Friday, December 30, 2011

An Untitled Drawing by Ahmed Alsoudani

Ahmed Alsoudani was born in Baghdad in 1975, but forced to flee his homeland in 1999 after the notable indiscretion of defacing an image of Saddam Hussein. His mother and siblings still live there; he watched the war on the television while learning English and working his way through two art schools. Al Jazeera English presents an excellent two-part interview with him on 

Ahmed Alsoudani
Untitled, 2009
charcoal, acrylic and pastel on paper
81 1/8” x 59 13/16 “
Museum Purchase with funds provided by The Contemporaries
Alsoudani's 81" x 60" work on paper,Untitled, 2009, has hung in the Columbus Museum of Art's thematic gallery on war and peace 
until recently, when it was 
moved near the entrance to a show of Caravaggio, an artist Alsoudani admires and feels indebted to.

CMA notes to this drawing mention that, "critics have cited Picasso's Guernica and Goya's Disasters of War paintings" when speaking about Alsoudani's work. From his Al Jazeera interview we learn that Alsoudani is saturated in the history of art and considers "stealing" from great predecessors virtually an obligation. Still, I'll suggest that nothing would seem to be safer for any critic remarking on works presumed to be about war (even ones Untitled) than to compare them to Guernica and Disasters of War. 
Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937

The title Guernica refers explicitly to the unjustifiable extinction of a civilian target during the Spanish Civil War: There is no question that Picasso's work is about the tragedy of war. We understand the symbolic figures he uses to build his anti-war theme. Disasters of War, likewise, in title and imagery couldn't be clearer. Goya doesn't employ symbols. Rather, he confronts us with barely mediated scenes of slaughter, indifference to suffering, and even corpse abuse.
"Rabble," from Disasters of War, 1810-1820, Francisco de Goya

"Heroic Feat! With Dead men!" from Disasters of War, 1810-1820,
Francisco de Goya

How does Alsoudani's 2009 Untitled present war?  Dismemberment, breakage, and violent energy seem to be represented; flesh, wood and metal are all mixed up in troubling ways. But those—even the what I take to be direct echoes of Guernica's imageryare hardly the first things I notice about this arresting drawing.
"horsehead" detail, bottom right

This is immense (around 7' x 5') for a work on paper. The single sheet is of a warm, almost buttery tone that lends its warmth even to the grays and blues in the appealing palette of the composition. Alsoudani has defined the edges of the drawing so as to compose a single subject of many elements. A viewer who stands back (across the gallery; away from the computer monitor) clearly sees a single large form. 

In this first impression, it's Philip Guston's compositions that leap to mind both in the massing of small forms to make one great one, and in the palette that poses gray alongside dirtied-up pink, yellow, and blue. The event—whatever it is or represents—stands out from that pristine, buttery background that recedes far behind the colorful and tightly composed collection of forms. Like Guston's moody, ominous work, this is collected parts with unclear, uneasy meaning.
Philip Guston, painting

Philip Guston, work on paper
Ahmed Alsoudani, Untitled, 2009.
Columbus Museum of Art. See citation, above.

Untitled is a figurative drawing, as I see it, with figures composed of flesh and props, and a collection of dismembered body parts. The wooden poles support a modeled torso of gray flesh with one flesh arm (the left one) that ends in torn muscle. The right arm is only the charcoal sketch of some mechanism, ending in its own blurred fade-out. Where a head and face should be are grotesque replacements—cartoon eyes, a hole "eye," a hose "trunk," perhaps as a nose? A pink "neck" lolls off like a penis-head. A red beret covered with eyes is an exposed brain? Many pieces here, and throughout the piece suggest body parts without either being them or not being them. From  blood vessel emerges, as from flesh. From the other, not only a blood vessel, but the electrical cables of a transmission tower. Behind and between those poles wave two gray lungs. Or are they segments broken from a boulder to their right? 

The point is that nearly every detail in the drawing may be interpreted as a body part (unless it is one, like the hand, lower left), or as an inanimate or mechanical body fantasy or prosthesis. Flashes of red may be flames, but they might be wounds, or blood. This imagery suggests Frieda Kahlo impaled on a metal rod; voodoo dolls; amputees with mechanical prostheses; Ku Klux Klan disguises; the Walking Dead. 

Does this add up to war? I'm not sure that it does in the literal sense. In a psychic sense however, there's no doubt that it does. These figures are ambivalent cyborgs, composed of flesh and spare parts introduced by accident or design. They are the composites of manufacture and nature; they illustrate  what humans have done to degrade the world, their own work, and species. Warfare is war on human minds and emotions. It is anomie. It is agony—maybe physical but surely mental—that steps right up to the viewer with these many eyes and says, "Look at me as hard I am looking at you. Can you stop this? Are you complicit in making this dismembered, brutal, spare-parts world possible?"

That's how I see it. That's how I see it now. The power and pleasure of such a work is that it is a fountain, always flowing with ideas and associations, new for each viewer, each time it is experienced. Those isolated, sharp strokes Alsoudani employs are piercing, we know, but whether with the keenness of lances, shards of shrapnel, or the saving wisdom of pens full of inspiration, each viewer will consider. Whether Untitled is an image to cause outrage, sorrow, or hope is an open question to be determined by each viewer curious and persistent enough to engage it, and open to the possibilities of scrapes and inner rearrangements. 

A streak of energy? Of absorption? A loss? Future or past?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wax Cloth and Textile Designs on the Street in St. Louis, Senegal

 On a recent visit to the northernmost city of Senegal, St. Louis--located near the border of Mauritania, where the Senegal River meets the North Atlantic--I had a few hours to watch people come and go downtown. The Senegalese are touchy about being photographed, so I've found it frustrating in my travels there to get photos of the vivid daily dress that I so admire. My hostess assured me though, that from our balcony, snapping photos in the interests of fashion would be fine, so I invoked the spirit of Bill Cunningham in the interest of art journalism.

My hostess in St. Louis is my new Congolese sister-in-law, a woman whose wardrobe exhibits her impeccable taste and insistence on first-quality materials. She is the mother of five daughters (the youngest is twenty), all of whom are tres chic. One hosts and produces a twice-weekly television program in Dakar on subjects that include current fashion.

In this family, the women move naturally between traditional dress and contemporary Western dress. The sisters tell me that they tend to save African garments for formal occasions. During the two weeks we were together, though, they did indeed enjoy the comfort of casual, capacious African garments.

Madame wears nothing Western. The difference between her day-to-day attire and her ensemble for the wedding of our children left no question, though, about which was which. The difference was materials, the latter being made of fabric shot through with gold thread and her headdress of lavish design being yet more radiantly golden. Day to day, she is usually in wax.

Wax cloth is decorated with wax resist processes, the best known techniques in the West being batik and tie-dye. Both  are ubiquitous, and, like nearly all fabrics I've seen in Senegal, they are brightly colored.

Few of the fabrics worn in Senegal originate there. Some are made England and the Netherlands exclusively for the African market. But many come from Mali, Nigeria and Cameroon; all carry the mark of their nation of manufacture. Quality varies: Some bleed and shrink when laundered; the best are very stable.

The batik and tie-dye processes help trace the origins of wax cloth back to Indonesia, which was a Dutch colony in the 18th century. Through Dutch trade and manufacture, the fabric and processes were imported to Africa.

The other highly popular form of wax is printed (machine or block-printed) resist designs, from simple to elaborate. These are, again, nearly always bold and bright, in colors of great intensity. Some of these designs clearly require five or six printings, their designs have so many layers of interlocked designs.

The pictures below are selections from my pleasant morning of fashion-watching above a busy commercial corner in St. Louis, on a 85ยบ morning in December. From time to time a car rapide, the cheapest form of local and inter-city transportation will drive through, each with its own painting and personality, reflecting the exuberant approach to color and decoration that mark life in West Africa.