My Signature with Number
My signature-as-number is multi-layered in content and has developed over 30 years of practice. Conceptually, it is rooted in my interests in abstract systems and their equivalents, beginning with early Mesopotamian shapes, Islamic charts, and research undertaken in the course of an MA in Semiotics and a PhD in Logic. Much of my early work, produced in Iraq, incorporated mathematics. Though, in retrospect, I realise some of it may be considered as dry and too intellectual, perhaps, I enjoyed the purity of numbers, and the protection afforded by its impenetrable languages.
It is well known that the technical aspects of my practice include the burning, distressing and obliterating of material: I have termed this Ruins Technique. Clearly, this technique owns its existence to the lethal face of war. This does not mean that I am reproducing the idea of war. Instead I am utilizing its intrinsically destructive process to engender the visceral experience of the reality of war irrespective of its geographic/political particular.
The Last Five Years
Over the last five years I have often pondered the irony of living as a refugee in the very country that was – at least partially – instrumental in engineering the context which caused me to flee my home. Ironic, because London, this hub of the global art world, embraced me and my war culture, took my war aesthetics and expanded its language beyond the particularities of my Iraqi or Middle Eastern background.
To physically taste war is completely different than to experience it second-hand. The first lesson taught by physically tasting war is that ruination is the essence of all being: Death has no meaning and anything solid can be reduced to nothing in seconds. The learning of this process of vanishing, this morphing of matter to dust, of something into nothing, has led me to conclude that ruination, or destruction is hidden de facto in the phenomenon of figuration. Thus, for the last five years explored the space located between figuration and abstraction, between existing and vanishing, a concept which for me also holds deep spiritual meaning.
It is well known that the technical aspects of my practice include the burning, distressing and obliterating of material: I have termed this Ruins Technique. Clearly, this technique owes its existence to the lethal face of war.· This does not mean that I am reproducing the idea of war. Instead I am utilizing its intrinsically destructive process to engender the visceral experience of the reality of war irrespective of its geographic/political particular.
I began researching abstract systems (geometry, numbers, mathematics, letters, religion and art, for example) during a year and a half of seclusion in my studio on the first floor of my parents’ home after an intense materials and practice oriented painting degree from the Academy in Baghdad. Iraq was barely recovering from eight years of war with Iran whilst getting ready for armed engagement with Kuwait leading to the disastrous 1991 Gulf War and years of sanctions. At the same time, Shaker Hassan al Said, one of Iraq’s great artists and teachers, was refocusing the gaze of an entire generation of local artists towards the Mesopotamian past enshrined in the phenomenal collection of artefacts housed in our National Archaeological Museum.
Viewed as ‘modern’, these objects – many of them marked, or ’ruined’, by the passage of time – informed the aesthetic direction characteristic of the Eighties Generation. We deemed traditional art materials as incapable of delivering our artistic message. Instead we worked with burnt paper and cloths, with barbed wire and bullets, with splintered wood and found objects, borrowing from history and our catastrophic present alike. For many of us, this ‘Ruins Technique’ became the visual signifier of our cultural resistance and a carrier of our identity as Iraqi artists.
We also challenged received art terms and invented new ones. For example, in 1991 I recreated a three meter long segment of the ancient Al Warkaa temple wall with clay and cement on wood depicting ancient geometric symbols. In western art historical terms, where abstraction is defined either as non-representation or as the conversion of observed reality into patterns independent from the original source, the work can easily be considered abstract art. In my practice, however, the original source is an essential element of the composition process. I have thus coined the expression: ‘significant abstract’, meaning that the aesthetic aim has to reflect the original source in the very material presence of the art work. The spiritual quality of this perspective has become increasingly important to my practice.
As sanctions continued throughout the 1990s and art supplies became sparse, necessity rather than rebellion forced us to increasingly utilize found objects, recalling perhaps the Dada movement in Zurich at the time of the First World War. In 1999, as part of an exhibition called Icons of the Environment, I showed a work composed entirely of an accumulation of things picked from the streets of Baghdad, one each day, and pressing it into the surface of the work. This accumulation of signs became a document, a diary of daily life. Movable red squares allowed for audience interaction, signifying the playing of futile political games generating a vast amount of new ruins whilst simultaneously referencing our ancient Royal Game of Ur.
This kind of work led me to formulate a theory which postulates that if any image (figurative or abstract) is distilled to its rudimentary components, the result can only be abstraction. Therefore, all representations must, ultimately be considered a collection of abstract symbolic systems. These systems have their origins in our first global civilization, Mesopotamia, and are consequently embedded in all subsequent –global- systems. For many years, I have negotiated my practice on the intersection of these systems. I also agree with my philosophical mentor, Wittgenstein, who states in his Theory of Symbols that we create pictures of facts which serve as our models of reality, and that representation must share a logical form with the fact.
My immediate reality changed four and a half years ago when I left Iraq, and though I still burn and tear canvas and cloth, my work increasingly focuses on two vast fields of thought: religion and art. In testing the veracity of art’s spiritual roots as well as the limits of abstraction, I seek knowledge in the space between abstraction and figuration. The representation of the Hoopoe, the iconic leader of the Attar’s avian seekers, in his epic ‘Conference of the Birds’, for example, serves as a simulation of reality, which in itself is a simulation of perfection. Many of my works assimilate the idea of the hidden and the process of emergence based on awe of the unknown and the notion of transformation in the promise of the Secret.
London in 10/06/2010