Hiba Kalache’s first solo exhibition is evocatively titled. Of the name “Alternative Worlds,” Kalache says “the meaning ... has many layers ... it’s about how to be as human beings, how to dream, and how to build on those dreams to create these other worlds that we want to reach – better worlds.”
On another level her title also refers to “other worlds that we tend to escape to and isolate ourselves in for protection,” she says. “As an artist I need those worlds in order to create.”
The show opened earlier this week at the Running Hose Gallery in Karantina, and features 17 pieces, four of them diptychs, in ink, aquarelle and acrylic lacquer. The works explore the political and social events of the Arab spring, and combine images of warfare, such as guns, grenades and ropes made of plaited hair, with abstract bursts of color and pattern, to create a series of works which evoke a violent past while yearning for a peaceful future.
Kalache was born in Lebanon and lived here through much of the Civil War. It was only when she moved to Montreal at age 17 that she says she realized it was not necessarily normal to have to live with the dangers of war as a daily reality. “I have always had this concern about how we are conditioned to something we didn’t choose, especially things such as wars,” she says.
While studying art in the United States she began to use her childhood memories as her subject matter. “For me it’s beyond any understanding as a human to really assimilate and to process all the injustice,” she says.
“My art is my reaction, my opposition to what’s happening.”
Kalache’s paintings reveal a fascination with human hair, which has long played an important role in her artwork. “It started with using actual physical hair in my sculptures and installations,” she says.
She associates it with women and femininity and sees it as attractive and at the same time repulsive, “this alive-dead thing.”
Almost all the pieces in “Alternate Worlds” feature hair in some form. In some pieces it covers the bodies of her vaguely humanoid figures, in others it is woven into ropes to hang them, or in one group of pieces she used it to tie others up and drag them across the ground.
In her larger pieces, such as “The Ascent,” the hair is less obvious, but still present in the delicate black lines which swirl behind and around the dramatic colors and explosions in the sky. These lines are executed with incredible precision, in contrast to the colored patterns which at first appear chaotic. “To me it’s very ordered, it’s ordered chaos,” says Kalache, “because really every line is put in its place.”
“The Ascent” is one of the largest pieces in the exhibition, and depicts a straggling line of grey and brown figures wending their way along a mountain path beneath a dramatic sky, in which vividly colored geometric patterns and shapes seemingly compete with splashes and blobs of cloudy black ink.
Kalache deliberately chose not to display the titles of her pieces, in order to leave the viewer to form their own interpretation. “The Ascent” in particular has had very different reactions, she says, some people seeing it instead as a descent, the figures fleeing the chaos in the skies rather than mounting toward it.
Kalache has always used a lot of red and pink in her work, and two of her previous exhibitions featured pieces using exclusively these colors. “Alternate Worlds” features a collection of seven small pieces which continue her fascination with these hues, collectively titled “Beyond Comprehension.”
“I like my pink series although they are not very easy to access,” Kalache says. “Titling them each individually was giving away too much and limiting them at the same time.”
The “Beyond Comprehension” series mirror the themes of her larger paintings: the explosions in the sky and the lumpen, featureless figures, some tied up, some blind-folded, some covered thickly with hair. However, the prominent use of the color pink gives these pieces a very different atmosphere, contrasting images of warfare with soft pink watercolor washes and in some pieces with sparkly glitter.
The figures in her pieces work well as a means of representing human kind. With no distinguishing features the figures could be men or women, old or young, of any race, religion or nationality. At the same time they are so alien that it is often hard to identify with them. At times they inspire pity, as in the case of the figure tied up and dragged by thick skeins of human hair. At other times, standing regimented with blindfolds tied across their eyeless faces, they inspire a feeling of dislocation or even fear.
“I prefer not to give them a very specific role and just to leave everything open,” Kalache says. “Some people say ‘They don’t even look human, they look more like monsters, what are they?’”
With her vibrantly colored explosions and delicate line drawing Kalache has found a way to introduce an unexpected beauty into the subject of warfare. She tries to include something for everyone in her paintings. “Not everybody wants to think,” she says. “Sometime you only want to look at something beautiful. Other people are a bit more philosophical. They like the story.”
Hiba Kalache’s “Alternate Worlds” is on display at the Running Horse Gallery in Karantina until Feb. 25. For more information, please call 01-562778.
The Daily Star .