Her work reflects the plight of Iraqis and her experiences of sanctions, war and suffering, said Hanaa Malallah, one of Baghdad’s foremost artists of the 1980s and 1990s. Her self-portraits and abstract works are on display in London’s Park Gallery exhibition “From Figuration to Abstraction.”
Malallah and ten other prominent artists known as the “Eighties Generation” chose to stay in Iraq through the Iran-Iraq war (1980- 88) and the Gulf war (1990-91). She left the country in 2006 during the second Gulf war after receiving death threats from militias. She was working at the time as director of the graphics department at Baghdad University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
After she fled Iraq, many of Malallah’s paintings were looted from her home. Her work in the National Museum of Modern Art in Baghdad suffered the same fate. Today, the museum is a shadow of its former self with only 200 works on display. Out of the original collection of 8,000, more than 7,000 were stolen.
The “From Figuration to Abstraction” exhibition features four of Malallah’s self-portraits. Serious, reflective, introspective works with a critical gaze, the oil-on-canvas self-portrait from 1989 reveals an intelligent, probing and perhaps tragic person.
“The self-portraits convey many layers of thought and concepts,” Malallah said. “Those in the exhibition are from the time when I was a rebellious teenager studying art, eager to learn and acquire skills and beat my male colleagues at art institutions and at university.”
“Looking in the mirror to draw myself gave me the experience of looking at my inner self and then to materialise my ephemeral reflection in the mirror. In books I saw many master artists had produced self-portraits and I had the illusion I would be a great artist one day. This did not happen,” Malallah said modestly, seemingly oblivious to her success as an artist and professor of art.
In addition to self-portraits, she has painted portraits of people she encountered in everyday life. A painting of a security guard at the National Museum of Iraq shows the meeting point of her figurative and abstract works, which followed her self-portraits.
“This work is from my first solo exhibition in Baghdad in 1991, immediately after the USA bombed us heavily. The title of the exhibition was ‘Documents of visiting the Archaeological Museum/Baghdad’ at the Saddam Art Centre. This work was like a prediction as the museum was looted in 2003 when the USA invaded us,” Malallah said.
The portrait of the guard is clear but the artefacts that flank him show the artist’s increasingly abstract motifs. The museum, which she frequently visited, was formative in Malallah’s development as a young artist. The portrait of the guard reveals a delicate appreciation of the person and the artist’s sensitivity to his feelings. He is shown between two Mesopotamian sculptures. One seems to look at him, suggesting a direct communication between the ancient stone statue and the contemporary Iraqi.
By 1990 Malallah began to focus on abstraction, marking the beginning of a period of great creativity. Her interest in symbols is evident through her repeated use of the Phoenician symbol Ayn (eye), a letter found in Arabic and Hebrew. This interest continued to develop and led to her thesis, “Logic Order in Ancient Mesopotamian Painting,” which she presented for her doctorate in the philosophy of painting in 2005.
“There are messages hidden underneath all my abstract art works,” Malallah said. “I never practise abstraction as pure abstract as is the case in the West. There are complicated mathematical divisions underneath all the chaotic colours and shapes. I am exploring the concept that there is order behind chaos and vice versa.”
Joe Start, manager of Park Gallery, said the carefully ordered circular symbols and missing spaces were early hints of the artist’s fascination with the relationship between order and chaos, a sentiment that reflected her existence in a turbulent environment.
After leaving Iraq, Malallah had an art residency at the Arab World Institute in Paris, after which she was awarded a fellowship by London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She was invited to take up a fellowship at the Chelsea College of Arts in London for three years. She now splits her time between London and Manama, where she is associate professor of art at the Royal University for Women.
Commenting on today’s art scene in Iraq, Malallah said: “It is very bad as all public and private sector art institutions including galleries have been destroyed… It is really gloomy.”
“From Figuration to Abstraction” runs at the Park Gallery, London, through January 13.
Karen Dabrowska is an Arab Weekly contributor in London.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.