A mysterious, sombre female figure leads us silently through a series of vivid and surreal settings. Both sculptural and ethereal she appears in different forms, hovering between worlds, just as the imagery that surrounds her creates a layered impression of familiarity and mystery, closeness and distance, ancient and modern. These are the themes that Iraqi artist Afifa Aleiby balances in her uniquely alluring and poetic paintings. For her first solo exhibition entitled The Echo of Time at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery London, Aleiby presents a collection of old and new works that are connected by their distinct style and temporal fluidity. The artist merges personal and collective histories, social and political regimes, artistic movements and cultural identities to create a highly original visualisation of subjective experience, imagination and memory.
Whilst Aleiby’s oeuvre has evolved naturally over time, her work remains woven together by the dramatic thread of personal and collective history. Born in Iraq in 1952, the artist moved to Russia (back then, the Soviet Union) to study monumental art. On the completion of her studies, she found herself unable to return home due to heightening conflicts, moving to live first in Italy and then Yemen, before finally settling in the Netherlands where she still resides. The shapes, figures and narratives of her paintings speak of a complex and painful past that reverberates through the present. This is most keenly felt in the paintings’ melancholic characters; dressed in dated costumes with the shapes and tones used by Renaissance masters, they suggest a sense of disconnect, separation and at times, loss. In some of the most arresting paintings, the character looks outwards at the spectator, but as we look back at them, their gaze appears to continue past us into a different time or place. We are able to recognise the artist’s own shadow through the subtle renderings of these expressions, and through that recognition, we may also see ourselves, and experience a sense of shared empathy.
Recognition can also be found in the carefully chosen background details and objects: lush jungle-like vegetation, vibrant rose wallpaper, a delicately embroidered handkerchief, a drawing of an orange pinned onto a wall, the back and tail of a grey kitten. These are all elements that contribute to an illusion of reality, or order, and yet, there is something amiss. Instead of the chaos and sound of life, the paintings project an almost tangible, aching silence, and so we are drawn into the scene, only to be invited to doubt its ‘truth’, or rather, the truth of our own perception. In this way, Aleiby appeals to our imagination to reach beyond what the eyes can see; she presents a form of visual poetry, which has the ability to resonate both aesthetically and emotionally.
Though much of Aleiby’s work deals with historical suffering, conflict and loss, the mood of each painting is set by distinct and varying colour palettes that provide a metaphorical lens to guide our interpretations. In one painting of a woman sitting with a young boy between her knees, the warm tones of the room and fabrics indicate an intimate, domestic setting: a sense of home. Yet, the woman’s expression is cool and stern, whilst the boy appears distracted and uncomfortable, his gaze turned upwards and his legs restless. As with all of Aleiby’s work, we are directed away from the exterior image towards the layers of embedded subjectivity: the humanity. It is this sensitivity and depth that elevates the work beyond the purely visual so as to leave a powerful and resonating impression on the viewer.
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