One of the great challenges facing artists in this region lies in creating art in challenging political circumstances. In the case of Lebanon, no small amount of interest has sprung from the great range of art – whether strictly formalist or politically engaged – that has sprung from 15 years of civil conflict and its social, cultural and existential aftermath.
In the past year, some other countries in the Middle East have also been experiencing “challenging political circumstances” of their own, thanks to the “Arab Spring.”
“Impulses II,” the latest show at Beirut’s Ayyam Gallery displays Jordanian artist Hilda Hiary’s response to the Arab Spring. The exhibition features 11 acrylic-on-canvas and one mixed-media painting (combining paints and newspaper collages).
“The Prisoner,” Hiary’s 150x150 cm acrylic-on-canvas work, is a beautiful but disturbing piece. It portrays a woman in profile – from waist to head with no visible arms – apparently standing before a barred window with her head thrown back in a scream. Her eyes seem to be covered by a striped bandage or blindfold.
From the blindfold to her waist, her body provides a white surface which is adorned with a collage of what appear to be stamped images – black flower prints, red and orange dots and an ensemble of abstract figures.
Hiary’s figure is placed against a grey background – highly evocative of the image of a prison cell – while bar-like lines intrude upon a yellow-brown rectangle that could represent a grim outside world. Nothing in the representation betrays the artist’s partisan position, other than what is implied by the work’s strong evocation of emotion and confinement.
Covered eyes seem to be a motif of this phase of Hiary’s work. In her “Amman” (150x150 cm), another female profile – also represented without limbs but pregnant – has her eyes covered with a blindfold chequered in black and white.
When asked why she entitled this piece “Amman,” Hiary said she feels that “every city is a woman ... Amman, Beirut, Cairo,” that when she hears those names, the image of a woman always comes to mind.
Blindfold aside, this is a more decorative work than “The Prisoner.” Like that work, the body of the female figure in “Amman” is adorned by the same patchwork or stencil-like images – another motif of these works – drawings, geometrical shapes rendered with thick brushstrokes.
Yet “Amman” is depicted against a bright red background that provides no clue to her worldly context. You might assume the color is associated with passion or perhaps (given her motherly profile) love. Indeed, though her eyes are covered, her head is bent as if gazing at her swollen belly. The relationship between the red background and Amman, explicit or otherwise, is left for the observer to decide.
Other works in “Impulses II,” bear the names of towns. “Daraa and Ramtha” her 150x150 cm acrylic-on-canvas work depicts two characters who look very much alike. The first names a village in Syria, the second one in Jordan. Both appear to be draped in printed cloth and have their heads covered – not their eyes, in this case, but the faces and heads – as though being masked.
The one on the left (Daraa?) is holding a flower in one hand, and something that looks like a flag in the other. The immaculate white background is marked by intermittent brushstrokes in brown. Perhaps they are abstract representations of bullet casings. Unlike in the previous works, the genders of these two figures-cities are left inexplicit.
“Determination” (acrylic on canvas, 200x120 cm) appears to be a full-face representation of a figure bereft of its head and one leg from the knee down. For all that’s missing, the curvaceous figure and bodacious breasts suggests it is female – in fact it is more evocative of a piece of antique statuary than a woman as such.
As in “Amman” the figure is set against a bright red background. The name of the piece is suggested in the fact that, despite her want of one leg, arms and head, it/she remains standing.
Hilda Hiary’s “Impulses II” are on display at Downtown’s Ayyam Gallery until Feb. 28. For more information please call 01-374-450.