Tahira    Kites & Shattered Dreams  Oil on canvas 60x70cm 2008  Barjeel Collection  UAE

Tahira Kites & Shattered Dreams Oil on canvas 60x70cm 2008 Barjeel Collection UAE

This exhibition of latest works by Maysaloun Faraj coincides with a heady phase in international appreciation of art from or about the Middle East, most definably expressed by prices achieved in the auction rooms. Coincide though it does, the exhibition is not to be mistaken for an event simply riding the crest of an ongoing surge of enthusiasm of collectors, gallerists and myriad market forces at work in the Gulf region and the West. For Maysaloun Faraj precedes by well over a decade the nascence of an international contemporary art market focused on the region, and her work commands a following that transcends cultural and political boundaries.  Boats and Burdens: Kites and Shattered Dreams builds on the poignantly poetical narrative evidenced in the artist’s earlier work, paintings as well as ceramics, exhibited in the British Museum exhibitions, Word into Art [1] and Iraq’s Past Speaks to the Present[2] and elsewhere including her own London venue, Aya Gallery. An audience newly initiated into Faraj’s oeuvre may be forgiven for pausing to wonder if the paintings and sculptures are creations of the one and the same artist. Boats and Burdens: Kites and Shattered Dreams thus is a welcome corrective for those who, although touched by her History in Ruins piece in Word into Art, or Ancient Land in Iraq’s Past Speaks to the Present may yet be newcomers to the full measure of Faraj’s canvases and three-dimensional art.  It is not unusual for an artist from the region permanently resident in the West to continue to draw on the rich legacy of the distant native lands. What sets Maysaloun apart is her art’s multi-dimensional accessibility.

Khalida  Kites and Shattered Dreams  Oil on canvas 50x40cm 2008 Private Collection Amman Jordan

Khalida Kites and Shattered Dreams Oil on canvas 50x40cm 2008 Private Collection Amman Jordan

This is not to understate the work’s aesthetic force and technical finesse which, as we know only too well, are also important and potent accessories to an artist’s purpose but not always essential to contemporary art. In that sense the vocabulary Maysaloun Faraj employs becomes universal without losing its depth, subliminal content and, at one level, authentic character. After all, the work we see is a dialogue and the context is her native Iraq — eternal and contemporary, fragile and indestructible even in its daily toll of carnage and ruin. One tendency in the West is to compartmentalise any artist daring to unfurl their native colours, but there are abundant examples of artists, especially noted Jewish artists such as Chagall and Kitaj[4] doing precisely that and enjoying the fruits of international acclaim.  Maysaloun does not go ‘ethnic,’ with her vibrant colours, magical textures, and geometric and scriptural explorations. Instead, she persuasively invites the viewer to absorb and understand her way of interpreting experiences that sadly are painfully familiar. The colours and forms are a language that she knows will take her ideas into the mind of the beholder. And she is doing this while ensconced in London, the veritable centre of world art.  The great plethora of contemporary western art has yet to show any stirrings of an artistic discourse that even remotely draws on the tragic events in Iraq or Afghanistan — two conflicts with far-reaching consequences for the West, but an Iraqi artist in the very same milieu is able to deliver a message of great moral power, one that offers an aesthetically charged alternative to political haranguing or helpless lamentIt is a message of hope that seeps through images of anger, despair and frustration. Through the darkest of her painterly narratives, Maysaloun Faraj manages to ignite that precious spark, crimson, gem-like hearts, in reinterpretations of timeless forms and stories. It is no mean achievement[5].  On another level, Boats and Burdens: Kites and Shattered Dreams is a culmination of a phase of tireless devotion to promotion of Iraqi art — other artists’ art. For some time now Maysaloun has been sacrificing her creative time on bringing to attention the work of other artists. It is to be hoped that this individual exhibition will be followed by another solo show of her work in a not too distant future.

Sajid Rizvi is editor of Eastern Art Report, The Middle East in Europe and Saffron Books.

[1] Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, curated by Venetia Porter, featured at the British Museum in 2006 and traveled to Dubai in 2008.
[2] Iraq's Past Speaks to the Present, curated by Venetia Porter, featured at the British Museum in 2008.
[3] Porter in a commentary on History in Ruins,  a ceramic work shaped like a folding book, the pieces tied with raffia, writes, ‘On both sides is text in horizontal rows hinting at some ancient writing tradition: on a cylinder seal or a Mesopotamian clay tablet. The words themselves are poignant: on one side prayers and the word Limadha  ‘Why?’ repeated. On the other, verses by the Iraqi poet and political activist Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (d1997) from Ya Dijlat al-Khayr (O Blessed Tigris), which he wrote in exile in 1962, and which include words which resonate powerfully today: ‘O blessed Tigris what inflames your heart inflames me and what grieves you makes me grieve; O wanderer, play with a gentle touch… that you may soothe a volcano seething with rage and pacify a heart burning with pain.’
[4] See for example Chagall to Kitaj, by Avram Kampf, Barbican Art Gallery, 1991.
[5] In personal communications and an interview, Maysaloun Faraj detailed the pain and suffering of re-invoking memories of Baghdad while creating works for the current exhibition.

© Maysaloun Faraj 2009-18