Critic Irving Sander wasn’t initially interested in art. But he happened upon a Franz Kline painting and couldn’t get it out of his mind.
Upon reflecting on how art provoked such profound and intense emotional responses, he concluded that art, in a way, “has magical powers, like a fetish, icon, or reliquary…The art object can literally bewitch the viewer. Casting a spell, it can transform him or her- that is, summon up a fresh perception of art, life and the world, and even cause the viewer to feel, think, imagine, and act in new ways…”
I too am bewitched by the captivating, mythical, mesmerizing effects of art. Indeed, this is exactly the reason I obsessively comb the Internet, pore over my library of art books, and scour galleries and museums. I got hooked on that magic.
Some art is a visceral, albeit, cheap thrill, and its rush fades fast. Other art lingers, coming up time to time in the unconscious like a spectre rising over submersion, calling like a loon over a deep lake and flashing silver light into your own dark waters.
The work of Ali Rashid seems to transcend still all of this. With a few sprinkled colours dancing on a monochromatic backdrop, the paintings might be pleasant but unassuming abstractions, perfectly decorative. But instead, somehow, they conjure Babylonian tablets and secret codes; symbology systems, ancient records and desert topographies. As if over millennia, there are wear marks and peeling textures and scratches that suggest mythologies older than time itself.
But what are they?
“Some years ago I visited a small island near the coast of Syria and there I saw walls that were, so to speak, talking to me,” wrote Wouter Welling on Rashid’s webpage. “Children had painted their own hands as signs of protection on the walls. The paintings of Ali Rashid reminded me of those walls filled with vivid signs. One doesn’t have to be able to read the signs to feel that they are bearers of meaning.”
Indeed, Rashid was born in Iraq, where the mists of time cloak the earliest human writings we know of, cuneiform code systems from Sumer.
Welling recounts Rashid telling him how his work began. Living under the savage dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, and a soldier in the war against Iran, Rashid was writing in his notebook when he realized his words could put his life in danger. So he began drawing over the text, “in the process of course making the text unreadable. Layer upon layer he created later on paintings like a palimpsest, a way of adding time to the essence of the work. Rashid developed a poetic use of signs which relates him to artists such as Antoni Tàpies and Joan Miró.”
“Ali's drawings are a shocking memorial to the atrocities which took place,” says writer T.J. Bruder for Underground Magazine. Rashid spent ten years in hell, a pawn of two cruel dictators. Sending artists like Rashid to fight for him was a win-win for Saddam- it put numbers on his side, but if they died, that was also victory, since freethinkers were of no use to the Ba’ath regime.
Bruder says Rashid began writing every day, poetry that documented all that he witnessed.
But, “His black and white drawings of horror were laced with poems which were abstract lines to everyone but him. Ali had come up with his own secret code, protecting him from the authorities' continuous spot checks and searches…”
This was an ingenious way of passing time, preserving history, and avoiding torture and death after controls and checkpoints. “He was now able to tell the authorities that the funny writing was just abstract creative technique, nothing else. In actuality, though, they represented his outcries of pain having to fight a cruel war…”
Ultimately, Rashid moved to the west, to the Netherlands, into safety and freedom, where he continues to create his spellbinding art. While I look through, appreciate, and forget an endless parade of paintings, Rashid’s stay with me and I return to them again and again.
I don’t feel the need to decipher them in any conscious way, and I don’t think we are meant to. The mark makings do feel like the walls of caves, whose textures are inscribed with ancient invocations from across millennia. They are transformed, however, by pure modernism, invoking and alluding to history but remaining a creative and spiritual invention of the present.
So many artists, myself included, find their practice essential to their survival. We often say, “I do it because I have to.” Perhaps Rashid’s work embodies this concept more literally than we will ever experience ourselves. As such, his intriguing abstract art is not just symbolic of redemption, but a record of it.
Lorette C. Luzajic
This essay is from Lorette C. Luzajic's Truck, a collection of art writings, and will also be included in artist Ali Rashid's forthcoming book.
The Ekphrastic Review
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