Ahmed Alsoudani is fortunate to have been born in Baghdad, Iraq. Had he been born in South Bend, Indiana, I doubt his wild neo-surrealist paintings would be selling for big bucks to some of the world’s biggest art collectors or that they would be hanging now at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.
Ahmed Alsoudani/ MATRIX 165 (through January 6, 2013) features six of the artist’s untitled acrylic and charcoal on canvas paintings from 2010 to 2012 in the Wadsworth’s ongoing series of contemporary exhibitions. The reason I say he is fortunate to have been born in Iraq is not that he is not talented, he is, but the fact that his images of conflict and violence are informed by the authenticity of the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War gives Alsoundani a street cred he would not have if he had grown up a suburban American kid and painted the exact same pictures.
Alsoudani was born in Baghdad in 1975 and fled Iraq in 1999. He was already 30 years old in 2005 when he graduated from the Maine College of Art where he studied with Sean Foley (see my most recent prior post), the artist whose work Alsoudani’s most closely resembles. Foley’s exuberant biomorphic abstractions gave Alsoudani a visual language to unleash the demons of his Iraq experience and he has been pursuing them ever since.
Collectors were already seeking out Alsoudani while he was pursuing his MFA at Yale (2008). Francois Pinault, the owner of Christie’s, Converse and Samsonite, became one of his biggest collectors. Charles Saatchi bought paintings for his fabled London collection. Just three years out of grad school, he was chosen to represent Iraq in the 2011 Venice Biennale and he was having solo shows in Berlin, London, Los Angeles and New York. In 2013, the Portland Museum of Art is planning a one-man Alsoudani show that will travel to the Phoenix Art Museum.
Drawing on past experience, memory, observation and imagination, Alsoudani fills his canvases with colorful, grotesque images of body parts that evoke references to the war paintings of Goya and Picasso and to the figuration of DeKooning and Guston.
“I am not trying to make ‘war paintings,’ but paintings about war,” Ahmed Alsoudani explains in his Wadsworth exhibition statement. “I’m more interested in depicting the effects of war on people who live under these circumstances. So generally, I don’t show actual battle scenes in which there are soldiers, or fighting or weapons. I’ve been in the unique and painful situation of observing the war and being in the U.S. while my family remains in Baghdad. I’m away physically, but I talk to my family very often, so I feel caught between. The state of being ‘between’ two places and two worlds allows me to see and hear things from a different point of view.”
Alsoudani, then, participates in the art of identity politics that is so prevalent on the contemporary art scene. The conflict he paints is not so much the political and sectarian violence of his native Iraq as it is his own conflict. It is a conflict between the peaceful, privileged world of the artist and the violent, painful world of the war on terror.
[Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford CT, 860-278-2670.]