The human body, faceless and fragmented, is a recurring motif in modern Iraqi art. Among the most unsettling of Alfraji’s works is the 2008 installation piece You cannot erase the traces of war (as pictured). Evoking the art of tattooed, human skin – alive yet faceless – forms the canvas for recognisable images from past and present Iraq. For those who have grown inured to televised images of war, these disembodied bodies disturb us profoundly by forcing us to look at these images in a different way.
Alfraji’s 2011 large-scale installation piece The house that father built, part of the Told / Untold / Retold exhibition at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar, poignantly examined the idea of deep personal loss and transience, where individuals are constantly thrown off-balance as time ticks inexorably on. This was a central theme explored by the Mathaf exhibition that included works from 23 contemporary artists from the Arab world. According to its curators Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath: “Today’s artists are in constant transmigration across a diversity of cities and locations, yet never escaping redundant geographical labels through which their work is misconstrued. They are in perpetual metamorphosis, in a state of ‘in-betweeness’.”
Alfraji is not the only modern Iraqi artist to show the ‘body violated’. Unlike Alfraji, however, Mohammed al-Shammarey, who works in a range of media, uses not real bodies but everyday objects as stand-ins. In Abu Ghraib, he confronts the political contentious issue of Abu Ghraib head-on through a video installation that uses the little wooden mannequins you would traditionally find in artists’ studios. In Shammarey’s video, these powerless, faceless bodies are lined up and knocked down. Text about the torture and shaming of prisoners by the US military overlays the iconic image of a shrouded prisoner, one which is itself inscribed over another iconic image of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
Representational bodies are again at play in his installation piece Chess. A set of orderly game pieces standing at position are burnt into ash and swept away by the winds leaving only signs of ruin and destruction. Explaining the presence of the Iraq war in his art, al-Shammarey writes: “The war on Iraq that was intended to remove the weapons of mass destruction was launched by those who once handed the weapons of mass destruction to Iraq. Hypocrisy leads to insanity. And in Iraq’s case hypocrisy was mixed with cruelty, with death, with humour and with smart bombs. I don’t like stories and novels, nor political theories, but can someone please tell me how can I be apathetic while witnessing a flow of events leading to the misery of millions of people?”