Artist shows suffering caused by brainless killing machines

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Both are stealth operators. Both destroy their prey. Neither have a brain. These descriptions can be applied to two efficient killing machines that outwardly seem to have little in common. One operates in the sky, the other in the ocean. They are the unmanned aerial vehicle or ‘drone’, and the jellyfish, whose species, including the deadly Man of War, have roamed the oceans as silent predators for over 600 million years.

British-Iraqi artist Athier Mousawi has fused these natural and man-made phenomena to create pictures that show the helplessness and despair of the countless, nameless people crushed or enmeshed by the tentacles of war.

The artist spoke about his work at the launch of his latest exhibition, ‘Man of War’ co-presented with Ayyam Gallery at the Edge of Arabia Gallery in Battersea, London. He said that one of the most insidious aspects of drones was that the act of killing was done remotely which served to dilute the sense of guilt that the perpetrator might otherwise feel when engaging directly with the target. “With the drone, guilt has been replaced by efficiency on another level,” he commented.

Mousawi’s latest work comprises a series of black and white drawings alongside paintings full of vivid colors which at first mask the dark elements contained within the imagery. It is only when you step closer that you see the suffering figures with grimacing faces and contorted limbs embedded in the canvas; these together with images of entrails and blood are not overt or at the forefront of the paintings, you have to look quite closely to see the disturbing elements in the work. This is deliberate as the artist wants people to be drawn to the paintings. “You can see the people who become tangled up – figures, bodies and parts of arms — but I always try, especially when using colors, to represent the darker side with more brightness so that it is easier to look at. Even where I have blood cells, I often disguise them with color. But when you step into the work you realize there is a lot more entrapped inside it,” he explained.

Mousawi has seen at first hand the suffering of people displaced by war. He was Artist in Residence at the British Museum for three years and has led workshops in refugee camps in Beirut, Istanbul, Amman and Jarash in collaboration with an organization called START.

Inspired by the UN Human Rights Council’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child, START seeks to heal, educate, and enrich the skills and opportunities of children in the poorest areas of the Middle East through art. With arts education programs at refugee camps and orphanages throughout Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, as well as workshops for special needs children in the UAE. The non-profit organization currently serves over 730 children per week and plans to reach more in the near future.

Mousawi worked mostly with Palestinian children in the camps, many of whom were disabled. He emphasized that while the children did not directly affect his work, as he separates his teaching from his practice as an artist, the experience of being in the refugee camps did make a strong impression. “I had quite a direct connection with the people in Sabra, Shateela, Dbeyeh and Burj el Barajneh. I was attached to them. So when you see a drone, you feel it is so inhuman. There is such a sense of detachment,” he said.

It was watching the news on TV of the drone strikes in Gaza in November 2012 in which many civilians were killed that triggered what became an obsessive drive to try and depict the suffering inflicted by such deadly and impersonal weapons. That’s when the idea of the drone resembling a jellyfish took hold. He pointed out that neither have ‘eyes’: when you look at a drone there is no window. Jellyfish, meanwhile, are blind. In that sense both seem horrifyingly oblivious to the damage they inflict.

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Mousawi has undoubtedly been affected by the suffering of his homeland, Iraq. Although happily dividing his life as an artist between London, Paris and Istanbul, the years of war and ongoing turmoil have left their mark. There are elements of great tension, sadness, anger and frustration in his work which perhaps reflect his feelings of despair as he watches events in the Middle East from the standpoint of an exile. He is on record as saying that he is attached to Iraq in a ‘primal, gravitational way, where I feel my center is defined by it and my blood is colored by it.”

A major influence on his development as an artist, he said, was the father of the modern Iraqi art movement, Jawed Selim (1919-1961). Mousawi’s approach to painting can be traced to a respect for the rigidity of bold Arab architecture with the color and vibrancy of Iraqi painting. He comes from an artistic family; his parents are Ali Mousawi, the architect and the painter and sculptor Maysaloun Faraj. Mousawi did his MA in Illustration at Central Saint Martins in London. His style has evolved to combine aspects of modernism, architecture and illustration with his strong Iraqi influences.

At the opening of the exhibition several of the guests gave their reactions to the paintings. Iraqi sculptor, Ali Mousawi, who served as a soldier in the 1980/81 Iran-Iraq war and subsequently fled the country, said: “These paintings affect my heart because these things would have happened to me if I had stayed in my country. I left my family behind. I have many brothers, sisters and cousins in Iraq.” He added: “My country has been plagued by war. After the 80/81 war which ended in 1987 we started again in 1990 and from 1990 till 2003 the Iraqi people had a very bad situation in the country with no food, medicine or services. Then after 2003 came a new government, but up till now I don’t see any difference.”

The paintings, he observed, were full of the artist’s feelings. “There is a lot of fear and sadness in the paintings.”

Lina Khashogji, an artist from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, currently doing a PhD in Digital Media at Kingston University in the UK said: “There are really strong emotions in each of the paintings. I can feel it from the shapes and the combination of the colors. I really connect with it. I see what is inside the artist from the paintings, the contradictions, some kind of conflict. The background of the artist has really affected his work, it still lives inside of him. It’s very strong and aggressive.”

Ratip Alsulaimen, from Syria, saw the suffering of his countrymen and all people afflicted by war in the paintings. “I think the paintings reflect a lot of things not just about Iraq, but Syria, the Middle East and the whole world, because the world never rests,” he commented, adding: “There has always been war from the beginning, since Adam and Eve. This is life. The big fish eat the small fish. You can’t avoid these wars.”

He said that for him the combination of bright, vital colors and the images of suffering locked into the paintings conjured up a battle between the forces of “life and war, fighting and survival.”

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