Exile and war have long been dominant themes in the work of Iraqi artist Yousif Naser; pain and death rendered in large, black strokes, a chaotic jumble of eerie shadows and figures. The paintings from one of the artist’s most recent and better known series Black Rain, for example, showcase the violence and horror of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, the canvases depicting the inky silhouettes of aeroplanes and bombs, of fire and destruction, and of open-mouthed screams.
But in a new exhibition hosted by the W3 Gallery run by the Acton Arts Forum, Naser has taken a different approach, opting instead to lay bare the bones of his creative process and exhibit the sketches and paintings the public rarely get to see. Entitled Visual Prattle, the exhibition features large scrolls covered in bold brush strokes, scraps of paper rendered black with scribbles and musings, and dozens of sketchbooks bursting at the seams with ink and colourful blocks of paint.
“I wanted to show the public the story behind the paintings,” says Naser, “these are not paintings, they are like diaries; spontaneous, immediate, direct. When I go to my studio, I don’t go to my paintings, I go to these.”
Naser says that most artists are embarrassed by such incomplete designs and hide them from the public, but that he wanted to bring them out into the open so that people can have a first-hand glimpse of his “prattle of the imagination”.
“Artists ramble on in this way on paper, canvas, wood or any other medium. Some would say this is not enough to satisfy the audience. I disagree,” he says. “This exercise is the point from which every newcomer starts to spin its tale; it is the place from which every finished work of art starts.”
One such rambling is a vivid depiction of the grizzled and bearded face of Saddam Hussein, rendered in bold reds and blacks and repeated several times across the page, his deadened eyes bearing unnervingly into the onlooker. Naser explains that this particular image came about when he was working in his studio with the news on in the background when the announcement came on that Saddam Hussein had been captured. Naser was particularly captivated by the image of the fallen former dictator, and set about capturing that and the elation he himself felt at the news.
“I was so happy because I thought now he is gone it would all be over. I didn’t know the devil was still in the people.”
Much of his current work deals with Iraq post-2003, or alternatively with a nostalgic depiction of the homeland he has lost. One of the pieces in the exhibition is an enormous grey and white canvas that fills an entire wall and which the artist has painstakingly and meticulously filled entirely with intricate pen and ink drawings depicting his life in his home country and the people he has left behind.
“All of Iraq is here,” says Naser, gesturing towards the canvas with a wistful look in his eye, “It took me six months to complete that piece. I wanted to capture a piece of my country.”
Naser was forced to flee Iraq in 1979 as a result of his activities with the Iraqi Communist Party, and in particular for his involvement with a branch of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in his native Basra.
“The Iraqi Communist Party has always defended the Palestinians,” says Naser, “Against Zionism, against human rights violations… In Iraq, there was a law by the Ba’ath [Party] that if you were with the PLO or part of a leftist group you were put to death.” He chuckles wryly, “I was both.”
The artist left Iraq for Beirut, but fled in 1982 following the Israeli invasion, and eventually made his way to the UK in the early 90s following stints in Syria, Cyprus and Norway. Once in London, Naser became actively involved in the growing Iraqi community in the city, first founding the Iraqi Artists Union (IAU) in 1993 and then establishing a community arts project in a disused building in Ealing. Named ARK, after the ark in the epic of Gilgamesh (an ancient Sumerian collection of stories many of which are believed to be the basis of the Bible, including the tale of Noah’s Ark), the project ran from 1998 until 2013, when Ealing council ordered them to vacate the premises so it could be turned into a shopping centre.
Despite his self-appointed status status as “Mr Iraqi Culture” of the British capital, Naser says that he doesn’t feel at home in the city. “I don’t like London,” he says, “I was the only Iraqi who was forced to stay. All the Iraqis wanted to come here. I wanted to leave; but they wouldn’t let me.”
Indeed, the artist’s work, like his words, bears testament to this fact; image after image of Iraq are layered upon one another; image after image of a lost homeland. Naser may find himself physically here, in a small community-run gallery in West London, but his heart remains firmly there, among the date palms and dusty skies of his childhood home.
Images courtesy of the artist