Arabian Splendor in Washington

Sunday 23/10/2016

Washington - Palms from Iraq’s sandy deserts coexist with birch trees from Maryland’s snowy forests in Arabian Splendor, an exhibit at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington.

The show features 27 landscapes, abstracts and portraits by Iraqi- American artist Ahmed al-Karkhi, whose versatility is as breathtaking as his work.

“Within just two days of putting up the show, I got a lot of feedback,” said librarian Amal Morsy, who or­ganised the display. “I’ve heard the same thing over and over: ‘This is the work of many artists.’ I say, ‘No, this is only one artist.’ His work var­ies a lot. He shows three personali­ties!”

Karkhi’s technique shifts across his portfolio. His interests range from nature’s realism to Islamic calligraphy. To one canvas, he applies oils or acrylics in thick swatches and in the next he uses oils or watercolour with the preci­sion of a miniature painter. None of the paintings has a title.

On one wall, hastily drawn bi­cycles move across the fuchsia, orange and blue background of a large abstract painting.

In a smaller piece, an expanse of ripe wheat bends in imaginary breeze. Every blade seems three-dimensional, ready for harvest by the viewer. The light, the horizon, the colours lend expression to two faceless Iraqis working the fields. They seem happy, not spent.

Caught in a nearby portrait is the artist’s son absorbed in painting. He holds a brush dipped in orange, upright, above the paper before him. The observer feels his keen­ness.

Across the room are six works in burnt orange, red, grey and gold that feature Islamic calligraphy, some of it collage. Small plaster cir­cles suggest the metal nails in old doors in Baghdad.

Karkhi wants to remember what Iraq was like before the war. Born in 1970, he graduated with a degree in fine arts from the University of Baghdad in 2001. After leaving Iraq in 2006, he spent nearly three years in Damascus, where he sold 240 paintings in the city’s finest gal­leries. His art travelled to France, Italy, Sharjah and South Africa.

In 2009, he went to the United States as a UN-sponsored refugee, with his artist-wife, 8-year-old son and a newborn. He had his first US exhibit in Washington four months after settling in the neighbouring state of Maryland.

He — and his art — adapted quickly. “I’ve changed my art be­cause everything here is different — the landscape, the houses, the sky,” he told The Arab Weekly. “My technique has also changed. In my country, there are mostly warm colours. In the Washington area, there are cold colours, like blue and green. There are four seasons here, not just two like Iraq. I paint snow now but I never saw snow in Iraq.”

“Ahmed started painting the Maryland countryside three or four years ago,” said Marjorie Ran­som, a retired US diplomat who helped Karkhi establish himself as an artist in America.

“In this show, I like the haunt­ing winter scenes,” Ransom said. “There’s one with light snow on the ground, where the shrubbery is fighting to survive the cold. It reminds me of his earlier scenes of the Iraqi desert, where the spare foliage is struggling to survive the harsh climate.”

Survive and thrive is what Karkhi has done. Before heading to the United States, he had never driven an automobile. He now owns a car and drives everywhere. He also uses skills he never dreamed of mastering to work as manager of a huge apartment complex. After long hours, he paints and attracts new American patrons for his art.

Sometimes, he said he finds himself at points along the Chesa­peake Bay in Maryland or Virginia. There, he paints sailboats in their slips or on the open water. The reds, whites, and blues seem oddly patriotic, as if his exhibit could be called US Splendor.

“Americans are very open to art,” said Karkhi. “I work in Prince George’s County in the Washing­ton area. It’s a poor area but people still react emotionally to my work.”

He has won several awards for his land- and seascapes, including the 2013 Krekeler Brower Best in Show Award.

The most moving piece in the exhibit combines Karkhi’s Iraqi past and American present. Float­ing on a scratchy black background is a woman, her features nearly indistinct. She reclines on an in­visible bed or sofa. Her head rests on a coffin-like pillow, draped with an American flag. She stares at the opposite wall. There, barely perceptible, is the red outline of a heart pierced by an arrow. Even less visible are Arabic words in red, green and white. She is homesick for Iraq.

Despite the changes in his life and work, Karkhi’s message has remained unchanged. “We need to help each other, stop killing each other. Enough with war. Time, life goes fast,” he said.

The exhibit closes December 31st.