Much like an assault to the senses, the bold and unconventional art forms displayed at Dubai-based Ayyam Gallery are very similar to the realities of the current times. On display until 14 March 2020, for his latest exhibition that retained its working title, artist Athier Mousawi is no stranger to the harsh realities of war, struggle, grief and uncertainty in all its many forms. “My last teaching experience was spending a summer in Athens working with Syrian Refugees in an abandoned hospital,” he shares.
This is also not his first exhibition that has touched on a sensitive topic and yet, he comes through with an entirely different message. As an Arab Artist in Residence for the British Museum in London while he was studying at Central Saint Martins, Athier incorporated his early learning experiences such as manipulating Arabic letters and geometric forms and adopting them into his works. From working in Beirut, Amman, Ramallah and Bethlehem to name a few, he has always enjoyed focusing on different periods and different things without making a complete switch from one to another.
This time around, taking a small, if not intentional, leap from the geometric forms and bold colours which are considered his trademark, the Iraqi post-war and contemporary painter attempts to begin a silent dialogue with viewers, inviting them to look deeper and reassesses what they see through their intuitive mind and not their eyes. In a bid to explore new forms and through it, new dialogues, Athier is very clear about his newest work. “I want the viewer to get lost in these works - to second guess their own certainty. The title is almost an instruction card of how to look at the works: it's big and bold and directional as you enter,” he says.
A work from the Nothing is Certain, Everything is Melting, and that’s Okay series by Athier Mousawi
Merging the two-dimensional with the three-dimensional, each piece of work explores a different state of existence. Moving between order and disorder and incorporating a play between the real and surreal, the exhibition which is befittingly titled Nothing is Certain, Everything is Melting, and that’s Okay, begins to make sense gradually. “There is a moment in between when things go up and things go down which is peaceful. This instant snapshot is what I’ve always been interested in,” explains Athier about this peculiar state of existence between order and disorder.
By placing geometric blocks, marble slabs and rubble, squiggles, foams, plastic toys, curvilinear objects and patterned forms in a milieu that he’s partially designed and partially imagined, Athier creates spatially ambiguous scenes that signify something deeper than what appears to the naked eye. “For the last eight years or so, the word which people across the world have had forced into their ears has been uncertainty,” he explains. “Whether the impetus was the financial crash of 2008, the Arab spring of 2011, the global climate crisis or the era of ‘alternative facts’ – the list is really endless – this word ‘uncertainty’ has slowly etched worry lines into all of our foreheads,” he expresses, and rightly so.
Taking this reality to his atelier in the suburbs of Paris, Athier’s intention was to create a body of work that would validate the discord that existed beneath every surface, allowing it to be revealed and accepted in a form that was too hard to ignore and too impactful to forget. “Making these works was a way of surrendering to this inevitability and allowing it to exist. The floating serenity and the peaceful chaos are devices to find a place of calm.”
An installation view of the Nothing is Certain, Everything is Melting, and that’s Okay exhibition at Ayyam Gallery
For someone who has been as fluid in his life and career as the forms depicted in his art, Athier makes sure to stay true to his primary medium which is painting even though he moves to use paint on raw linen for the larger works. Similarly, his current works too, embrace a fluidity to the current theme of times, only to return to the core of his very own heart that never ceases to explore his relationship with Iraq. “Iraq has been many things in my work. Sometimes literal, sometimes conceptual. These works don’t reference Iraq in their content, but of course, that floating feeling very much encapsulates how I respond and feel about my country,” he says. Having returned to his hometown for the first time in 30 years in September 2019, Athier never wanders too far from his roots even when he allows inspiration to take him to new levels of discovery.
Featuring a number of works from his earlier series called All Things Come Apart, which serve as a prelude to his current series, the artist has been keen to take inspiration from early Italian surrealists who have not only impacted his thought, form and structure, but also his very intrepid style that engages the viewer at different levels. By using old photos of Jean Arp sculptures, one is forced to look deeper into every piece of work and redefine what has form and what is flat – and this too, is intentionally inspired for good reason. “The Memphis movement (of the 1980s) for me is a break away from nature, creating structures completely man-made and playful using bold colours and bold inorganic shapes,” says Athier.
“My fascination with Italian painter Alberto Savinio is for much the same reason. Similar to his better-known brother Giorgio Di Cirico, he created works that were manifestations of complete scenes, partially based on reality, and partially existing as windows to the dreamlike subconscious mind. Formally, everything makes sense, in that none of the forms are abstracted: light, temperature and space all obey the rules of reality, but somehow nothing makes sense.”
When compared to his recent exhibition Nothing is Certain, Everything is Melting, and that’s Okay, one is able to draw inferences to the tumultuous world of chaos and clutter seen through carefully curated compositions in which marble melts into plastic, which melts into water, which melts into metal. There is no hierarchy of form and the objects exist in a world that has no mass or gravity - meaning, there are no restrictions to what can be and what is.
Talking about this dual existence of surrealism in the context of a reality with reference to the current times, Athier is able to bring about an expressive and alternative state of existence in his work. “Savinio was creating paintings at the birth of a new age of colour and materials, in the form of plastic toys and objects, which is how his work stays so vibrant and playful and [this is] what I try to echo through my works,” he explains.
In an attempt to capture compositions that balance and eventually melt harmoniously in their state of transition, every piece of art in the recent series of work exists with an underlying message that can only be intercepted through the artist’s depiction of space. Best translated as a sweet surrender towards all that is definitely uncertain, the viewer is forced to question if it’s even important to be so rigid with perceptions of time, place and situation or if there is more harmony in the colourful chaos of life and all that it holds in every situation.
Nothing is Certain, Everything is Melting, and that’s Okay by Athier Mousawi is on show until 14 March at Ayyam Gallery
All images courtesy of Athier Mousawi and Ayyam Gallery