The escalation of mass migrant movement from war-torn regions in Africa, Asia, and the Levant towards Europe since 2014, has become a disaster of epic proportions, a catastrophic movement of humanity on a scale not seen since World War II. Precipitated by the collapse of societies in Libya, Iraq, and Syria, the rise of Islamic State, endless conflict, destruction, desperation, and fear, millions of men, women, and children have been forced from their homes, embarking on a fearsome trek towards the Mediterranean Sea and, ultimately, sanctuary in Europe.
It is estimated that over a million refugees and migrants arrived in the European Union in 2015. Of these, 3,700 died or disappeared en route across the Mediterranean. It is almost impossible for those of us lucky enough to take safety, security, and peace for granted, to comprehend the scale of this disaster.
In this scenario, it is the sea itself that beguiles and moves Beirut artist Abed Al Kadiri to reflect on the individuals claimed by the waters in his complex and profound series of new works Ashes To Sea at Mark Hachem Gallery. Taking the Mediterranean as a focal point, he meditates on its deceptive blue calm waters, through a series of photographs, drawings, and paintings. The sea commonly signifies a place of infinite contemplation, new horizons, travel, and possibility. Yet the reality is that for millions of innocent men, women, and children, packed onto rude, inadequate vessels, it is also a mass grave, indifferently claiming lives and asserting nature’s harsh order. Whether those who perilously traverse its Western, Central or Eastern routes to Italy, Greece, Turkey or Spain survive the crossing in their rudimentary, overcrowded boats, gambling on the hope of safe passage, is a matter of cruel fate.
An artist working with paint and photography, Al Kadiri’s visceral paintings have long reflected the paradoxical cruelty and beauty of nature, and man’s quintessential impulses to create and destroy. His work is characteristically complex, in terms of composition and materials—he favors layering and juxtaposing disparate media and elements in order to create loaded narratives and questions. Yet there is a sensitivity and awareness to his practise, especially a deep appreciation of modern and contemporary painting techniques, which meld in dynamic harmony.
Having worked on this project for the past three years, Al Kadiri’s new collection of works take the plight of the thousands of migrants, the perilous crossings they make, and the global media response to the crisis as key themes. And encapsulating these themes in the exhibition is a key work, a vast 540 x 270cm painting, described by the artist as an emotive paean to the sea. At Sea is characteristically Al Kadiri – a vast, dense, swirling composition juxtaposing richly detailed nightmarish figures, set against intense, emotive gestural sweeps within a dramatic maelstrom.
[Abed Al Kadiri, At Sea (2015-2016). Image copyright and courtesy of the artist.]
The darkness that permeates much of Al Kadiri’s work wreathes this monumental piece, the whirl of humanity in limbo between life and death. The raw central presence of death is offset with a welter of information, referencing Al Kadiri’s fascination with media coverage of the refugee crisis, contextualizing the deaths with impersonal banks of statistics, data, and numbers. White ground at the top of the piece, criss-crossed with map lines and place names, soon descends into the chaotic maritime hell of death.
There is also a reference to our skewed values in a hyper-responsive, virtue-signaling world, via the image of Cecil the Lion, killed by American big-game hunter Walter Palmer in a Zimbabwean national park in 2015. With a bitterly sardonic ‘RIP CECIL,’ Al Kadiri ironically highlights the incongruous outpouring of online outrage and hysteria over the animal’s death with comparative indifference to the daily deaths occurring up and down the Mediterranean.
This darkness, grotesque and brutal, uses historical artistic styles to comment on the narratives of today. Contradictions melt into each other and become a heavily referential spectacle. Questions arise, morality is tested, perceptions, and priorities of onlookers debated, but the fundamental tragedy of lost lives remains paramount.
The second of the three parts of the show sees a series of images in which a backdrop of a calm seascape gradually fades to white, under conversely thickening figurative portraits. Here, Al Kadiri seizes on the notion of a paradisiacal sanctuary, dreamt of by the migrants who set out on their journeys. It could be anywhere—a dream, rather as refugees dream of finding safety and peace somewhere, anywhere. As the migration into the unknown continues, the situation deteriorates progressively, as charted by the dense, thick lines of the figurative portraits growing ever more agitated and impelling, while hope—the dream—fades from view into white space by the end of the series.
The starting point for this project came with artworks, of incredibly fragility, using tissue paper ruined with burns from cigarettes, the ashes remaining amidst the detritus. Al Kadiri’s use of cigarettes is a stark allusion to the lives of those caught in the midst of conflict, enduring the terrifying tedium of waiting in vain for a respite in bombing raids and assaults on the ground. Time, measured out in anxious, fretful smoking, is all one can do. At the other end of this hypothetical link, the artist watches the tragedy unfolding in the news on his television and computer screen, shocked and appalled into silence, a cigarette smouldering into ash and dust between his fingers.
[Abed Al Kadiri, States of Anxiety (2015). Image copyright and courtesy of the artist.]
[Abed Al Kadiri, States of Anxiety III (2015). Image copyright and courtesy of the artist.]
In the tissue-paper pieces, the smooth, virginal purity of the skein-like paper is coarsely eroded and pockmarked by blackened charring. The portraits he presents are therefore framed by their mortality, literally consigned to ash and dust, in a moving tribute by the artist. Fragments of text, narratives from migrants themselves, reduced to ID numbers emphasize the humanity at the heart of these pieces, reiterating the powerfully emotive effect of Al Kadiri’s technique, invoking the bleak finality of the migrants’ fate. Such is the fragility of life, and so are the fragile features of the people who have gone far, far away, leaving behind them bits and pieces of their traces…
With artistic sensitivity and quiet dignity, Al Kadiri expresses horror, sadness and struggle of those who in desperation abandon themselves to the mercy of the blue infinity, only never to reappear again.
*Editor`s note: Abed Al Kadiri: Ashes to the Sea is on view at Mark Hachem Gallery, Beirut until 10 March, 2016.