Seeing the work of the celebrated Iraqi artist Afifa Aleiby is an intense, unusual journey. An exhibition of 30 oil on canvas pieces by Aleiby, curated by Picasso Art Gallery manager Nagwa Ibrahim – who had been in contact with the artist for two years when she organised the exhibition – closed this week.
A member of coterie of famous woman artists in Iraq – Rageha Alqudsy, Laila Elattar and Wasmaa Elagha as well as the architect Zaha Hadid – Aleiby was born in Basra in 1953, and graduated from the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. In 1974 she went to study monumental art at the acclaimed Suikuv Institute in Moscow; due to political unrest, she never returned to Iraq as planned. After a few years in Moscow, she moved to Italy where she continued to study and worked as an assistant to major artists. At a later point she lived in Yemen and, following another stint in Moscow, settled in the Netherlands. She has given solo exhibitions all over the world.
Entitled “Landmarks of Estrangement”, the exhibition represents different stages of the artist’s long and prolific career. “This is my first visit to Egypt,” she said, “and I am so thrilled to exhibit in the land of civilisation. I was astonished by my short visit to the amazing temples in Aswan. And I heard that Aswan boasts a large number of islands. I’d definitely like to come again and enjoy the amazing nature and stay for a longer period.”
Aleiby’s work is largely figurative, culled from memories of continual movement across Europe and reflecting the different cultures with which she interacted. The influence of Renaissance art and iconography is evident. Many of the paintings on show depict women surrounded by nature – in a surrealistic spirit.
“I use women extensively, because they have special traits: the postures of the female body, the way it moves inspires me and raises an unlimited number of issues surrounding freedom and beauty. I am not a feminist, I am just a woman who finds the female body a rich source of inspiration. I use plants and landscapes as a backdrop to images of happiness, lightness, sadness or weakness.”
Moonlight, for example, features a middle-aged women stretching on the grass against a dark backdrop reflecting the artist’s grief over her sister. Many of Aleiby’s women are sad, perhaps pining for unreachable homes.
“I do communicate consciously with my audience through the eyes of my figures,” Aleiby says, “which perfectly express ambiguity, nostalgia, and resistance. Sketching is a necessary step before I start any painting. Sometimes I do 20 studies for a single painting. I have hundreds of sketches in pastel and watercolor. In some paintings, the eyes are completely or half closed as a way to show denial and refusal, a reflection of my personal experience in exile for over 45 years now. Of course the sadness in the eyes of my figures is largely due to the political unrest and brutal wars in Iraq and many other parts of the world.”
Most of her figures have the same eye shape, similar to the artist’s own. “This is not about narcissism. I just like to paint eyes that way,” she says. In this respect she recalls the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Reubens, whose figures replicate his own features. Unlike Reubens’s, however, the people in Aleiby’s paintings are static, as if by the impact of a huge shock, frozen in time.
In one case the figure is a headless corpse. “It is a portrayal of recurrent painful moments when, during war, Iraqi mothers receive their sons, faceless. I am totally against violence and dictatorship,” she says. Aleiby hails from an artist family, her elder brother being the celebrated painter Faisal Aleiby, well known for his portrayal of Iraqi culture and tradition. Unlike her brother, showing Renaissance and naive art influences, she focuses on universal themes.
“In my early adolescence, I was already familiar with Botcheli and Lautrec, among others. I never liked to read Arabic literature. Instead, I used to read literature in translation, such as Weathering Heights and other classics. I read about the impressionist school of art and about icons of Soviet art at home in Basra. This is how I cultivated myself. At the time, no publications or catalogues featuring famous Arab artists were available. My fascination with Russian literature and art is what made me decide to study in Russia.
“I believe my life developed in stages, she says, “one leading to another. The Russian stage granted my work a kind spirituality, while I developed a yearning for aesthetic refinement during my stay in Italy. A few years after my arrival in the Netherlands, I received a well-paid, two-year scholarship, which was a kind of historical accomplishment, something I hadn’t been able to achieve in Italy. At that point I exhibited with a significant gallery, and my work was acquired by a notable museum, which was a rare opportunity for an Arab artist.”
Abundant use of different tones of green and the constant presence of nature bring a painting such as The Return from the Sea – a reflection of artist’s connection with the Middle East, she says – close to fauvism. Surrounded by greenery, a woman with sad nostalgic eyes carries a basket full of fish on her head, and the sea appears as a narrow strip in the background.
A 1989 piece called The Trace shows a bleeding, headless statue. It’s about her separation from her first husband and her harsh life as a single mother in exile. The 2000 painting Memory and the 2021 painting My Wooden Horse are both variations on the same theme: the first has a child in shorts riding a headless wooden horse; the second a headless woman in a white gown flying. Severing a figure’s head symbolises being severed from the homeland.
Aleiby’s second husband, a Muslim Dutch scholar she married 15 years after her divorce, passed away only months ago. “He was very excited about the prospect of visiting to Cairo. His sudden departure made me willing to stay away from home, again,” she said in a sorrowful tone. In Return, a woman embraces a man in a gloomy room with a narrow window. They look like a happy couple, but there are suitcases on the floor.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.