Over the next five weeks, the Gazelli Art House will be home to Bahith (‘seeker’ in Arabic), the first exhibition in a series that will explore the historic identities of countries undergoing significant socio-political and economic change. In particular, it focuses on the ideas of national identity across the Caucasus, Middle East and West Asia.
The exhibition begins with the experimental film Ouroboros, developed by Basma Alsharif, a visual artist from Palestine. The film pays homage to the Gaza strip, where Basma’s family originates, and is inspired by the turbulent events that have affected the region. It follows a man’s journey through various landscapes – the Gaza strip, Los Angeles, the Mojave desert in California, Matera and Martina in Italy and Brittany in France – exploring the never-ending cycle of destruction and renewal. Its cyclical nature is reflected in the title of the film – the ouroboros being an ancient symbol depicting a snake eating its own tail.
As well as reflecting on the desolation and violence of war, the film also examines how people deal with conflict and how they continue to somehow bounce back after experiencing trauma. It perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition which deals with powerful and emotive topics through a hopeful lens.
Can you retain a sense of national identity if you are removed from your homeland? This is the question Azerbaijani artist, Orkhan Huseynov, poses in his bold and reflective work. Bahith displays work from three of his series. Muslims In Space impels the viewer to ask if it is possible to retain one’s cultural and religious identity in a ‘space’ with no boundaries, global borders or conflicts. The Paradise series is the most humorous of all his works and looks at how paradise is perceived from a contemporary perspective and explores what it takes for a person to really be happy nowadays. Kufic Brick Game incorporates Kufic script, the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts (now only used ornamentally), in an unconventional and intriguing way by humorously presenting it like the videogame Tetris. It focuses on the concept of building something from nothing and links to the resilience that allows people to rebuild their lives following trauma and suffering.
The themes of nostalgia and heritage abound in the works of another Azerbaijani artist, Farhad Farzaliyev. He reflects on nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the influence of the Soviet era in modern-day Azerbaijan. Textiles usually feature predominantly in his works and the pieces on display do not disappoint. In the Memory Inversion series, the fabrics come from different periods in the history of Azerbaijan. The fabrics are stretched on frames and then painted with beautiful, bold colours. His work explores the idea of heritage, generations past and and how that relates to who we are.
Inspired by Palestinian embroidery, the exhibition also includes works in stone, wood and brass by the Naqsh Collective, founded in Jordan in 2010 by two sisters – Nisreen and Nermeen Abu-Dail. The preservation of symbols from Palestinian culture is at the root of their work. The traditional Palestinian techniques and motifs are married with the use of hard and durable materials to allow the artists to memorialise their culture in a lasting way.
Speaking to Nisreen at the exhibition’s opening, she said: ‘We realised after witnessing the Arab Spring, that we really wanted to learn more about our roots and culture. Once we decided to concentrate on our origins, embroidery was the first element to recognise. The collection here is inspired by Palestinian embroidery and Nermeen and I were inspired by the geometry itself away from the fabric and the thread. We thought that it would be interesting to subtract the patterns from the dress and just see what other form of art we would be dealing with.’
Commenting on the choice of materials, Nisreen said: ‘The durability and the immortality of the material was very important in our selection. At one point, looking at the dresses being worn and being torn by time, it was sad to not be able find a form of documentation other than books. So we decided to follow this path of creating work that would give a long life to these pieces and this craft.’
One of the duo’s works, Akka Artwork, will be exhibited for the first time. This unique piece is breathtaking in its size and scale, standing nearly 2.5 metres tall. The sisters worked with marble and constructed the work like a puzzle. The high level of craftsmanship is impressive. This piece includes elements of embroidery but the artists play around with scale so that some sections are enlarged quite significantly while others are rendered very small. It represents a rite of passage for young men in the town of Akka in which they jump from a cliff into the water below to symbolise moving from childhood to adulthood. The act is said to be liberating and the life and energy of the two figures suspended in mid-air in the art piece is emotive and memorable. As a tradition, it still exists today and the two sisters’ commemoration of this coming-of-age ritual is extraordinarily affecting.
Later on, Nisreen spoke movingly about her and her sister’s decision to focus on celebrating the rich culture of Palestine. ‘In the current situation of what Palestine is going through – suffering, drama and sadness – Nermeen and I decided to celebrate the beauty of our country and to shed light on the joyful parts,’ she says, ‘the beauty of the civilisation and the value of living there day by day. We need to give back some hope to ourselves and to the generations coming. It’s a celebration of our country.’
With a playful and satirical style, Amir Khojasteh, an Iranian artist, exhibits expressionist portraits of well-known figures in society and powerful leaders. It explores the concept of fear and the fear-maker with political figures. The artist uses classical visual perspectives for all his portraits and likes to keep his work abstract so that the figures remain ambiguous. The paintings may appear child-like, but Khojasteh drafts them out accurately beforehand and then paints them in a comical way so every single piece of work is intentional. His work is light-hearted and humorous and comments on the social structure of society without being politically direct.
Also exhibited are paintings by the Ghasemi Brothers, an Iranian trio from the port city of Anzali, that speak of migration and the movement of people. By dint of where they have grown up, they have witnessed the comings and goings of people their whole lives and this is where the root of their interest in migration originated from. Their work is a response to their environment but there is never a clear position on who the abstract figures in their paintings are or what the trio’s views on migration are. With three people constantly adding to the same work, the meaning of a painting constantly changes direction on the canvas so layers of ambiguity are added with each alteration.
They create a ‘dripping’ effect on the canvas which is both nostalgic and atmospheric. This combined with the constant layering of paint on the canvas to form beautiful patterns creates an element of fading which adds to the feeling of moving away and drifting. The painting of the lone figure, floating on a log out at sea is particularly arresting. There is a sense of detachment and quietness which is emphasised by the serene blue hues of the sky and sea and it is one of the most moving pieces in the exhibition.
Overall, Bahith is an intimate, personal and moving installation. Every piece of work on display has something to absorb, engage and stimulate the viewer and the small scale of the exhibition space allows you to take time over each piece. It is definitely worth visiting this stylish gallery to discover the captivating work of talented artists, inspired by their culture, environment and personal histories.
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