Afifa Aleiby: the Art of Re-Existence

By Olga Nefedova

Behind the collection of Afifa Aleiby’s works lies a dramatic personal and collective history that forms a red thread running through her oeuvre, from her early years in Iraq, continuing during her time as a student in Moscow, and up to her later years of forced exile. Her personal story confronts us with her passion for forms, shapes, figures and storylines, with all these elements fulfilling their role in a complex visual drama rife with references to social and political regimes and cross-cultural conflicts.

Like many artists of her generation in Iraq, Aleiby came of age during a period of enormous social and economic changes, which manifested through the growing disparities between tradition and modernity, and between local and global. Born in Basra, she began her formal art education at the Fine Arts Institute in Baghdad, combining her studies with work as an illustrator for the local newspaper Tariq Al Shaab. It was at this institute that the ideals of communism and universal equality she was taught at home began to take more definite shape. The combination of these ideals and her artistic talent gained her a scholarship to study in the then-USSR, where in 1976 she was admitted to the Surikov Institute, to this day one of the leading art institutions in Russia. She graduated in 1981, but due to the political situation in her home country she could not return to Iraq and was forced to go to Italy, and later to Yemen. Eventually she was granted political asylum in the Netherlands in 1993, followed by the Dutch nationality in 1998.

For several decades, Aleiby’s multifaceted artistic practice served as a vehicle to create allegories that reveal the dark side of human nature. These tales are drawn from the artist’s own personal experiences and boldly take on the themes of war, betrayal and global instability. During her early years in Iraq she was deeply influenced by Impressionistic painters and by the colour use of such artists as Toulouse Lautrec and Degas, and by the aesthetic and finesse of Renaissance masters such as Botticelli, Masaccio and Pierro Della Francesca.

An obvious shift in her style and subject matter took place during her Moscow years. The ideology of Soviet Realism, reflected in the art institute’s curriculum, began to feature in her works, which took on subjects related to an optimistic, glorious and bright future, or to martyrdom and misery. Her familiarity with Arab, Russian and European Renaissance visual imagery injected her work with a force that bewitches us with a sense of mysterious understatement, and that invites a dialogue between the artist and the viewer.

Her post-Moscow works deal with the memories of her years living in Iraq. The artist’s personal experience of war and political upheaval greatly influenced the conceptual and formal trajectory of her production during this period. Anguish and anger pervade the paintings, emotions nourished by the suffering of people in Iraq, as expressed mainly through the female figure that features as the main character throughout her oeuvre. Political discourse and subversive narratives intertwine in the artist’s mind as well as in her works. What we see is an encapsulation of flashing images of trauma and suffering woven together into a totalizing, aesthetic imagery. Just as that of many other artists from the same region, Aleiby’s artistic language is closely related to the political and social problems resulting from the harrowing violence that has plagued her native country for decades.

Having left Iraq, Aleiby is constantly faced with the fact that she is not in the country of her origin, and that while she is living in safety in Europe, her fellow countrymen and women suffer unspeakable horrors and injustices. During this period, Aleiby begins to introduce the ancient history of Mesopotamia (Iraq) into her tales of the present. Much of the iconography that we see here is distilled from the ancient collective history of the artist’s birthplace, in combination with her own traumatic past.

In Aleiby’s more recent, post-2000 output, the artist presents us with series of Surrealist-like paintings. What is extraordinary about these at first glance is the originality of their colours and shapes vis-à-vis their tightly controlled details. From afar these frameless paintings produce an elusive feeling of ‘unreality’ enriched with a constant fluidity – fluidity of forms, of shapes, of figures, of narratives – from one figure to another, from one structure to another, from one world to the other. The works are soft, playful, alluring and colourful; each lost in the ephemeral vastness of a faraway dream. Renaissance-like, semi-translucent women appear to float, body and material construction blending and becoming one – the spirits and the ghosts. The multiplication of these female figures across Aleiby’s work creates the image of an ideal woman that manages to survive the trials and indignities, while maintaining self-awareness and grace. Rather than smiling, the faces of these figures express a sombre sadness, although they are equally aware of their potential and power and their desire to resist.

What matters in Aleiby’s work is not what you see, but the manner in which the subjectivity of the depiction informs us about what we are seeing. The artist does not ‘represent’ Middle Eastern culture and people, but belongs to a larger context of contemporary Iraqi and global art, to which she speaks and responds so compassionately and eloquently. Aleiby achieves this global or universal quality by appropriating Western artistic techniques and technologies and using them as weapons, not only as an act of resistance but, above all, of re-existence.