In his latest exhibition, Iraqi artist Nazar Yahya revisits Andalusian history in the context of contemporary events in the Arab world
By Jyoti KalsiSpecial to Weekend Review December 30, 2015
Texas-based Iraqi artist Nazar Yahya revisits and re-examines Andalusian-Arab history in the context of contemporary events in the Arab world in his latest exhibition, “Reconquista”. The artist’s focus is on the story of the last Moorish king of Granada, Abu Abdullah — or “Boabdil” as he is known in Spain — who was forced to surrender his kingdom to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. Through paintings, installations and sculptural works, Yahya has reconstructed a bygone era, and the events that led to the last king’s famous last sigh as he tearfully bid farewell to his kingdom. By paying tribute to a significant period in Arab history, Yahya highlights the Arab world’s achievements in the literary, scientific, philosophical, cultural and other fields during that era of enlightenment, but he also reminds us of the intolerance, greed for power and political manipulations that destroyed it all. Boabdil’s story thus becomes a gateway for exploring themes of exile, isolation, loss of a homeland and the struggle to retain identity. As an Iraqi living in exile, these are themes that concern the artist personally. But they are also universally relevant at a time when the lives, homes and historic sites of Arabs are being destroyed and millions are being forced into exile by the power struggles, fanaticism and intolerance in the region. The artist has divided the gallery into a series of intimate spaces, each containing a group of themed works. At the back of the gallery, he has recreated the multi-sensorial experience of an Andalusian hammam, with a pool of water, aromatic candles and sensuous paintings of women that are barely visible in the dark interior. As visitors move through these spaces, they encounter various ideas and themes that invite them to closely examine the past and the present. Yahya spoke to Weekend Review about the characters, motifs and themes of this show.
Q: Why did you choose to revisit Andalusia?» A: The reason is that Andalusia has a clear history with a beginning and an end, and can hence be analysed and studied properly. It closely resembles our current reality as Arabs, in terms of what happened in Iraq and is happening in other countries today; but we don’t know at what stage of the timeline we are in and what the end will be. We could have tried to understand what happened in Granada, and learnt from it, but we did not. So, I wanted to construct an understanding of what happened in the past and what is happening in the present by looking at both realities together and comparing them. Q: What drew you to Boabdil’s story? A: This story is familiar to all Arabs and Muslims, but I decided to look at it closely after reading a book by a Spanish writer, which told the story from Boabdil’s point of view. The book changed the way Spaniards think about Andalusian history by pointing out that along with the “reconquest of their homeland”, they also gained a lot in terms of the rich culture and development in various spheres left behind by the Arabs. History is usually written by the victors and is therefore biased and exaggerated. But this book is written from the perspective of the losing side, which is what I have tried to do in my show. Why did you split the gallery into these enclosed spaces? A lot of museums today used to be palaces, and we forget that they were originally living spaces. I want people to get the feeling of visiting the house of a former king that has been converted into a museum, and I also want them to be able to focus on specific themes in each room. Q: What was the idea behind recreating the hammam? A: The Andalusian hammam symbolises the migration of Arabs from the desert to an environment of lush greenery and abundant water. This transition was manifested through the development of a number of rituals surrounding the practice of bathing and grooming. It also led to the mingling of different cultures and the birth of new ideas. The portraits of four women that I have put on the walls of the hammam represent the different ethnic groups that lived together in harmony at that time. Q: What does the motif of the broken, masked or half human toy horses in the paintings in one room represent? A: I was forcibly conscripted into the Iraqi army during the Iran-Iraq war, like many other young soldiers. Similarly, horses also get transformed into cold, harsh, mechanical war machines by power-hungry leaders. The fierce masks worn by my soldier-horses are reproductions of masks used during ancient wars, which were meant to scare the enemy. To me the horse is the obedient, acquiescent soldier who becomes the conduit for these types of wars, and my toy horses represent me as well as all the unknown, unsung soldiers who are merely toys in the power games played by leaders. In the painting of the dead horse-soldier, I put a carrier pigeon beside the skull to indicate that it has nowhere to go, no homeland to carry messages to.
Q:Why have you dedicated one space to the philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd)? A: History mentions the burning of the library of Averroes as the catalyst for the unravelling of Arab civilisation in Andalusia and the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe. The library was burnt down because of the ignorance and religious extremism of those who disagreed with his philosophies. While Arabs did not recognise his greatness and lost important ideas by this act, Europeans acknowledge and appreciate him because the few writings of Averroes that survived became the foundation for Western thought. I have tried to create new books to populate a new imaginary library. The paintings in this space represent the covers of the books that should never have been burnt. Each cover has his portrait juxtaposed with various ideas and subjects that he was interested in. These works speak about how much we lose when we allow extremism to influence our actions, and reflect what is happening today in the region. Q: What does the painting “Arabic Narrative” symbolise? A: Here I have referenced the Arabian tale of “1001 Nights”, where there is a story within a story in an endless chain, by painting four wooden horses perched one on top of the other. It expresses the idea of the continuum of Arab history, and of the never-ending wars in that history, with the current generation of warriors represented by the fifth real horse and soldier at the top. Q: The two portraits of Boabdil in this show, “Jail” and “Glowing” are quite different. What does each one say? A: The paintings depict the dualities in his personality, and what he represents in history. Boabdil was a spiritual, sensitive person who wanted to be a poet and not a leader or warrior. In “Jail” he is seen behind a mashrabiya, alluding to the fact that he became a prisoner of his destiny. The portrait of the king surrendering the key to the city is painted in the style of Christian iconography. I have reproduced the king’s actual helmet, which is exhibited in a museum. The radiance from the golden key is a symbol of the intellectualism and culture in Europe during that time; but the light hides part of Boabdil’s features indicating the beginning of the Christian Spanish era. Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.