Riyad Nemah: An Iraqi artist fighting the trauma of war

Friday 19/02/2016
Mireille & Ayman

Beirut - Decades of turmoil and tyranny in Iraq have spurred the emergence of a wave of artists, a great number of whom were cast into exile and whose cre­ative output often bears the trau­matic marks of the suffering they endured.
For Riyad Nemah and many oth­er Iraqi artists, the effects of the longstanding conflict that has be­come embedded in their work has influenced a burst of imaginative responses that highlight the resil­ience of the creative spirit in the face of tragedy.
Nemah belongs to a generation of visual artists who surfaced dur­ing Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian reign.
“Participating in art exhibitions was almost a non-existent [option] for us, the artists who had taken a political stance against Saddam, since most of the activities were re­lated to the glorification of Saddam and his wars,” Nemah said.
Nemah and fellow artists found alternative ways to hone their skills.
“We were a group of friends going around cafés looking for models to draw. We sketched away from the government’s (eyes) and the visi­tors of the cafés were our primary subjects, especially the characters with distinct features,” he recalled
“We often had disagreements with the people we were drawing because they were fearful of se­curity surveillance and Saddam’s informers who were scattered eve­rywhere. They thought we were informants.”
As the situation in Iraq escalated and an exodus began, the choice to remain in the country grew grim.
“It wasn’t an easy option for us. The choices were to either stay and suffer or a final departure from the country. I was forced to leave, even though I would have had no desire to leave such a beautiful and rich country if it wasn’t for the power struggles and unrest,” Nemah said.
“Only the poor and helpless re­mained in the country. They are the ones suffering the consequenc­es of having an intransigent tribal government who failed the coun­try and sent it back to the Middle Ages,” he added, suggesting that there was a scheme “to empty the country of its artists, scientists and creative people”.
Nemah relocated to Syria, Jordan and, eventually, Beirut, the site of his recent work.
His latest series of elaborate silk­screen and mixed media portraits, on view at Beirut’s Art on 56th gallery, invite the viewer into a vivid world of contrasting colours and seemingly marginalised char­acters. Daubs of paint appear to stream across the canvases as they nearly submerge the faces of his subjects, who stand in virtual ano­nymity and opposition to the visu­al chaos. All that remains are their intense gazes that pierce forward, confronting the onlooker.
“I always have the desire to sum­mon political personalities but I am reluctant to defame political fig­ures, I am more interested in using innocent people as my subjects,” he said. “They are normal people. They are not the people that make the decisions.”
Using photographs of his close friends and strangers encountered in Beirut as a base, Nemah disguis­es his subjects in outfits that betray their identity and suggest a differ­ent and emotionally charged nar­rative. Some figures appear dressed as soldiers of war fervently smeared beneath layers of red paint, while another adorns a military headscarf peering directly from beneath col­liding coats of paint.
“Unfortunately when dealing with any Iraqi experience, the pub­lic mind deals with it in accordance to the logic of adversity and cri­sis,” he said. “I’m sure if I painted a beautiful red flower, the flower would become covered in blood!”
This misinterpretation carries into the present body of work as well, as he says: “When I draw a soldier, it is (meant to be) an ex­pression of the fragile human state… My concept leans towards humanity.”
Nonetheless, there is a heroic quality about the people who in­habit Nemah’s works. They settle into the frames of his canvases, standing resistant and unfazed as they witness what appears as un­told conflict and destruction illus­trated by the artist’s careless and frantic brushwork. Beneath the ve­neer of paint, his subjects seem to adopt a streak of humanity on their faces.
“I’ve been out of Iraq for about 18 years,” Nemah said. Yet, he also ac­knowledges that shards of his past in his homeland are also present within the psyche of his characters.
“Of course it has to do with mem­ory. I am like those people. I want to summarise those people in me (because) they are a part of me… Even though each of them has his own story, they are somehow me.”