In Baghdad in the early 1980s, Sadik Alfraji sought out thinkers who went far down the rabbit hole. He pored over artists such as Max Beckmann and Edvard Munch, and bounded through tomes of German philosophers and poets. Though he can't explain why, their chilly yet epic vision of what art can do enraptured him.
Since then, the artist has set up his studio in the Netherlands and carved out a stark, distinctive style of painting.
Working on whitewashed newsprint or canvas, Alfraji is recognisable for slender, shadowlike bodies, rendered entirely in black, that stoop to fit inside his canvases. On this painted surface, Alfraji affixes a simple eye and set of hands that he prints separately and brushes lightly with Indian ink. There's absolute clarity and restraint in every canvas - a poverty of ornamentation - but his desire to engage with the grand questions of existence found him kinship with the greats of central Europe.
"The big questions about existence come to you very hard," says Alfraji, the morning after the opening of his solo show, Nothing, Nobody, at the Ayyam Gallery in DIFC this past Tuesday. "That's why my work plays on contrasts of black and white and is very sharp. These may be very clichéd questions but are still the most important." On every canvas, then, Alfraji's solitary figures are caught in non-specific dramas of the human soul. The artist gives us simple body gestures, and a brooding, half-closed eye to conjure the moods that well up from each canvas.
This solo show follows the artist's appearance last year in Told, Untold, Retold, one of the inaugural shows at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. Commissioned for several large-scale pieces, Alfraji used his style to explore his feelings about returning to his family house in Iraq following his father's death.
Seeing his father's headscarf and argyle hanging from the wall, carefully in their rightful place, the sheer fact of his father's absence suddenly overtook the artist. "For a moment, all the questions about life disappeared from my mind. It was like looking at your life from above for a second. That work for Mathaf was about capturing that moment." Alfraji presented a black figure peering into a photograph of his parents, while memories appear to clamber over his head. By contrast, this latest show, Alfraji says, is less "poetic". It's true, there is something more insular about these works. The artist has pared down his style even further but that doesn't diminish what he's doing here. Instead, we walk between canvases full of meaning, but which we have to spend some time with to extract.
Concerns about the Arab Spring also permeate these new works. A six-channel video piece, Sisyphus Goes on a Demonstration, shows six twisted black figures walking in tandem, their backs bent and their eyes narrowed in painful resignation.
Based on the Greek myth of Sisyphus – who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill and watch it roll back again for eternity – the piece, he says, suggests that the character has gone on strike. "People go on demonstrations because they are suffering.
"I believe that even if Sisyphus goes and demonstrates, he will stay in suffering. Not because his revolution will not succeed, but look at Cuba, France, the United States. All historic examples of revolution. Sisyphus only sees his suffering and won't be free, but after this revolution he will discover that the suffering is still there."
It may sound nihilistic, but Alfraji counters that with his admission that he just doesn't know the answer to this predicament.
"The human mind has created a lot, but believe me, we haven't answered the questions of Plato after more than 2,000 years.
"The cave is still there," he says, referring to the Greek philosopher's notion that we experience the world only as mere shadows on the wall of a cave. Alfraji gestures to his paintings: black figures on a white background. "These kind of questions remain in the bottom of our existence."