Three Kings ruled over modern Iraq. They were brought over from the Hejaz. The last of them was King Faisal II. His death heralded the beginning of military rule in Iraq and the dawn of unending war, both within and across its borders.
I returned from Beirut laden with oil paint given to me by a friend who had fallen in love with colours. He showed me boxes and drawers full of small tubes stacked like bodies of soldiers thrown in mass graves. I had many to choose from, so I decided to take them all. I arranged them like small sepulchers in cardboard boxes to carry back to Houston with me.
I stayed at his house and that night, I had a dream. I was squeezing point onto unprimed canvases. I was creating short, horizontal, rectangular strips.
I shall lay these colors on unprimed canvas to tell the story of the three Kings and the men who came after them, just as the stories of generals are told by the military ribbons affixed to their chests. I venture that the threads from these ribbons will extend to find their origin in the barrels of guns that will be pointed at them in due time, lest they find within them that boy child whom they killed over and over again. Until such a time comes, I shall cover the thread with layers of paint and hope that it will suffice.
Nazar Yahya 2016
Once again, Nazar Yahya strives to mine history and access his own lost memory. He seeks out popular stories about the life of his protagonist, far from the inquisitiveness of that man’s entourage; and he painstakingly examines the fate of his subject while confronting his own inescapable determinism. In his previous exhibition, Yahya explored the history of Muhammad XII—also known as Boabdil—the last of the Andalusian Kings; he entered the King’s chambers, which were adorned with the expression “There is no conqueror but God,” sometimes in the purest white and other times in red or blue; he examined the King’s library, filled with the treasures of his ancestors, among them rare copies of the Holy Quran from Medina Azahara, and other valuable manuscripts that seemed to water the gardens of Generalife. In that exalted, esoteric air, he heard the voice of Ibn Zaydun of Seville speaking with Ibn Hazm, the author of The Ring of the Dove. Both men loved had a love of intellectual inquiry.
In his current exhibition, Yahya does not stray far from the spirit of investigation that led him to leaf through the pages of that son of Granada, the young man whose ill fortunes did not permit him to remain in his Kingdom, and who left the gardens of Generalife, his spirit broken. Now Yahya has chosen Faisal II of Iraq, a King who fell victim to the military republic with its nationalist spirit, that spirit that led the military leaders, just a few years later, into violence, in a heart-wrenching scene that was broadcast on television. The neutrality that Yahya adheres to in investigating the life of King Faisal II represents a form of loyalty to the tales of his mother, tales that remained with her as the memory of beautiful days, before times changed, and history entered a phase so horrific that it could never have been imagined. Yahya’s mother had woven those memories through the years of that King’s youth, as Faisal grew up protected by the strength of his ancestral line, in a house inhabited by hope and the challenging spirit of social rites for the new country. From here, Yahya engaged with the differences between the King and the soldiers with their various symbols. He also engaged with their similarities as institutions striving to build entities that would protect their historical and social convictions. This entire group of actions is an examination of the life of the young King within the Iraqi rites that such a life entailed. The artist paints a picture of the Bridegroom King with a white sash, a shining crown, and a strand of white flowers; then he moves on, in another painting, to blend this with the power of the King’s father and his vague symbolic elements. In a third painting, he pays a visit to the King’s grandfather, whose gate was the immaculate branch of a palm tree, the hidden pulse of the ancestral line. The names change after the grandfather. Suddenly military leaders appear, with the colored ribbons they pin on themselves, competing for symbolic space on their chests. No eyes can be seen on their empty faces, but the people cheering those soldiers on do not waver as they let out their cries of joy.
At their leisure, those leaders wrecked our everyday history, secretly and in the darkness, then quickly went on their way again, but their destruction has stayed with us, as can be seen from all the manifold interpretations of that history. How many killing fields are spread across the country now? But a new dawn will come, and no one will be deceived a second time.
May 5, 2016