For more than twenty years, Kareem Risan has depicted his surroundings as richly painted surfaces free of temporal or spatial boundaries. Without references to the hermetic space of the canvas (or paper), Risan employs color as a compositional directive. The artist’s varying treatment of paint is emphasized with the opacity or radiance of particular hues, and becomes the primary source of tension in his works. Despite initial disorder, the divergent sections of the composition are synthesized, appearing to move in unison, as saturated color fields are partly covered by brushstrokes that drip down the canvas.
Although space and time are visually undefined (or alternatively nonexistent), Risan adjusts his compositions with perspective and thus clarifies his representation of reality. As the artist directly approaches particular scenes, or surveys sites from above, he uses personal ideograms to detail his settings. Envisaged from the remains of subjective experience and the apparitions of historical memory, Risan’s recurring signs are set against strong areas of color, often as outlines that absorb the undercurrent of the background.
Experimenting with color, dimension, and texture over the course of several bodies of work, the artist has sought aesthetic permutations for given themes. At certain points, he has included figural elements in his compositions, most recently while exploring the subjects of exile and migration. Readable figures and objects appear when abstraction alone cannot communicate the enormity or transformative nature of a specific event.
Risan’s latest series of paintings, Steps in Migration (2014), records anecdotal passages of his life in Canada, where he has resided since 2008 after emigrating from Iraq. Charting the daily vexation of having to navigate an unfamiliar social environment, many of the included canvases show partially rendered figures completed with a thin white casing of paint that signal an in-between state. The artist’s self-portrait, a bald character with glasses, sometimes emerges in full, often with a skeletal body that leaves him exposed, or is otherwise represented as a disproportionate head on a drifting bust, a metaphor for hyper-awareness. Scenes unfold with protagonists who are in close proximity yet shown at odds, and inanimate objects that underline the absurdity of interactions. Lopsided chairs station his figures while hollow megaphones, microphones, and empty speech bubbles allude to ineffective communication.
A circular motif of concentric lines anchors Risan’s self-portrait, a sort of mandala with his image as its center. According to the dream symbolism theories of C.G. Jung, a visualization or depiction of mandala patterns indicates an instinctive search for balance when “psychic equilibrium is disturbed.” The ancient symbol is an archetype of the collective unconscious, “an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination.” The central point of the circle signifies the self, what Jung identified as “the totality of the psyche” and “the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious.” Risan is separated from the spiral socle in his paintings that portray especially taxing incidents. The glowing disc that appears in Cultural Difference (2014), for example, hovers near a ghostly likeness of the artist. Risan is seated and faces a female companion but is without a mouth, and therefore unable to utter a word. Fully dressed and crowned with a graduation cap, the woman fails to notice his inability to speak and holds up two documents. The artist leans to the spherical sign with two closely attached ears as though seeking translation. A second mandala disappears beneath a covering of paint that provides a backdrop to the failed exchange.
[Cultural Difference (2014). Image copyright the artist. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.]
Steps in Migration also demonstrates enduring disorientation through intricacies that materialize as spatial features. Aspects of Risan’s previous works enter his tableaux as he narrates the obstacles of starting a new life, specifically the abstract forms of art books that document the American occupation of Iraq. The round and misshapen cells that spread across the handmade pages of Uranium Civilization (2007) and Baghdad Fragmented City (2007), for example, re-emerge as floaters in several recent paintings. In Hot Country Cold Country (2014), a rust color field spotted with black and crimson blotches resembles the scorched earth in Fires of Baghdad (2004) and threatens to engulf the artist as he approaches a white tempest that blankets the opposite side of the painting. Risan’s use of such imagery reflects both the lingering after-effects of war and “the crippling sorrow of estrangement,” described by Edward Said. Viewing exile as ‘”the unhealable rift forced between human being and place,” Said also argued that, “habits of life, expression, or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment.”
Similarly, in House Away from Homeland (2014), blood red, silt black, and pine green creep into the picture. Painted at the edges of the canvas, the abstract masses seem to spill over from Risan’s 2014 work The Book of Sectarianism. At the focal point of House Away from Homeland is a warped structure composed of a lattice with fine lines. Two unclothed figures are contained by its compartments, a man entombed in the upper level of the home and the bust of a woman at the top of a staircase. Mounted on an upper corner of the house is a small satellite that sends signals to a head positioned on a table. A street grid mirroring the city plans that appear in Map (2003) and Occupied Baghdad (2007) is drawn over the bodiless character, veiling his image. This reference to Risan’s earlier works situates the figure in the Iraqi capital, where the artist lived until displaced by the war in 2006. The tar-like seepage that overcomes the city’s arteries in the books resurfaces in the paintings Ways End at the Ocean’s Edge (2014) and Cultural Difference.
[House Away from Homeland (2014). Image copyright the artist. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.]
Behind the structure in House Away from Homeland, the face of a towering green man is rendered in profile. Covered with emerald washes, only his teeth, the shape of his nose, and two ears, which appear on one side, are visible. Nude, the lower half of the figure is turned so that his spinal column and chest are aligned. Several faintly painted limbs are also near the man’s contorted body, an indication of spinning in place. Adjacent to the house and its jade-colored custodian is a larger grid that indicates the furthest degree of distance in the painting. Street maps of Baghdad enclose the inner area of the composition while the artist attempts to find his way in the surreal space that lies between.
Memories of Cold Nights (2014), a series of works on paper produced alongside Risan’s latest paintings, contain domestic scenes that combine bold lines, delicately executed patterns, and quickly applied brushmarks. In contrast to Steps in Migration, however, the artist utilizes the white of the paper to figuratively communicate the intimacy and shelter of his interior setting as he centrally places protagonists. Without a defined background or foreground, objects are depicted from different angles and bent and fractured bodies seem to swim or levitate. The artist appears in each drawing, and although outwardly content in several works, the general theme of the series is the body (or self) in transformation. In a revealing scene, he is shown in pieces, dismembered and stacked on a low chair while a silhouetted female figure reaches out to him from a large mandala. Bringing to mind Stuart Hall’s characterization of “the displaced zone of the cultural,” the untitled drawing can be read as a “problem space,” an image that gives form to “the complexity of the real relations it seeks to explore.” Risan’s paintings and drawings are deliberately ambiguous despite the inclusion of signs, allowing the viewer to trace the path of uncertainty that marks their surfaces.
[From the series Memories of a Cold Night (2014). Image copyright the artist. Courtesy of Meem Gallery.]
City Walls and Displaced Bodies
The artist’s current focus on the figure developed from an interest in the spontaneous forms of expression that can be found on city walls. In preceding mixed-media paintings, Risan recreates the vestiges, textures, and imagery of public partitions and buildings. Emphasizing the competing layers of advertisements, posters, and graffiti that materialize over time, he explores how such sites are utilized to air social grievances when other outlets prove futile.
Shortly after immigrating to Canada, Risan gravitated towards the visual culture of Toronto’s streets and began to adhere found objects and media clippings to impastoed canvases resembling brick, cement, or stucco structures. Between 2008 and 2009, his palette was altered by the stimuli of the city as he considered the variations in light and tonality of the seasons, particularly of winter, and depicted its exteriors with close attention to the interplays between natural and manmade elements.
Additional numbers, letters, and illegible slogans are scattered across the artist’s built-up canvases as evidence of evolving spaces. Roughly drawn figures and symbols are positioned against his collaged and painted backgrounds and describe either experienced or observed scenarios. Approaching each wall as a potential place for social negotiation, Risan inserts his own “graffiti” as final details of the composition.
In a second series titled Walls of Wartime (2010), the artist applies his modified palette to post-invasion scenes of Baghdad, and covers sections of his canvases with a white translucent film. Painted from memory, the semi-abstract works reproduce the sediment of devastation that has settled over its streets in the decade since the start of the US-led campaign. A portrait of Risan is shown as a pallid outline in most works. The shape of his body gains volume from the dust-colored deposits that line the picture.
Here Was My Home (2010), a central work of Walls of Wartime, includes a faded caricature of the artist as he speaks to an unidentified figure and points to a scratched and coarsely painted area of the composition. His triangular, hourglass body and missing legs evoke a lasting sense of dislocation. Resembling the wreckage of an explosion, the number “18” and the word “home” are written over the discolored portion of the canvas. The composition is divided as two distinct planes: a sun-drenched section that resembles the Iraqi landscapes of his previous works, and a narrow band of brown and green shadows. A third space submerges the artist in a silver fog. The work’s title references the bombing of his Baghdad home in 2007, which the artist first documented in an accordion art book while exiled in Syria.
Behind the phantom portraits of the series, Risan reconstructs aspects of the city by sifting through a mound of mental images amassed since his displacement, and translates Iraq’s recent history into tangible forms. In place of providing linear narratives, however, the problem spaces of his works employ “displacement, substitution, and condensation,” the processes of “re-presentation” that Stuart Hall, citing Sigmund Freud, argued are necessary to forging a relationship between “the artwork and the world,” and “the psychic and the social.” Left deliberately unresolved, the artist’s paintings, drawings, and books compel the viewer to fully enter his insuperable subject matter.
In Spite of the World’s Existing Forms
Risan refers to his enigmatic signs and simultaneous uses of abstraction and figuration as “chaos and disarray,” a broader formal approach through which the causal factors of his themes are excavated. This concept has informed his work since the initial part of his career, when he became active with a group of young artists who trained at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts and Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s. At the city’s foremost art institutions, the emerging painters studied under seminal artists Faiq Hassan, Shakir Hassan Al Said, and Ismail Fattah, among others. In addition to the reflective nature that characterized the art of the Iraqi modernists, who advocated “seeking inspiration from tradition,” Al Said’s later investigation of the aesthetic capacity of text and his experiments with mixed media tactility were particularly important to the younger generation of artists. Al Said maintained an interest in the possibilities of deconstructing space and eliminating references to time throughout his decades-long oeuvre and employed décollage in the second half of his career in order to expand the perceived depth of the picture plane. Moreover, the elder artist was one of the first Arab painters to approach “the wall” as a site of semiotic inquiry. Building on the efforts of their predecessors, Risan and his colleagues mined Iraq’s artistic heritage as they were faced with successive wars and international sanctions, confronting the country’s disintegration through form. As they appropriated aspects of Mesopotamian visual culture, they rendered environments in which symbols are destabilized, and manifest melancholy, or perceptible violence, overwhelms figures. Rashad Selim defines the aesthetic thread of the Baghdad circle as “a pictorial language leached from the debris of civilisation,” one indebted to al Said’s conceptualization of space and time.
The preliminary breakthroughs of the so-called Eighties Generation are evident in Risan’s earliest output. In Mythologies of Iraq (1992), a series of paintings shown in a solo exhibition at the National Museum in Baghdad, talismans, ancient script, and Sumerian-inspired characters are brought together against riotous backgrounds. The artist’s works of this period are governed by the type of “free imagination” that is associated with the painter Paul Klee, whom he greatly admired at the time: subjectivity through automatism. Baghdad Festival (1988), for example, contains an animated cast of goddesses, devils, and three-headed creatures parading through a sunlit scene. As Risan’s mustard palette changes with subtle tonal differences throughout the picture, fluctuating light seems to possess movement, adding to the rhythms of his figures. A cuneiform tablet occupies the right side of the composition while Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is depicted on its opposite end, alluding to the evolution of science, art, and communication over millennia. Vigorous brushstrokes appear to consume a bald figure in a yellow inferno in the lower corner of the painting; and in the middle ground a wiry faun rides a bicycle in the direction of a statue-like image of a queen. Risan’s source materials are evident, spanning centuries and cultures, yet the combined meaning of his signs remains unclear. Over time, his cryptic symbols were flooded by torrential backgrounds; as figures disappeared, contaminated landscapes remained. Steadily shifting to abstraction, Risan and his colleagues traversed the shadows of disaster that accompanied the fall of their city amidst the desolation of sanctions, and later with the onset of the occupation.
[From the series Mythologies of Iraq (1992). Image copyright the artist.]
A school of book art developed among the painters by the early 2000s, in part with the encouragement of pioneering artist Dia Azzawi, who supported their efforts despite living abroad. Azzawi’s own experiments with the art form predate those of the Eighties Generation by several decades and were part of a larger regional movement, stretching from the Maghreb to the Gulf states, that engaged the Arab world’s rich literary history. The London-based artist was initially drawn to art notebooks in the 1970s. Exploring the conceptual potential of a multipage format, Azzawi began to view its components as possessing neither beginning nor end—a transcendence of the representational limitations of painting.
Risan’s beginning trials with one-of-a-kind volumes were conducted at the Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1980s, where he worked closely with Ismail Fattah, Faiq Hassan, and Walid Sheet. At the Baghdad art school, he created installation art, sculpture, graphic art, and painting. Although he explored book art in small scale, he incorporated text, drawing, and collage in multi-panel documents, producing dozens of examples. Executing his books in stages, Risan layered their surfaces with diverse media only after determining their specific layouts, a method that allowed him to connect individual pages as a complete work of art. The artist’s outlining of his subject matter over the sequence of several folios was most likely instrumental to the progression of his painting technique, which defies conventional narrative structures by including several moments in time within the same composition.
As contemporary uses of book art took hold in the Iraqi art scene at the end of the twentieth century, postmodern formalism was introduced through mixed-media approaches, and often involved the transformation of the art object into a freestanding installation. Abstraction is another common denominator in works from this period, as artists sought to extend visual narratives beyond the edges of individual pages. Hanaa Malallah, a member of the Eighties Generation, situates the inclusion of non-objective elements as part of a broader effort to return to Iraq’s “civilizational roots” while establishing an environment through which the accumulation of its visual culture is activated. What is defined as Iraqi abstraction, Malallah affirms, is in fact the summation of past modes of representation. Abstraction as a continuum in Iraqi aesthetics is most visible in the geometric forms and lines that have been carried through the art of successive civilizations. The country’s modernist painters excavated the roots of abstraction in local art by refashioning figuration according to the forms of ancient prototypes while dividing compositions with the implied movement of calligraphy and the notion of infinity found in Islamic art. Color in modernist works frequently reflects the spectrum of Iraq’s material culture and natural environment, triggering associations and visual memory.
Farouk Yousif has noted that an observable link among the Eighties Generation is an endemic loss of “the ability to trust the world’s existing forms.” Replacing “reality with visual references,” they create “a veil through which the viewer must try to see the unadulterated painting.” As artists were confronted with the havoc of the American war and occupation and the resultant unraveling of Iraqi society, abstraction not only signaled boundless space and an aesthetic repository but also registered the scars of violence and ruin. In the post-invasion art books of Risan, Malallah, Nazar Yahya, Ghassan Ghaib, and others, the sense of “distrust” that is reflected through abstraction simultaneously reveals what Pablo Neruda termed “terrestrial sadness,” a perceptible embodiment of fractured nations, which he located in the paintings and murals of Oswaldo Guayasamín. Adapting “storms, violence, and ambiguity” into pictorial forms, the Ecuadorian artist chronicled the disastrous legacy of colonialism in Latin America with expressionist figures shrouded in the earth tones and textures of blistering landscapes. The painters of the Eighties Generation, who lived through the Iran-Iraq War, Gulf Wars, and US-led sanctions, similarly capture “the vanquished; with torture and sign.” 
The Diasporic Imagination
Ebon, amoeba-like lesions and pockmarked, sienna-colored earth are incised into the coarse folds of Risan’s books. Larger areas of bleeding color dotted with pictographs enclose these wounds. In Al Mutanabbi Street (2007), ripped Arabic-language texts are collaged, burned, and cut, then painted with light washes that soak their pages. Black tire tracks run across the surfaces of conjoined leaflets and printed sheets, matching charred sections distributed among the debris. Created as a series of collapsible panels that rest in a shallow box, the handmade volume documents the bombing of Baghdad’s legendary bookselling district. Killing over two-dozen people and destroying numerous bookshops and stalls, the explosion is said to have severed one of the few remaining outlets of the city’s intellectual culture at the time. Combining painting, collage, and décollage, the mixed-media work serves as a stark reminder of the extent to which the receptacles of Iraq’s cultural landscape have absorbed its protracted catastrophe.
The infrared color that obscures several inserts in Al Mutanabbi Street matches the red puddles of the freestanding work Mesopotamian (2007). The accordion art book shows the artist’s return to figuration after several years of working in abstraction. The cover of Mesopotamian is treated with thickly applied media and contains two bright blue swathes at its top and bottom edges, signifying “the land between the two rivers.” The work’s pages contain images from the past and present, including creatures and amulets that appear in the paintings of Mythologies of Iraq. Viewing the book from right to left: a Sumerian figure occupies a lower corner of its first panel; below the bust of the wide-eyed man are reed strips invoking Iraq’s wetlands; nearby, a dragon boat carrying several ancient gods is assisted by a single bicycle wheel and has grown four legs while it approaches the next leaf. As the book opens, its pages form a continuous painting in which a dark historical narrative progresses from ancient times. In the sequence of events, a gold icon is enshrined then destroyed, its holy figure decapitated in a later section. With the entrance of violent figures, the book’s abstracted background bears deep scratches, black stains, and other blemishes; holes on the surfaces of pages detailing masked insurgents and cartoons of militia heads expose subterranean lesions.
A striking aspect of Risan’s art books, many of which were produced while he lived in Damascus, is the pictorial system that records the ravaging of his birthplace. History is mixed with subjective experience through personal allusions and spatial symbolism. Moreover, the forms utilized by the artist–settings, textures, and signifiers–also appear in the works of Malallah, Yahya, and Ghaib. The mid-2000s works of these artists display a unified aesthetic, one developed in close proximity, then sustained after their exodus. Shakir Hassan Al Said’s openings, or cuts, which attempt to merge “the two-dimensional world of art with that of non-dimensional space,” achieving “spatial reduction” and collapsed time, are recurring components of their paintings, installations, and books, yet among the younger generation such cavities signal the absence of temporality due to a state of crisis. Malallah summarizes how her circle translated Iraq’s devastation into pictorial forms by confirming that the intensive treatment of materials found in her work employs an “intrinsically destructive process to engender the visceral experience of the reality of war irrespective of its geographic/political particular.” Although the members of the Baghdad set are now exiled in other parts of the Arab world, Europe, and North America, their artistic practices remain in communication as they continue to investigate the “chaos and disarray” that has befallen their former center. At the moment, they are concurrently identifying the archetypes of the diasporic imagination.
*The above essay was originally published in Kareem Risan: Steps in Migration, edited by Charles Pocock and Samar Faruqi, exhibition catalogue, Meem Gallery, Dubai, 8 December 2014 – 10 January 2015 (Dubai: Meem Editions, 2014), pp. 3 – 15.
1. C.G. Jung, ‘Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,’ trans. R.F.C Hull, The Portable Jung, ed. Joseph Campbell (New York: Penguin Books, 1985).
2. Edward Said, ‘Reflections on Exile,’ Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).
3. Stuart Hall, ‘Assembling the 1980s,’ Shades of Black, eds. David A. Bailey and Sonia Boyce (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
4. Kareem Risan, ‘Walls of Wartime,’ Art in Iraq Today, ed. Samar Faruqi (Milan: Skira, 2011).
5. Stuart Hall, ‘Assembling the 1980s,’ Shades of Black, eds. David A. Bailey and Sonia Boyce (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).
6. Kareem Risan, ‘Walls of Wartime,’ Art in Iraq Today, ed. Samar Faruqi (Milan: Skira, 2011).
7. Nada Shabout, ‘Shakir Hassan Al Said: A Journey Towards the One-dimension,’ Nafas, May 2008. Accessed 23 October 2014. http://universes-in-universe.org/eng/nafas/articles/2008/shakir_hassan_al_said.
8. Hanaa Malallah, ‘Consciousness of Isolation,’ in Strokes of Genius: Contemporary Iraqi Art, ed. Maysaloun Faraj (London: Saqi Books 2001).
9. Rashad Selim, ‘Diaspora, Departure and Remains,’ in Strokes of Genius: Contemporary Iraqi Art.
10. Sonja Mejcher-Atassi, ‘Contemporary Book Art in the Middle East: The Book as Document in Iraq,’ Art History 35, no. 4 (2012).
11. Dia al-Azzawi, ‘Artist Statement,’ trans. Nada Shabout, in Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art, ed. Nada Shabout (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2007).
12. Hanaa Malallah, ‘The Epistemology of Abstraction in Iraqi Art,’ trans. Nada Shabout, in Dafatir: Contemporary Iraqi Book Art, ed. Nada Shabout (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2007).
13. Farouk Yousif, ‘Painters of Critical Moments,’ in Art in Iraq Today, ed. Samar Faruqi (Milan: Skira, 2011).
14. Pablo Neruda, America My Brother, My Blood/ America Mi Hermano, Mi Sangre: A Latin American Song of Suffering and Resistance (North Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2006).
15. Nada Shabout, ‘Shakir Hassan Al Said: A Journey Towards the One-Dimension,’ Nafas, May 2008.
16.Hanaa Malallah, Artist Statement. Accessed 23 October 2014. www.hanaa-malallah.com/words/statement.html.
17. The term ‘diasporic imagination’ is used with reference to Kobena Mercer’s essay ‘Iconography after Identity,’ in Shades of Black, eds. David A. Bailey, Ian Baucom, and Sonia Boyce (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).