Memory and Mourning from Afar: Afifa Aleiby as an Artist in Exile
By Mysa Kafil-Hussain
“When you destroy a country, you destroy its heritage.
And our heritage is for all, not just for Iraqis.”
Afifa Aleiby is an artist who has consistently transcended cultures, forcing herself to look beyond fixed borders and abandoning any form of limited perception of the world, the people within it, and the creative inspiration that – as a result – moves her and consequently informs her artistic prac-tice. In a 2017 interview with Ruya Foundation, Aleiby stated that “my work is not inspired by my Iraqi heritage,” explaining further that she does not call herself an Iraqi artist and that her art is for everyone. Whilst she may not define herself by those parameters and understandably embraces the universality of what it means to be an artist and utilises a vast range of influences, she – consciously or unconsciously – has remained continuously connected to Iraq and her Iraqi heritage, delicately weaving together her memories and the events unfolding in the place she once called home since leaving in 1974.
Born in Basra in 1963, Afifa Aleiby was part of a creative family and became interested in painting from a very young age. Her father was interested in the arts, often taking the whole family to see the latest films and teaching himself to read and write, whilst her brother, Ali, was a sculptor, painter, musician and poet, and her other brother, Faisal, was already studying art in Baghdad. Aleiby also applied to study art in Baghdad, and started at the Institute of Fine Arts at the age of sixteen where she was taught by one of Iraq’s most prominent artists, Naziha Selim, who took on a nurturing, ma-ternal role to her cohort of students at the Institute. Books that Aleiby had at her disposal at home in Faisal’s library and at the Institute enabled her to explore art from all over the world, including Impressionism and Europe- an Neo-classicism, but especially Russian art and the work of artists such as Rabin, Vrubel and Vodkin, which instigated a personal ambition for her to venture to Moscow. While studying and also working as an illustrator for Iraq’s Tariq al-Shaabiya magazine, Aleiby was accepted on a graphics scholarship at Moscow’s Surikov Institute, not to return home again for thirty years.
Moscow was an inspirational period for Aleiby. Spending her time sur-rounded by fellow Iraqi intellectuals and painting and drawing endless-ly, she began to develop her signature style and technique, permanently instilling aspects of realism with themes of immense strength, hope and often a subdued, dark exploration of martyrdom and pain, subjects which are heavily referenced in her Iraq-related pieces. With these influences being partly Soviet-inspired, she took them with her when she moved to Italy in the early 1980s, where the impact of European renaissance scenes – and especially the humanist aspects of this period of art – added another potent artistic layer to her canvases. She had read about the work of Bot-ticelli, Giotto, Donatello, Uccello and so many more, and had seen much of their work exhibited in Moscow. They were now all around her – first in Rome, and later in Florence. The classical, spiritual and also mythological essence of the grand paintings by European masters spoke to Aleiby, who began to embark on grand paintings herself with the delicate and ethereal qualities of Italian portraiture, but also the stark heroic mystery of Soviet socialist-realist art.
In the 1980s, Aleiby’s brush began to paint from a place of distance, exile, memory and longing for home. With her own past experiences back in Iraq at the forefront of her mind, current events made her feel helpless for her people, and especially for her family and friends in Basra and Baghdad. Aleiby also got married and had a son in this period, giving her an even more complex perspective on fear and protection for one’s family, express-ing birth and loss on a macro and micro level through the visualisation of motherhood, a common theme in explorations of the “homeland” in the Arab region, and notably in both Iraqi and Palestinian visual culture. In ad-dition to this, the use of the female figure during this period (and beyond), puts herself – or at the very least, the anonymous woman as a represent-ative – as a main character, exploring hope, loss and trauma through the lens of a stoic woman.
Whilst the bright and beautiful new beginnings evoked in Birth (1982) and Spring (1982) naturally coincide with the year of her son’s birth, the role of mother becomes a sombre and lonely affair by 1984. In this time, Alei-by had moved to Florence with her young son after the breakdown of her short marriage, becoming not only a single mother, but a single mother in exile in a strange land. Unable to return to Iraq, she saw news about the Iran-Iraq War which began in 1980, developing further and further into a hugely vicious and bloody period of Iraq’s modern history. Endless bru-tal events took many lives, including the Battle of the Marshes in 1984, which put Aleiby’s home city of Basra in an extremely vulnerable position. Between 1980 and 1984 – only halfway into the devastating war – many hundreds of thousands of people had been killed. Martyr (1984) and Moth-er (1984) instantly present an overwhelmingly sad and mournful energy, with clear references to renaissance paintings depicting lamentation and death. Paintings depicting Christ’s death by figures such as Pulzone, da Brescia, Carracci and so many other master artists create monumental, rhythmic scenes framing and centring the focal character – the deceased – with mourning figures surrounding them or on the periphery, much like in Aleiby’s works. Martyr shows a deceased man, with two sorrowful figures to the right, overlooking the man and also looking back at us, the viewer, for a reaction and to bring us into their painful world. What is interesting about Aleiby’s painting technique here is her choice to paint the martyr’s face in a subdued grey and almost-impressionist style, perhaps to signify his fading status as the deceased, where as the two figures in mourning are painted in Aleiby’s signature vivid and distinct figural approach, clearly making the distinction through the rendering of their bodies between the dead and the living. Mother uses very similar tones as Martyr (both paint-ings also have a sole woman dressed in red – perhaps painting herself into the works), and fully adheres to the typical renaissance framing of the cen-tral characters. Sorrow and concern is painted onto every figure’s face, with the veiled mother cupping her child’s face into her hands, clearly worried for this child’s safety and future.
The symbol of the martyr is universal, especially in political and religious artistic contexts and cannot just be limited to just Western Christian ico-nography. The tradition of depicting martyrdom can be considered an espe-cially significant theme in Iraqi art, finding prominence in art and culture created over many generations, often inspired by the stories of the mar-tyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala and drawing on local cultural memory and history to relate to the present day. The motif found its way into the work of noted Iraqi artists, for example Kadhim Hayder’s Martyr’s Epic se-ries (1965), Dia al-Azzawi’s Maqtal al-Husayn (1968), and Mahmoud Sabri’s Funeral of the Martyr series (1951-1962). Sabri too was drawn to Russian realism, finding common ground with Communist artists who, according to art historian Suheyla Takesh, saw painting as a tool for national awaken-ing and a way to expose socio-political injustice. Like Aleib3 y, he had also studied at the Surikov Institute in Moscow, and it is possible – and quite likely – that Aleiby found inspiration in his work, and the work of the older generation of modern Iraqi artists exploring similar themes.
Aleiby’s works often speak volumes in their sombre silence, which Moth-er and Martyr are perfect examples of, painting her response as an Iraqi in mourning and positioning herself as a fearful mother in the face of war with quiet, delicate resignation. Silence (1985) is another example of Aleiby’s skill of evoking a depth of emotion with a melancholic stillness. By 1985-1986 and the siege of Basra, Aleiby was becoming extremely de-pressed by the situation back home. Unable to get in touch with her family and with Basra badly affected, she was left alone in worry and pain. The ‘silence’ is not only the solitude she finds herself in, and the loneliness of experiencing the war in exile, but also the silence of her loved ones amidst the immense fear for their safety. Aleiby continued to process the events of the war and the immense suffering of her people for the following years, including commemorating the horrific massacre in northern Iraq in 1988 through her painting entitled Halabja (1989), which again evokes a quiet stillness in the face of brutality, yet on this occasion that silent stillness is enforced by the quiet viciousness of chemical warfare.
Aleiby is not only plugged into news coming from Iraq at this time and shows that she was very aware of events across the Arab world: she also paints for Palestine. In 1987, the first Intifada began in occupied Palestine, stretching from the West Bank to Gaza and within what is now the nation of Israel. Aleiby painted Intifada in 1989 showing a woman in motion, run-ning across the canvas with the wind in her dress, her hair and blowing against the Palestinian flag she clutches fiercely in her hands. The dark-ness surrounding her, despite there being figures in the background, allows the woman to take the central role in clear vivid colour as she fights for her cause and her country, and with Aleiby’s typical rendering of delicate facial features and strong, full-figured bodies. Her colour palette – like much of her work focused on Iraq – exudes darkness with warm greys, browns, blues and greens, but always with a burst of white and red. The consistency of her works relevant to the region in their colours coincides, of course, not only with the colours of the countries’ flags, but with the high level of emo-tion the sombre subjects incite.
In 1991, Iraq was in the second year of the First Gulf War in which the US led a coalition of states to attack Iraq as a result of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, yet ultimately it was the Iraqi and Kuwaiti civilians who paid the price rather than any of the political actors at the forefront of the clashes. During this period, Aleiby again uses the canvas to process her grief. Using aspects of Iraq’s heritage, particularly quintessentially Iraqi iconography and a source of collective comfort and pride to Iraqis at home and abroad, she starts to paint the trauma of Iraq and its people.
Aleiby painted The Flood during the war in 1991, stuck in a difficult posi-tion like many Iraqis who were both against the occupation of Kuwait, but also against the war waged on Iraq. The backdrop of the painting shows the famous minaret of the mosque of Samarra, also known as the Malwiya minaret, built during the Abbasid era and a longstanding symbol of Iraq’s ‘golden age’. However, the Malwiya stands tall amidst clouds of smoke and fire, drowning in a tumultuous ocean. Aleiby herself stated in an interview with Christie’s Auction House in 2018 that the inclusion of the Malwiya was not just as a recognisable local motif, but that it also acts as a spiralling cone: a metaphor for “the ascendance and descendance of our civilisations in our Mesopotamian land.” She further explained that she painted The Flood to reflect her ongoing pain, symbolised through the fallen angel who weeps for a country under persecution. That same motif was again used by Aleiby in 2002 in another artwork entitled Fallen Angel, during the im-mensely strained and tense period between the 9/11 attacks in New York and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The symbolic nature of the fallen angel has been used by many artists before, most notably by Alexandre Cabanel, a French neo-classical, academic artist – a period of French painting which Aleiby was a fan of (especially the work of David and Delacroix).
In Aleiby’s painting, the angel sits next to a decapitated head, a symbol she uses to represent the harshness and violence humans were suffering. The decapitated head, or dismembered body, features often in Aleiby’s work, for instance in To Be a Woman (1989), a work exploring the conflict and solitude experienced by women and especially the many masks women must wear within society, with the loss of a head perhaps indicating a pe-riod of confusion or stress whilst living alone in Florence. Traces (1986) also features a dismembered torso, appearing almost statue-like, yet bleeding red. Painted in exile and during the early years of being a single mother, Aleiby uses this motif again to elude to the struggle she was facing, and also the pain suffered back home at the height of the Iran-Iraq War. The affected figures in both paintings present akin to sculptures from Greek or Roman traditions, often created to portray strength and prestige, whilst si-multaneously symbolising deep-rooted metaphors for tragedy. Behind their silent statuesque demeanours, they – much like Aleiby’s figures – speak volumes.
The distinct mixing of aspects of heritage (and the risks it faces), memory and overwhelming despair in the context of Iraq was used several times by Aleiby during 1991. Extremely similar themes – almost presented as a series – are found in Gulf War (1991) and Destruction (1991), which were exhibited in ‘Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011’ in New York’s MoMA PS1 in 2019 to great acclaim from local audiences, many of whom had not previously been exposed to Aleiby’s art. In those works, Aleiby creates back-drops of Mesopotamian sculptures, architectural structures and prominent wall reliefs, with a weeping figure in the foreground of War Painting, whilst in Gulf War the female figure in the foreground is viciously shot numerous times, along with the ancient figure memorialised in the wall relief behind her. This period was especially dark for Iraqis, both at home and abroad: fol-lowing the war in the 1980s, the Gulf War in the early 1990s added further injury to an already weakened population. Events such as the particularly heinous attack on the Amiriyah Shelter in 1991 (an attack which killed over 400 civilians in their sleep), and the economic sanctions throughout the 1990s, ensured that Iraqis were always in a state of deprivation, tension and sorrow. Aleiby wanted to commemorate the events and mourn collec-tively for her country, despite being so far from it. She saw not only the houses destroyed, but the water and electricity sources, the factories, and the livelihoods of so many, but what caused her the greatest pain was seeing the destruction of so much of Iraq’s heritage, inspiring her to incor-porate many aspects of it into her work: “When you destroy a country, you destroy its heritage. And our heritage is for all, not just for Iraqis…so I used the aspects of our heritage like “rumooz” (symbols)”. 5
Aleiby was forced to leave Italy and spent a period teaching in Yemen in the 1990s, where she worked at the Institute of Fine Arts in Aden, and later settled with her son in the Netherlands. In her post-2000 artworks, her style has become progressively more surrealist and mysterious (likely influenced by the Italian Scuola Metafisica), often employing the use of symbols and dreamlike motifs, yet retaining a stoic mood as in her earlier works. The figures, especially the female form, become fuller and softer, and colour begins to seep back into her canvases, indicating an increasing-ly hopeful energy with women taking centre-stage as graceful and power-ful survivors. Olga Nefedova comments on this in an exhibition text from 2019, pointing out this development in Aleiby’s oeuvre and also how the women continue to resist smiling, instead expressing a sombre sadness whilst retaining their strength and dignity. Nature is an important theme Aleiby uses to suggest rebirth and hope, with key examples such as Gar-den of Happiness (2010), Green Grass (2017) and Spring Music (2017). Soviet Socialist-Realism often used a natural, bounteous backdrop for portraits of individuals or groups, intending to create a utopian atmosphere whilst still being grounded in reality. The movement – which Aleiby was deep-ly influenced by – saw it as turning away from consumerism and finding comfort and strength in the land, offering universal prosperity, peace and, ideally, hope. This theme is also common in modern Iraqi and Arab art, with landscapes and nature symbolising rootedness, the motherland and stead-fastness. And yet, the air of steadfast and rooted hopefulness is also laced with an overarching loneliness. There is loneliness in exile, in being sepa-rated from home, and despite Aleiby finally returning briefly to Iraq in 2004 after the invasion of Iraq and subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, she was met with a country which had changed dramatically since leaving thirty years prior. “The Iraq that I found, which is the Iraq of the present day, was broken and devastated. I was not comforted by my visit,” commented Aleiby in 2017. This reconnection with her homeland only served to make her feel even further from her old life, family and friends, and further re-inforced her loneliness and solitude in exile and war. She painted letters often in her work – see Memories (2009), My Secret (2010), and The Call of Happiness (2021) – and despite moving on with life, there is a persistent distance, and an ongoing longing for connection and community.
There were many years of strife and suffering in Iraq in the years follow-ing the 2003 invasion, peaking in 2006 and with unpredictable attacks in subsequent years. Despite occasional fighting, acts of terrorism and the ongoing presence of foreign actors, Iraq seemingly regained a fragile sta-bility, only to be met with the brutality of ISIS in 2014. The terrorist group attacked numerous Iraqi cities (as well as in Syria), hitting minority com-munities hardest in the North and destroying the city of Mosul. Attacks were waged on other parts of the country, and Iraq was once again thrown into a state of fear and agony. Throughout, Aleiby continued painting. Her wings found their way into her paintings once again in Escape from Par-adise (2007), Broken Wings (2017) and Captive (2017) with Broken Wings portraying a sullen woman holding an injured bird, and both Escape from Paradise and Captive showing a dejected, struggling woman with her wings tied. With wings often symbolising freedom, escape and protection, Aleiby clearly could sense a bleak future ahead from 2007 onwards.
However, it wasn’t just the larger attacks and fighting which deeply affect-ed Iraqi society. In a 2021 interview with Sultan Al-Qassemi, Aleiby stated: “everything has been stolen from the people,” commenting on the ongoing8 corruption and killing faced by so many, but especially the youth who went out to protest in the streets of Baghdad, Basra, and across the country from 2018-2020, begging for nothing more than their basic rights, a future for themselves and their families, and a country to be proud of. Protestors were met with violent responses, with roughly 700 people killed and many more injured or abducted – generations which had only known a life of war and sanctions were ultimately being punished for having hope. In the quiet sadness witnessed in Silence of the Dwelling (2019), Pain (2017) and Al-Anfal (2019), the palpable fear in Homeland Messages (2020) and Escape (2021), and a study on lost youth in Orphan (2020), we see Aleiby return-ing to producing evocatively mournful canvases. Pain directly echoes the themes and composition found in 1984’s Mother, and al-Anfal clearly ech-oes Martyr, also painted in 1984. In an evident nod to her previous painterly commemorations of Iraqi pain, she has created modern versions, perhaps reconstructed ‘updates’ to show that the same cycle of suffering continues not just in Iraq, but across a region which has experienced ongoing sorrow and upheaval.
In spite of the difficulties Aleiby has faced throughout her life – moving from country to country, living in solitude and unable to communicate with her family, being a single mother in a strange land, and the ongoing pain of witnessing her homeland crumble from afar – she has continued to learn and engage with the cultures she happily encounters, allowing her new life and identity to assist her in processing the complexities of her feelings, fears and traumas. With new and vibrant international influences enriching her artistic practice since before leaving Iraq in 1974, she has consistently brought a fresh perspective and a unique and rich set of skills to her many canvases, looking at her new surroundings, but also looking at Iraq from afar as an artist in exile. Despite a disappointing return home in 2004 and her insistence on not being considered an “Iraqi artist”, Aleiby still imagi-nes an alternative, wholesome reunion in Return (2020), she still holds on to nostalgic cultural moments such as reading coffee grounds with local women in Cup’s Secret (2020), she still remembers the traditional clothing she once would have worn, perhaps on special occasions, in Enchantment (2021), and she dreams of the comforting shade of the apricot trees in her city, Basra, in Apricot Tree (2006) and Garden of Happiness (2010). Aleiby also still continues to sign her work in Arabic to this day, an active and intentional choice considering so many artists in exile switch to English, French or other local languages in order to resonate with local audiences. However, ultimately what makes Aleiby stand out is her raw and unfiltered realism in the face of suffering whilst adding a layer of beautiful and deli-cate tenderness – not just as a distracting veneer, but within the depths of the complex emotions, the stoic strength and the silent pain. When Alei-by reflects on why she was so heavily influenced by the Russian, French and Italian master artists she encountered over the years, she comments: “what fascinated me in their works was their uniqueness.” The inspir9 ation this range of worldly influences offered to her artistic practice, on top of the instinctive embracing of her roots, creates an even more unique form of art, in suffering and solidarity from afar, and not only belonging to Iraq, but belonging to everyone.