforementioned Surikov National Institute in Moscow. The experimental climate of the Western avant-garde appealed to her to a much lesser extent, because as a painter she was devoted to the perfection of her knowledge of technique and materials.
Next to a stylistic affinity with contemporary Russian painting, she also had a more ideological affinity, as she considered herself a communist, which she still does to this day. The socialist-realist style of painting is indissolubly connected to the Soviet-system, and in the first instance intended as art with a propagandistic value to be understood by the people. The subjects and style are adjusted to this objective. Studying in Moscow, she did not only get acquainted with the realism of the pre-Stalin period, such as the dramatic works from the late 19th century mentioned earlier, but also with the most important works from the Italian Renaissance that were exhibited in diverse museums in Moscow. Works by Leonardo da Vinci, Pierro della Franscesca, Paolo Uccello, Michelangelo and Botticelli inspired her enormously and particularly in stylistic terms matched remarkably well with what she had learned at the academy of Surikov. Not just because for Afifa Aleiby there were great personal similarities in the area of a classical technique of painting and choice of materials, but also because mythological subjects and particularly portraits were themes with which Afifa had been concerned with in her paintings for a long time. After her graduation from the academy in Moscow in 1982, she could no longer stay in the Soviet Union and left for Italy, to live and work in Rome for a number of years. During that period she exhibited her work in several Italian cities. At the close of the 1980’s, she left for South-Yemen, where she taught art-history and painting at the Institute of Fine Arts in the capital Aden for a great number of years. In 1993 she went to the Netherlands, where she has been living in Gouda since. She has been producing new works, which were first exhibited during the Kunstestafette of 1995. At the end of last year, she exhibited mainly smaller works in ‘Antiquariaat Oud Gouda’. At present, large as well as smaller works by her hand can be seen in the exhibition ‘Silenzio’ in the Gouda Museum.

The mood of Afifa Aleiby’s work
The paintings of Afifa Aleiby do not leave one unaffected for several reasons. Sometimes the reason is obvious, as when she refers to her torn homeland of Iraq, to which she cannot return. In these instances, the emotional subject is closely and recognisably connected to the personal world of the artist, something that is most clearly expressed in a painting from 1991, which shows a sitting angel. The Tower of Babel is figured in the background, as a symbol of her homeland, situated against a dark, menacing sky. Other paintings depict white marble sculptures seemingly fallen from their pedestal, lying silently on the ground and covered with cracks. The figures are mostly introvert and full of visible scars, for which the artist herself functioned as the model. They reflect in an absolutely serene silence the tragic event or traumatic experience that is still being dealt with. Classical Greek or Roman sculptures are particularly well-suited to express such metaphors. Although they cannot speak, their appearance tells you enough of their past. Likewise, the titles Afifa Aleiby gives to her works, such as ‘Dreaming on the Grass’, ‘Abandoned’ or ‘Silence’, refer to solitude and an overall feeling of desertion. Nonetheless, her paintings are not overtly pessimistic. A recent work, entitled ‘Tree of Life’ indicates this in its depiction of a mother with child. Moreover, her works often feature humoristic or mysterious elements, such as balloons or masks. Her bright colours also make her paintings attractive and pleasant to watch. The fact that her paintings provoke thought, and are more than merely depictions of external reality, makes her a prominent representative of the contemporary ‘Scuola Metafisica’.