While many of us experience a slowdown in our work and careers during state-enforced lockdowns and tightened budgets, there is a breed of people who are indulging in the slow pace of self-isolation. In fact, some of them are more productive than ever, taking this moment of uncertainty and limited socialising to make more space for creating. We are, of course, talking about the artists of the world.
“Being stuck at home has not been a hindrance in terms of creativity, as I have continued to work throughout,” says Iraqi-American artist Maysaloun Faraj. “The difference is, not having access to my studio during this time, I have not been able to create larger works. In a sense, this has been refreshing as I have resorted to work on small scale intimate portrayals of my home, something I would not have thought of doing otherwise; a huge shift from my usual large scale geometric abstraction, be it painting or sculpting.”
Having left Iraq, a land in which I am deeply rooted, I have an inner compulsion to explore identity shaped by displacement, conflict, war, injustice, human rights, human wrongs, and beauty lost.
Intricate, technicolour and somewhat surreal, the 65-year-old artists’ Home series of small acrylic on paper pieces are a visual diary of her self-isolation in her London home. “I am re-discovering my drawing skills through direct observation of every inch of my home, but also reflecting on the notion of ‘home’ and its implications,” says Faraj, who has gained global critical acclaim in the art world over the years, having exhibited her architecturally-inspired, Arabian-tinged abstract sculptures and drawings in the UK, USA, France, Italy, the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, to name just a few. She has even had a piece shown in the iconic British Museum.
“In this process, I am finding immense pleasure, peace and solace. The last time I made this kind of work was way back in the mid 1970s as a student of architecture in Baghdad University, where ‘free hand’ and ‘still life’ was part of our training. We would often go beyond the confines of the classroom in a quest to draw traditional Baghdadi houses lining the banks of the Tigris and the narrow alleyways of the ancient city.”
An architect by education, Faraj says she was always more interested in the aesthetics of design (“form always overtook function,” she explains), leading her into adult education at London’s Putney School of Art when her children were enrolled in school full-time. Her first exhibition was in 1984, and since then art has become her full time profession.
Having grown up between the USA and Iraq herself, Faraj has long been straddling the proverbial line between East and West. After some years in London, in fact, she and her young family attempted to move back to Iraq in 1989. “With the Iraq/Iran war now over, we thought it was a good time to return home to Baghdad, while the children were still young enough to adapt to new schools and a different lifestyle,” she explains. Unfortunately the Gulf War cut that short, and the young family returned to London abruptly in 1990.
My husband and I have been collecting Iraqi art since the early 1970s. It is our ambition to eventually house the collection, of more than 2000 artworks to date, in either our home...or build a new museum in the heart of Baghdad.
These experiences, and her own cross-cultural upbringing, have firmly embedded the themes of place and identity in much of Faraj’s work, as well as a clear bridging of Western and Arab cultures. “An artist is an artist, whatever their origin, faith, or gender. However, I do not have a problem with being labelled a female, Middle Eastern or Muslim artist. These sensibilities inform my being and my art. Picasso could not have produced his powerful anti-war painting Guernica had he not been Spanish,” she explains about constant labelling artists face.
“I am representative of myself; female, Iraqi, Arab, Muslim, born and living in the West, deeply rooted in the East, with a personal journey and a unique perspective. All this impacted my thoughts and ways and shaped who and where I am today as a person and as an artist. As the world is getting smaller, identity and culture is
more complex and multi-layered.”
Abstracted Arabic calligraphy, bright, boisterous colours reminiscent of Arab weddings, and precise geometric shapes feature heavily in Faraj’s work, which spans mixed medium paintings to wood, clay, and even bronze sculptures. The impact the Arab world, and Iraq specifically, has had on the artist goes beyond her own artistic output.
“Both my husband and I have been collecting Iraqi art since the early 1970s. It is our ambition to eventually house the collection, of more than 2000 artworks to date, in either our home in Baghdad— which we are looking to convert to a moderately sized museum — or indeed design and build a new museum in a prime location in the heart of Baghdad,” says Faraj.
I do not have a problem with being labelled a female, Middle Eastern or Muslim artist...Picasso could not have produced his powerful anti-war painting Guernica had he not been Spanish.
This collection came after years of closely working with the best Iraqi talent through her seminal project, Strokes of Genius: an online and offline platform comprising of exhibitions, publications and digital assets, all dedicated to chronicling and shining a spotlight on Iraqi artists since 1995. “Having left Iraq, a land in which I am deeply rooted, I have an inner compulsion to explore identity shaped by displacement, conflict, war, injustice, human rights, human wrongs, and beauty lost. My art is ever evolving, responding not only to events in Iraq and world events at large, but also to what lies ‘beyond’, often pondering on ‘spirituality’ and the transience of human existence."
You can keep up with Maysaloun Faraj on her website.