“Someone put his hands in my chest and made an opening from my throat to my stomach. He wore me as a jacket. He walked around the city wearing my body; I cursed him but he did not care.”

“I always return with the dust as my companion, covering my head and hands.”

The dreams of people grieving, of survivors of war, survivors of trauma – these are intimate secrets; they have certainly never been the subjects of any news headlines on Iraq. Enter the art of Ali Eyal, where in one work of many, entitled Painting Size 80x60cm, he embeds pillowcases with these dreams – told to him by his family members – to eventually end up on the walls of MoMA.

That is only one of around 15 intensely personal artworks and series by Iraqi artist Ali Eyal. And when the list of a 26-year-old artist’s life’s work already reads like that of an established artist well into their late years, it hit me that it must be one of two things: either that artist has been through hell and back, and so art has been a vessel for their trials and traumas, or they are simply prodigies. In the case of Eyal, the answer is perhaps both.

Sometimes I feel like I’m a walking grave, like the graves [of the people I lost] are inside my mind and inside my artworks

Literally etching his memories – and those of his family – into everything from canvases and paper to tablecloths and pillow cases, Eyal’s art is immensely personal and incredibly powerful, precisely for that reason. Starting his artistic career in Baghdad after graduating from the city’s Institute of Fine Arts in 2015, Eyal has suffered trauma not only to his art, but unfortunately and sadly so, to his life – enduring things that, for many, could be paralysing, but for Eyal, served as an incentive to tell his and a million other Iraqis’ stories.

One of the pieces from 'Painting Size 80x60cm', exhibited at MoMA. Courtesy of Ali Eyal.

He had his additional studies abruptly interrupted after he found his voice in a contemporary art institution in Iraq called Sada, which was shut down amid the rising political conflicts in 2015, eventually splitting his time between Beirut and his home country, in an effort to find a neighbouring country with an art scene. 

Maybe it’s a holiday for them, but for me it’s not a holiday. The veterans are the ones responsible for the destruction in my country.

Beyond his artistic career, Eyal has suffered losses unimaginable to many. But for Eyal, whose father and five uncles have been missing since 2006, they were vivid realities. “My art always [oscillates] between my personal history and transitory memories,” Eyal tells us. “The point of departure of my work begins within these limitations, in order to lead into fictional and artistic narratives which seek to make connections between general public thought and my own personal thoughts, like how memory functions, and how it deals with a catastrophic event.”

A piece from 'Painting Size 80x60cm', exhibited at MoMA. Courtesy of Ali Eyal.

The Iraq War started – roughly – in 2003, with the U.S. invasion. The following years saw an escalation of violence and hundreds of thousands of deaths, and around just as many disappearances; people who seemingly vanished. But not without a trace, because traces of these people continue to exist with those they left behind. Eyal’s art, and his existence alone, carry the traces of everyone he’s lost, everyone he mourns.

The MoMA exhibition that Eyal features in, Theater of Operations: 1991-2011, is a group show, a retrospective on the past 30 years of US-Iraqi relations and the wars that form those relations’ essence. It gathers 80 artists, most Iraqi, but also some from the West, for the sake of highlighting their “responses to the war” and because, as the event description says, “conflict with Iraq has become an enduring part of American life, influencing culture, politics, and identity.”

...conflict with Iraq has become an enduring part of American life, influencing culture, politics, and identity.

Indeed, the exhibit – which is running through March 1 – has an apparently dualistic approach to the Iraqi war; assessing how it felt to the Iraqis displaced and traumatised by it, while also attempting to show its ripples back in the U.S.

Kurdish photographer Jamal Penjweny's photoseries, 'Saddam is Here', is one of the works on display at Theatre of Operations. Photo courtesy of MoMA.

For Eyal, MoMA crossed a line when that approach came at the expense of his own rights as an artist, and his principles as an individual. “They posted a picture of my artwork as an ad on their Instagram and Facebook pages without asking me, and the ad was an invitation to veteran soldiers [on Veterans Day],” he explains. “For me it’s unacceptable that they should use my artwork to invite American military, so-called ‘Veterans.’ Maybe it’s a holiday for them, but for me it’s not a holiday. The veterans are the ones responsible for the destruction in my country,” he continues.

Eyal made one last piece for his series Painting Size 80x60 cm; My Nightmare at MoMA uses the same framework of dreams and nightmares, but in this one, the nightmare is real life. He draws and replicates MoMA's post, to the smallest detail, including the date it was posted [a particularly poignant statement because the post was later simply deleted] and his own response to it on his personal profile. Photo courtesy of Ali Eyal.

That MoMA had made that post (without crediting Eyal or asking for his consent) is, at the scale of the art world’s boundaries, a gross violation of the artist. But to do so in the context of an exhibit rooted in such a sensitive context, that claims to want to highlight Iraqi voices and give them a space to be heard, is something else entirely. Whether the invitation post came from a desire to show “veterans” the works of Iraqi artists in an attempt to establish some sort of relationship between the two polarised sides or not, while important, is not actually the point.

My mom documented everything from 1991 until 2001. The documentation then suddenly stopped, because the situation in Iraq changed. 

“I lost my cousin, my sister’s husband, because he was a soldier and served in northern Iraq, and he was killed by a bullet from a sniper,” Eyal says, providing context on the ideas behind his project. “I took all the nightmares and dreams from my family. I considered these dreams to be his life, after his death. And I made it like a story. All of them are real dreams. But when I saw MoMA’s post, that was like a nightmare.” The pillowcase series came from that loss, and it sadly ends with another, different kind of loss – that of the spirit of his own artwork, what had given it life; that, for Eyal, was fractured after the MoMA incident.

Ali Eyal has not had his face photographed in 8 years, a decision he made to memorialise his own father and five uncles, who have been missing since 2006 due to conflict in Iraq. Photo courtesy of Warehouse421. 

“Sometimes I feel like I’m a walking grave, like the graves [of the people I lost] are inside my mind and inside my artworks,” Eyal says. While this grave may rest in his mind and artworks, he also made a decision that echoes that feeling, to never show his face online. For 8 years, his own private memorial for his father, a way to remind others that “we are all missing,” because with these losses come deep and irreversible gaps in those who mourn them, and in the case of those mourning the disappeared during war, there is no site to mourn, no cemetery, and so perhaps one’s own body is indeed the only alternative.

He also made a decision to never show his face online [...] for 8 years, his own private memorial for his father.

One of the most problematic consequences of the disappearances of war is the absence of a body to commemorate and to grieve. The absence of any tangible, concrete evidence of life for those the disappeared leave behind. This has been an issue iterated time and time again among human rights groups, most notable of whom is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has multiple running projects in countries across the Middle East to help find the disappeared and to help their families. But despite their efforts, thousands of families still live in ignorance of the fate of their loved ones.

Installation of 'no part of this book may be reproduced, in any way, by photocopying, recording, or otherwise, except with the prior written consent of the publisher', at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi, as part of the exhibition How to Maneuver: Shape-shifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics. Photo courtesy of Ali Eyal.

Eyal responds and makes sense of these – very personal – issues, through works that are just as intimate and personal. In another series, called no part of this book may be reproduced, in any way, by photocopying, recording, or otherwise, except with the prior written consent of the publisher, he uses a found blue suitcase kept by his mother at home that contained hundreds of documents chronicling the family’s life in the years before and during the war.

It’s not the right time to make an artwork about the revolution when you’re far away and showing it in a beautiful gallery with the bright spotlights and you’re comfortable using this to put it in your CV. For me, it’s a bit shameful.

 “You know, every house in the Arab world has a bag with all the archives and old pictures. So my mom documented everything in a strange way; even the weather, she documented, since 1991 until 2001. The documentation then suddenly stopped, because the situation in Iraq changed. It became dangerous,” Eyal explains. The documents, which include everything from newspaper clippings to daily to-do lists, are arranged like elements in a storyboard. He organises them chronologically, and draws on the canvas with blue ink, echoing what his mother did on the papers, writing down numbers or random notes and reminders. His drawings – as well as his larger paintings in other series – all have distinctly short, brisk strokes, that have become signifiers of his style – motifs in all of his different forms of work.

This project marks his most recent work, and it is perhaps one of the last for a while. Since the revolution in Iraq began in October, Eyal has been actively participating in the protests, documenting them on his social media platforms, as many other protesters have been doing. For Eyal, the revolution is like a “wildflower,” blooming and – quietly – calling for attention. “It’s not the right time to make an artwork about the revolution when you’re far away and showing it in a beautiful gallery with the bright spotlights and you’re comfortable using this to put it in your CV. For me, it’s a bit shameful.”

He put his art on the back burner for the duration of the past few months for that reason, choosing instead to participate in a movement that had been taking over everything – the streets, the Internet, the lives of Iraqis – and was so powerful for that reason. “No art and no building in the world compares to the messages of truth that arise from revolutions… in Baghdad, in Beirut, each week. If you want to do something for the revolution, buy a ticket and go to Iraq, and go make your art there,” he says. “This is bigger than art, bigger than everything.”