Athier: Containing An Explosion

BY Harper's Bazaar Arabia / Mar 22 2016 / 22:00 PM

Decoding the rich symbolism and esoteric thought behind his bombastic canvases, British Iraqi artist Athier talks to Jules McDevitt about his career so far and presents his newest body of work

Athier: Containing An Explosion

Best known for his vibrant, large-scale works made up of complex structures and explosive forms, Athier explores Iraq’s past, present, and future with the use of symbolism and metaphors in a desire to engage with the country on his own terms, removed from the rhetoric and constant bombardment of images seen through the media. As an Iraqi living in the diaspora, the artist’s first-hand experiences with his homeland were limited to short visits to the country as a child that have consequently had a profound impact on his life. His identity is fundamentally tied to being of Iraqi origin but simultaneous feelings of being a foreign linger. Like many Middle Eastern artists, war and conflict is a constant preoccupation. The combination of disillusionment, fear, guilt, and helplessness pervades endless, thoughts, conversations, and eventually works, resulting in both direct and indirect manifestations of this turmoil. Despite all of this, Athier’s vividly coloured canvases have a message of optimism.

Works from Athier Mousawi’s Machine Hearts series

The son of the renowned architect Ali Mousawi and artist Maysaloun Faraj, Athier was born into a family in which creativity and learning was an integral part of everyday life. The artist’s studies culminated at the illustrious Central St. Martins, London in 2007 when he graduated with a Masters of Art in Illustration. He went on to spend three consecutive years as The British Museum’s Arab Artist-in-Residence and in 2011 was selected as the Chasing Mirrors Artist-in-Residence by the National Portrait Gallery for 2011.

Athier primarily works from his atelier in Paris and lives between London, Paris, and Istanbul. He is a studio painter whose work draws inspiration from a diverse range of influences. Exposed to European art history through his education and the work of modernist Iraqi artists such as Jawad Selim whom he was exposed to growing up, the artist cites the movements of Modernism, Cubism, and Abstract art, and most notably the work of painter Wassily Kandinsky, as having had a strong impact on his art. The influence of his father’s career in architecture and his own studies in illustration are also apparent throughout his work.

Works from Athier Mousawi’s Machine Hearts series

Sketching is an integral part of Athier’s artistic process. He works from numerous, intricately detailed drawings, echoing his background in illustration. Unusually, he often continues sketching after a painting has been completed, referring to these drawings as a way of refining the ideas and concepts behind the work. The artist precisely plans out his colours for each painting and generally uses acrylic paint, not as a substitute for oil but because of the immediacy of the medium, as the paint dries so fast the necessity for decisiveness is paramount.

In his 2013 series The Eagle and The King, the artist utilises Iraq’s ancient heritage to comment on its present. In The Eagle he enlists the figure of Saladin’s eagle, traditionally associated around the Middle East with the notion of freedom and national pride, in order to expose the realities of oppression hidden behind this noble symbol. “I have always been interested in symbols we choose, either directly or indirectly to represent us,” he says. “The eagle and its association with power and national strength became the main subject in my work for several years.” In The King the celebrated fifth king of Uruk is evoked through a depiction of his dramatic resurrection from his watery demise beneath the riverbed of the Euphrates. It is here that the artist deviates from the original tale and re-imagines him being strangled and subdued by the eagle—the symbol of Arab nationalism.

Works from Athier Mousawi’s Machine Hearts series

Picking up the underlying message of The Eagle and The King, Athier’s series Man of War that featured at the Edge of Arabia space in Battersea in February 2014, sees the artist focus on the contemporary phenomenon of drone warfare. Full of the aggressive, visceral energy that one would expect of this kind of subject matter, these confronting works reflect the artist’s disdain for the ruthless disregard for life consistently perpetrated by such remote killers. Through the use of a new metaphor of the Portuguese man of war, a primitive, venomous marine organism, he draws parallels between the impersonal and detached killing machines; both are deadly, blind, and due to the lack of a central brain, oblivious to the respective destruction they unleash. “Marine life ironically felt like the most natural way of making a connection to the air warfare, which has unfolded before us as the main form of remote destruction,” says the artist. “ Jellyfish have been evolving side by side with the rest of the world for 600 millions years. They actively hunt and kill with serenity, but have no brain. To start to question the idea of destruction without intention led me to question directly what it means to apply destruction remotely. To kill or destroy used to be through the method of manned actions. Hammers, daggers, even bullets come from hand via a human brain to the victim, but the more and more detached from the act of killing, the more machines feel like the jellyfish."

"In the wider context, I am essentially terrified of a world where guilt is replaced with efficiency.”

Made up of large fractured shapes and monstrous body parts like eyes, sharpened teeth, beastly claws and dismembered hands and feet, the works seem to capture the terrifying chaos at the center of an explosion. Circular shapes represent blood cells in varying colours and pockets appear throughout the work depicting nightmarish, equally chaotic underwater scenes complete with malevolent looking fish and severed body parts.

In his most recent body of work Machine Hearts, which is a continuation of the Man of War series, Athier, who is still preoccupied by the spectre of conflict, attempts to visualise what he sees as the mechanical heart of an active soldier. Inspired by the line “Machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!” from Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 Great Dictator’s speech, Athier reflects upon the unseen core that powers a human killing machine.

Compositions made up of twisted, organic elements wrapped around and seamlessly fused with rigid structures create dense clusters with a three-dimensional, sculptural quality.

“The way I always work is that I’ll take a very small question rather than a grand concept— in this case I’m asking—what does a machine heart look like?” he asks.

“This series is my attempt to visualise a machine heart, something part organic, part mechanical.” Here arteries and veins become entwined with industrial cables and pipes, and steel construction rods puncture soft, tissue-like matter. In Machine Hearts 5 these forms squeeze through backgrounds made up of distinct fields that overlap with each other, some fields are solidly coloured while others contain distinctive abstract designs such as geometric patterns and stripes. Pockets appear throughout the works trapping parallel worlds within self-contained spaces. Integrated into the fabric of the overall composition as secondary layers, they depict a parallel macrocosm beneath the tangible surface. Using these ‘pockets’ to change the scale of his painting, the artist explores a subconscious anthology of imagery absorbed through books, films, television footage, and memory throughout his life.

Works from Athier Mousawi’s Machine Hearts series

Aside from his own artistic practice, arts education has played an important role in the Athier’s personal development. While working with children from Middle Eastern communities around London during his residency at the British Museum, he developed a strong connection with those who have shared his experience of living as second generation citizens in a country far removed both geographically and culturally from their parent’s place of origin. This project enabled him to introduce the children to another side of the Middle East, far removed from the overwhelmingly negative depictions seen through the media and to create a sense of empowerment and pride in them. “We had an immediate connection, I think my experience of growing up with two distinctive cultural influences and channelling them into my career as an artist was inspiring for second generation kids.” He had a similar experience working with young people living in refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon through his workshops with the organisation Start. “Most of these kids really don’t have many opportunities and feel let down by the West, I tried to focus on the commonalities through positive artistic interaction.” With his iconic style that explores the intricacies of human identity and destruction, Athier Mousawi’s work can be experienced on several levels. His dense, lively abstract canvases of great visual appeal are heavily laden with disconcerting statements that tell the story of a schizophrenic, broken reality–but always with an underlying message of hope.

Machine Hearts runs until the May 30 at Ayyam Gallery in Alserkal Avenue. Photography by Sueraya Shaheen.