Halim Alkarim : The Witness Archive


Halim Alkarim : The Witness Archive
Aug 8 – Sep 12, 2009

Robischon Gallery presents "The Witness Archive," an exhibition of large-scale psychological portraits by artist Halim Alkarim. Also known for his remarkable textile and sculptural works, Alkarim utilizes the medium of photography to reflect a specific point of view shaped by the artist's profound life experiences in his native Iraq. Each soulful portrait intentionally transcends specific personal narratives for the potency inherent in the universal connection.

"The Witness Archive" series was first sparked in 1985 upon Alkarim's travels to Beirut where the young artist's perceptions of cultural traditions and societal realities began to shift. His observations of the women there revealed a truth in their eyes that the veiled garments could not fully mask. These encounters, followed by the remembered gazes of countless others who were equally unable to voice the violent reality of their lives, led Alkarim to a sense of duty to express what he saw. Absent the ability to speak freely, either because of powerful governmental oppression or cultural belief, Alkarim's subjects offer the viewer a unique kind of direct connection with those who continue to brave war and exile. For the artist, the truth of such personal experiences is always reflected in the eyes. Many people, including the artist, witnessed and felt the devastating consequences of decisions by Iraqi political leaders who, in 1991, without care for their countrymen, ordered the mass burning of a vital food-source, the wheat and rice fields. This was done in order to create a smokescreen to prevent planes from flying over Iraq rather than engage in U.S.-led diplomatic initiatives. This particular event caused the final split within the artist from his country's government at the time. The memory of it is the inspiration for the photographic series on exhibit entitled Black Rain.

Alkarim's conscription into Iraqi military service during this first Gulf War further led him into another journey of anguish and loneliness. To survive, he spent three years hiding in the desert with only occasional visits from an elderly Bedouin woman who, out of compassion, would bring him water, dried fruit and yogurt. This period in the artist's life would prove to be central in his quest for self-discovery and is at the core of his art. This experience of displacement, layered with the memories and accountings of profound injustices through the years, led Alkarim to vow to capture the prevailing essence of this time in his mind's eye in order to be expressed at a later date. Alkarim had to be certain while in exile that his provocative artistic expression would not bring harm to those who remained within his country. Throughout that period, his more abstracted work in textile and sculpture served as an expression of his dream-like realm rather than as an artistic confrontation. Patiently waiting until 2002 and finally feeling more assured, Halim Alkarim began the "Urban Witness" and "Witness Portrait" photographs as part of "The Witness Archive." This body of work is the artist's hope that humanity's violent history will not repeat itself.

The creation of the photographs in the studio started with a disciplined and involved process of first interviewing models to discover those who possessed authentic beauty, emotional depth and in many cases, an ability to locate an aspect of anger. This was essential to Alkarim as a way to reflect in their eyes a truthful response to the violence imposed on so many in his country and around the world. In order to serve the highest goal of creating transcendent images, the models needed to be able to believe in and relate to Alkarim's mission of illumination. The chosen models – young and old, male and female – were graciously willing to allow the artist to recast them as the artist's white 'canvases.' They agreed, knowing that Alkarim was greatly respectful of them, to endure the application of layers of white latex to their faces to flatten their features and obliterate their singular identities in order to become representative of an ageless, universal identity. Wearing wigs and reflective contact lenses and photographed through screens of translucent paper, each model's portrait was systematically light-saturated through pigment and illumination to become a metaphor for transformation. Within the illumination of both technique and medium, each figure's intense, colored eyes convey what for many reasons had to remain unspoken. This essence, in the artist's words, "offers a cultural bridge against those forces in the world that would separate us."

In the other psychological portraits, Alkarim touches on the subject of the children of war as present in the large-scale, photographic triptych entitled Hidden Dolls. The faces of three doll heads are intentionally blurred through a layer of silver silk conveying memory or an alteration of time and space. Their exaggerated scale suggests the importance of the treasured objects as more than mere playthings which originate in truth from a place of little mirth. The dolls' secreted power to comfort is deeply-felt by their young owners, yet concealed in order to be kept safe. As silent totems, Alkarim's images reveal the power of the dolls as the keepers of what the children themselves are unable to convey. Conversely, the unconquerable gazes of the strong women of the "King's Harem" series are direct and forceful. Standing as kind of cultural conscience, their subtle yet confronting expressions counter the usual perception of veiled Orientalist sensuality. Their anger and grief reflects a response to unrelenting injustice in a place where the petty, self-indulgent pleasures of their country's rulers belie their heartless governing.

Initially appearing to specifically reference only Middle Eastern experience, Halim Alkarim's compelling images and ongoing work as an artist, entreats the citizens of the world to examine what truths their own individual cultures attempt to suppress and to question what remains unspoken as well. According to the artist, to bring witness to what occurs in the shadows of every society exemplifies the courage that each citizen possesses to transmute truth into power.

A native of Najaf, Iraq, Halim Al-Karim studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad and the Ritveld Academy in Amsterdam. Featured on the cover of the newly-released book entitled "New Vision; Arab Contemporary Art in the 21st Century," the artist has had several international exhibitions around the world including France, Holland, Lebanon, Jordan, and the United States. Museum collections include the Princesseh of National Museum for Ceramics, Leeuwarden, Netherlands; the French Cultural Center in Amman, Jordan; the Arabic Museum of Contemporary Arts, Doha, Qatar; L'Institut du mond Arabe, Paris, France; and the Sorsuk Museum, Beirut, Lebanon along with inclusion in the Saatchi Collection in London, England.