To be a Woman…

By Nada Shabout

“Alienation is a feeling that accompanies us from exile to exile and dwells with-in the homeland,” said Afifa Aleib 1y recently when interviewed in Cairo after the opening of her exhibition at the Picasso Art Gallery. As an artist, Afifa Aleiby’s work has become associated with the diaspora, displacement and women em-powerment. A member of an artistic and progressive Iraqi family, Afifa was born in Basra in southern Iraq and trained as an artist in Baghdad at the Fine Arts In-stitute, before leaving in 1974 to the Soviet Union to continue her studies at the Surikov institute in Moscow. Her life and work were shaped by the instability and intrigue of mobility as she moved through distinct and desperate spaces.

At the first glance, Afifa’s work rattles the viewer with its intimacy. One cannot escape the uneasiness of entering a personal space. Afifa’s vibrant colors and the elegant lines of her figures are self-reflective. In response to her physical dis-placements, the space of the painting becomes her ultimate home. The figure is constant in her paintings, and is predominantly a woman in which Afifa identifies and explores malleability. This woman who is always the center of her paintings is pronouncedly autobiographical and negotiates Afifa’s life and emotions. As such, we can read the work as portraits representing different aspects and chap-ters in her journey and relationships. Collectively her oeuvre tells her story as it equally reflects on the state of humanity, and womanhood in particular. It negoti-ates her distance from Iraq, motherhood, isolations, displacement, love and pain, in vivid and saturated colors with sharp crisp lines.

As the case with many Iraqis, the political situation in Iraq following the comple-tion of her studies, prohibited Afifa from returning home. Nevertheless, despite hardship and while struggling to survive, Afifa was able to embrace the different cultures of the countries she inhabited. The multitude of experiences became a source of visual enrichment and strength. Yet while Afifa argues that her home country, Iraq, rejected her through various acts, she remains as rooted in Iraqi culture and history as she is comfortable in the global language of art.

Afifa argues that for her the loss of home, her country, was more intense because she is a woman. When she was able to return to her hometown, Basra, she felt harassed by the official narrative that did not accept her for who she is; a woman not wearing hijab, what Iraqis call sufur (a woman whose face is not covered). The obsession with women clothing by the religious clergy, which was echoed through the mainstream culture, signaled to Afifa a rejection of women as think-ing and contributing elements of society. This necessarily enhanced her belief that being a woman is a harsh reality. Her further experience as a single mother in exile only intensified the feeling of unfairness and cruelty.

Afifa’s aesthetics are the result of her varied exposures and studies. Growing up in an artistic family started her painting at a young age. Her older brother Faisal Laibi was an early influence on her work. Monumental and solid construction of figures, emphasis on form, order and clarity of image, are concepts Afifa shares with him. Faisal’s foundational influence on his younger sister is evident in the construction of figurative and easily legible compositions. As a founding member of the short-lived Academics Group in 1971, Faisal’s commitment to realism is mutually observed by Afifa. Both brother and sister attest to leftist sentiments, which were largely manifest in Iraq during the 1960s, and particularly following the crushing Arab defeat in the war with Israel. The general revolt among Iraqi art-ists took different directions. The Academics specifically believed that art should be in the service of people with emphasis on socio-political content and legibility to deliver the message to the public. They thus preferred familiar styles associ-ated with the academy to achieve their goals. Their stance was in opposition to the more experimental approach of other Iraqi modernists, which along with the Baath persecution resulted in most of the group leaving Iraq. Faisal would leave in 1974 as well. His work and aesthetics continued in the direction he initiated with the Academics, and I would argue his influence on Afifa has been lasting and only solidified through her studies of monumental art in Socialist Moscow.

However, unlike the larger historical narratives told by Faisal’s work, Afifa tells personal stories. The uniqueness of her work lays in the intersection between the personal and general. Like in the work of Faisal, one often sees the juxtapositions of different spaces and visual languages in Afifa’s work as well. Afifa’s figures are sculpted in paint. The different stylistic references reflect her varied and often turbulent realities. The backgrounds in her paintings draw from the different en-vironments she occupied, while equally situates her within the tradition of art making. In some paintings there is a node to Renaissance techniques reflecting her love of Italy, in others to symbolists and surrealist sentiments or Russian icons. The ancient frontality or Sumerian profile is often set against a European background. The realist and the poetic collide in the interspersing of figuration, abstraction, symbolism, dream imagery, and at times mythology, and tragedy.

The tension between the masculinity of the figure and the gentle yet stern fea-tures of her face intricately render the details of the story. As a woman and a mother, the contradiction between what society imposes on a woman and what she is capable of becomes the focus of the work. Afifa’s work is always anchored in the now and in the sensitivities of the various cultural experiences. Content to Afifa is always loaded with messages. Through her imagination she presents moments of affective dissonance. Each painting is an emotional response to en-counters and relationships.

In Rest, 2010, Afifa partakes in a conversation that reaches beyond the personal moment. She participates in an unresolved art historical engagement with the female nude that is equally a popular trope of Orientalism. Rest of 2010, thus, re-sponds to a series of representations that includes, Eduard Manet’s controversial 1865 Olympia, which itself was a contemporary response to Titian’s 1538 Venus of Urbino, Goya’s 1797-1800 The Nude Maja and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ 1839 Odalisque with a Slave. Afifa’s reclining nude, however, lacks any of the luxuries associated with the previous works. The background has no decorative items or furniture. The nude is stretching cross a thin mattress on the floor. Fully nude with closed eyes, she neither confronts nor asserts. She is instead resting, al-luding to the hardship of her day. Her closed eyes particularly disinvite the gaze, which is further affirmed by the crouching, and almost ready to jump, cat facing the viewer. The cat, generally employed in art through the ages as a symbol of do-mesticity, fertility, lust, curiosity and independence, through her peculiar stance here acts as a protector as well.

In works such as Al-Anfal 2019, Afifa directly engages with the wars and destruc-tion in Iraq. As Iraq grapples with the outcome of the US-led invasion of 2003, forcing us to not forget, Afifa explores the impact of the crimes committed by the Baath regime in what was known as the Anfal campaign. In 1988 the Iraqi gov-ernment, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein launched a military campaign against the Kurdish population residing in northern Iraq. Starting in February through September, eight operations were deployed, using both conventional and chemical weapons against the Kurdish villages, resulting in death, executions and devastations. An Arabic word meaning spoils of war, Al-Anfal is the name of the eight chapter (surah) in the Quran. It is said to have been revealed after the battle of Badr in 624 CE. Invoking the name was the regime’s way of legitimizing the campaign with a religious reference. Afifa’s painting clearly represents the aftermath of the campaign with fires raging in the background while the women are surrounded by bareness and ruin. The women represent different generations of persistence, perseverance and solidarity against loss, exemplified by the older woman standing on the far left with a cane in her hand. She stands as a witness to the past and future, observing the one woman crouching over her dead son stretched across the center of the canvas, and the other embracing her young child. An avid optimist and believer in love and healing, the baby in red protected by his mother’s arms, reassures humanity of its future.

Life, political awareness and activism continue to fuel Afifa’s work, as she creates meaning, articulates moments and projects futures. Her topics fluctuate between the immediate and the general but always positions the multiple roles of women as crucial active participation in making history. Her woman is never weak. Never smiling, she, nevertheless, fills the canvas with warmth and potential. Powerful, beautiful and reflective, she quietly revels while she tells stories of love, survival and triumph.

Nada Shabout
Fort Worth, Texas
April 10, 2022