Close your eyes. Picture the scene. You are in a dimly-lit alleyway in Dubai’s Bastikiya area. The streets are narrow and they all look the same. There are no humans around. The only sound you hear is the wind blowing through the shutters, and the wailing of a stray cat from the rooftops. You turn a corner. Suddenly, a tall, thin, figure, clothed in black, appears out of nowhere in front of you. He has long hair, and a whispy beard that glistens purple in the lamp-light.
You want to scream. Don’t. It’s only Halim. He would sooner set fire to his beard than hurt a fly.
Most likely that cat you heard earlier was Halim’s best friend, ‘Bazoona’ (which means “cat” in Iraqi). It was probably on its way back to artist’s temporary Dubai home, the XVA Gallery and Hotel in Bastikiya, to be re-united with his animal-loving master. Everything is a temporary home for the nomad from Baghdad. If you believe the rumours, you will know that Iraqi artist Halim Al Karim allegedly spent three years of his life after escaping Saddam Hussein’s regime on his own down a hole in the ground, with nothing but a goat to keep him company. So eat your heart out, Yann Martel. In fact, the earliest executed work I saw of Halim’s was not the haunting faces of Hidden Love, shown in Saatchi and at Venice Biennale, that many of us now associate him with. It was a collection of small primitive camel sculptures, in a Syrian artist’s living room in Amman. That Halim, and this Halim, was an animal-lover, through and through. However, if you really know Halim, you will also know that you can never really know Halim.
What is true is that Halim suffered at the hands of Saddam’s brutal regime, like many Iraqi artists of his generation. These include his own brother Sami, who endured imprisonment in the Abu Ghraib prison, a terrible place that inspired artists who were not even involved in the regime, like Argentinian artist Fernando Botero, to depict its horrors in their works. In Halim’s case, exile from his country and its oppressive conditions forced him, like his contemporaries, to take his own feelings, memories, and experiences and to personalise and weave them into the fabric of his art practice.
The series “Witness From Baghdad”, displayed from Thursday 17th January 2013 at the new London outpost of Dubai’s Artspace Gallery, is a collection of Halim’s work from 1985 to 2011. It is typical of the blurred photographic method for which we have come to know Halim, and which in the gallery’s words, portray a “concealed vision of realities, [which go un]-acknowledged within his society”. These are the gallery’s words, as artists are not supposed to make personal statements about their work, nor should we ever believe that they set out to underpin their work with a helpful written clarification or a voice-over explanation. Statements are a marketing exercise on behalf of the artist, designed to explain what the artist cannot, nor necessarily wants to, reduce to mere prose. The artist does not say, he just does. And what Halim does, he does very well.
Playing upon the notion of ‘altered states of mind’, Halim focuses on the unresolved issues in urban society, especially those related to violence and dis-figuration in both the physical and mental sense. When I met with Halim in December 2012, I felt a strong sense of disappointment in the artist, who was troubled over the over-emotional and earthly cares of males in today’s society. In Halim’s words, “their minds are melted, they’re brainwashed”. By who, mostly? Halim is categorical in his response. Women.
If we do not allow ourselves to be offended by the apparent misogyny of the statement, it becomes interesting for its subjective analysis of the male psyche, and the artist’s refreshing candour. Indeed, Halim’s work deals strongly with the many roles and faces (not just in the literal sense) of women in society, and their influence upon men. If you take the time to consider, you will see many strands of this in this “Witness” collection. In the gallery’s words, Halim’s creations “strongly reflect the psychological desire to escape as well as the ramifications of his dreams”.
But neither we, nor Halim, can really say what those ramifications are. Dreams will be dreams. There is an element of truth in all dreams, but there is also a perpetual barrier, shielding an ethereal essence that cannot be grasped. In his compositionally distorted and out-of-focus works, from Hidden Love to Eternal Love and beyond, I see what I only see. A barely-there veil of silk separates me from what is hidden, and what is eternal. It reminds me that however close I come, I will never touch what is behind that veil, for it belongs in the realms of myth and reality, past, present and future at the same time. It belongs in Halim’s memories, and my imagination: an omni-present and yet intangible spirit.
Halim Al Karim – Witness from Baghdad
Location: Artspace, London
Date: from 17 January – 23 February 2013
For more information, visit www.artspace-dubai.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org